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Costs Compel Art Galleries to Get Creative

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio –Nonprofit museums that house paintings and sculptures and small for-profit galleries have greater expenses than most of their visitors realize. Established museums have more resources to draw from – wealthier long-committed patrons and trusts – while newer and smaller galleries in Youngstown are funded more by passion than from profits.

In their own ways, both contribute to the economic vitality of the region.

“An art museum indicates a level of sophistication and education,” says Louis Zona, executive director and chief curator at the Butler Institute of American Art.

The Butler is Youngstown’s premier art venue. It attracts visitors from around the nation and the world. Winslow Homer’s “Snap the Whip” – listed in 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die – is part of The Butler’s permanent collection. Maintaining it and the 22,000 other works in the permanent collection and running the day-to-day operations is far more expensive than visitors realize, should they stop to think about it.

Admission to The Butler is free although there is a box for contributions just inside the entrance.

“To have enough people to secure the collection, to research the collection, to handle education programs, takes a lot of money,” Zona says in understatement.

It costs The Butler $100,000 a year to insure the works in its permanent collection and the museum employs 25 who includes the security staff and business office. Its endowment pays a third of its bills, Zona says. Fundraising, grant writing, proceeds from the gift shop, memberships and contributions provide most of the balance.

Raising money is a major aspect of Zona’s job. “Like a university president, museum directors are mostly about building friendships, raising funds to pay the bills, overseeing the endowment fund, trying to be smart about everything,” he says.

The museum receives no funding from either the city of Youngstown or Mahoning County and so The Butler seeks other sources of funding. “Not unlike other nonprofit organizations, we’re always in the fundraising mode,” Zona says. “And we have to be.”

Private donors are another source. Artists and philanthropists alike have left either one-time gifts or set up trust money in their wills. “There’s a New Jersey artist who called me the other day and told me that he’s leaving us [funds] in his will because he appreciates the job The Butler has done for artists in this country,” Zona says.

A well-known actress he declined to identify recently promised to leave a major gift to The Butler. Those are important friends for a museum director to make. “Its cultivating friends who in turn, hopefully, will be generous to the museum,” Zona says.

The Ohio Arts Council is a consistent supporter of The Butler, he says. “The Butler has received a grant from the Ohio Arts Council every year that the arts council has existed,” Zona relates. The Ohio General Assembly understands the role of the council, he adds, but the Ohio Arts Council also receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, funding that, until recently, seemed secure.

The Trump Administration’s proposed spending for fiscal 2018 would eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Last month, however, Congress decided to keep the second round of funding. “We all had a fear the NEA was going to disappear,” Zona says, “but it looks as though that’s a storm that has passed.”

The Butler doesn’t just enhance the cultural life of the region, it brings money into the area. “People come here from all across the country to see The Butler collection. They eat in our restaurants and stay in our hotel rooms,” Zona points out. “Were it not for the Butler, these monies would not be here to help support local businesses and the local economy.”

Much like the Butler, the McDonough Museum of Art, which opened in 1991 on Wick Avenue just opposite The Butler, receives funding from the state. “We currently also have funding through a Sustainability Grant from the Ohio Arts Council,” says Robyn Maas, exhibition design and production manager.

The McDonough, a component of the College of Creative Arts and Communications at Youngstown State University, receives most of its funding from the university. The late John J. McDonough provided the initial funding for the construction and left an endowment.

“We are not a commercial gallery space, so making profit is not our goal,” Maas says. “We only take a small percentage when the work of professional artists is sold, and this money is used for programming.”

Each year, the museum hosts six to eight exhibitions of contemporary art, which includes three student exhibitions. Work from many of the traveling exhibits is for sale, and the museum receives a percentage of each. Students keep all proceeds from sales of their work. The McDonough employs three full-time staff and five part-time staff hired from the student body.

In the past, the McDonough has had sponsors for various exhibitions, including the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute and the Youngstown Business Incubator. The museum doesn’t have any galleries named in perpetuity, but a naming menu is available.

The McDonough benefits the city economically, Maas says. The McDonough and the College of Creative Arts helped in securing a $100,000 NEA Our Town Grant for a public art project called INPLACE (Innovative Plan for Leveraging Arts through Community Engagement).

The project revolves around themes from planning initiatives developed through collaborations involving the city of Youngstown, YSU, Kent State University, the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and community development organizations.

The American Planning Association, along with urban studies theorists such as Richard Florida, posit that a vibrant arts culture plays an important role in economic development. Smaller galleries have their roles as well, roles that also benefit museums, Zona says. “The more people that see art in its different forms,” he says, “it helps us all.”

Still, for-profit art galleries, especially in Youngstown, have found it harder to survive. Without access to donors or the resources of a university, they have trouble meeting their fixed costs, let alone showing a profit.

“Right now galleries across the country if not the world are struggling,” says Youngstown-based artist Jason Van Hoose. “It’s been really tough since the last recession. It was tough before that.”

In 2015, the first full-time, for-profit gallery since the Banana Rodeo Gallery closed in the 1990s opened in downtown Youngstown. The Soap Gallery, 117 S. Champion St., operates as both a gallery and a cultural space.

“There needed to be a space for art and artists to sell in the city that wasn’t a bar or restaurant,” says Stephen Poullas, co-owner of Soap with artists Daniel Rauschenbach and Bill Youngman.

Artists who display their work at the gallery set their own prices and the gallery adds 35%. But selling art makes up only part of the business. “I think our best month was $3,800,” Poullas says.

Renting the gallery for events constitutes the majority of Soap’s revenues, he says. “It wasn’t profit-based,” Poullas says of the decision to open an art gallery, “but I think it will get there once we get more awareness.”

Soap hosts everything from local bands and a monthly jazz night called “Societal” to a wide range of classes that include yoga, painting and drawing. The gallery pays bands a set rate or they take a percentage of the admission fees.

Soap is a full-time operation, but the work is part-time for the owners. Each takes a turn working at the gallery, which has no employees. “We all pitch in and work a few days a week,” Poullas says.

In late 2016, the M Gallery inside the Erie Terminal Building in downtown Youngstown closed after a year in business. However, a new full-time, for-profit gallery is set to open in Youngstown this summer. DNA Studios Independent Art Gallery, 131 Lincoln Ave., recently relocated from downtown Warren.

DNA will feature an art gallery in the front and a tattoo parlor in the back, a model used successfully in Warren, says manager Roy Schmidt. “Taking that business model and applying it to this situation is going to be very successful,” says Van Hoose, whose work was featured when DNA was in Warren.

New art will remain on the wall anywhere from 35 to 40 days. “Our job is to show beautiful work,” Schmidt says. “If we’re able to recoup some costs, that’s great.” The gallery doesn’t take a set percentage or add on to the sales. Negotiations over price are worked out before an artist hangs his work. “I do this because it’s a passion,” Schmidt says.

With the tattoo shop as an anchor, DNA can take more artistic risks and display different or experimental types of work, Schmidt says.

This is in marked contrast to many other galleries, Van Hoose says. Artists often feel pressure from gallery owners to produce more commercial work, he relates.

He’s never felt such pressure at DNA, which can rely on revenues from tattooing. “It was very comfortable,” Schmidt says. “I didn’t feel a lot of pressure because essentially most of the bills are paid.”

Both sides of the business are physically separate, he emphasizes, and customers will have exactly the same experience that a stand-alone gallery would provide, he says.

“If you walk in here, you’re not going to see a tattoo shop,” he declares. “You’re going to see a gallery.”

Pictured, top: Lou Zona, director of the Butler Institute of American Art, says he and his staff are “always in fundraising mode.”

Pictured, bottom: Stephen Poullas is one of three co-owners of The Soap Gallery in downtown Youngstown.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.