Yellow Brick Roads… A Smart Economy Is an Art Economy

03_Corbin_SHOWROOMTo say that art is a major force in human culture is an understatement of no small significance. Its greater historical role has been one of both driving cultural development, and being driven by it. Able to record the full measure of thoughts, feelings, and ideas of a contemporary population, art helps us deal with who we are, were, and will be. Yet despite this glowing resume, it’s also an abused and misunderstood institution. In the 21st century, much of human culture treats art education as useless, a lost cause in a world where the value of a degree is elevated only by its financial thoroughfare. This juxtaposition often paints art as the ultimate impractical indulgence, though reality has another story to tell—one of a grueling, yet rewarding practice that struggles to enter the local and regional economies that benefit from it.

(photo from a recent Madelaine Corbin performance in the Footwise Window)

Look, and Leap
To work our way toward understanding art’s role in the local economy, we must first look at what goes into that role’s very existence. A perfect example of the lowest rung of artist in terms of financial success, I’m a senior Bachelors of Fine Arts student at OSU with plans to get my MFA immediately after and go into teaching. While I’ve had more success than most in my position, I still pay about 10 times more a year into art than I make—and the only reason that isn’t worse is because I’ve had free spaces to work (a downtown studio space in Corvallis averages about $400 a month). After school I can look forward to trying to outmaneuver 100 to 300-plus other applicants that will be out for the same teaching jobs. My first 10 years will be likely spent scrounging for part-time community college work. It’s rough, but it was never a secret.

Showing professionally is perhaps even more of an uphill battle than teaching. Even on the low end, for people that are showing in spots like coffee shops and restaurants, the pricing required for work to be viable as a form of income has pretty much eliminated anyone below the upper-middle class income bracket from the potential buyers pool. This makes it incredibly hard to sell in your own market. In fact, most artists I know couldn’t afford their own work. It’s either that or you charge less and run the risk of permanently undervaluing your work, making it harder to sell in the future. Ironically, that’s more likely to happen if you actually do well early on.

This of course hits galleries just as hard, considering a number of them are dependent on the standard 50% commission that comes along with sales. This leads to being highly selective about who gets an exhibit, in turn making it harder for people on the way up to get a show in the first place.

If an artist is part of the Artist 1% (though it’s more like less than 0.001%), they might also attain what’s known as gallery representation—an exclusive relationship between gallery and artist that not only comes with a sizable chunk of prestige, but a working relationship that truly does work for both parties.

“They represent me, but I represent them as well,” said OSU Professor of Fine Arts Julie Green, who has such a relationship with Portland’s Upfor gallery. “[It] makes me try harder in the studio. It encourages me to apply for opportunities, grants, and residencies. And perhaps this all makes me a better artist.”

Green spoke of the positive relationship she has had with Upfor, noting an increased visibility for her work. Another convenience is that commercial galleries of this kind often store libraries of their represented artist’s work, which can be made readily available for potential buyers, or as was the case with Green recently, the board of an artist fellowship she was just awarded who needed to pick out work for a recipient’s group exhibit.

A reciprocal relationship, representation, thought of as one of the art “holy grails,” is still no guarantee of success or financial stability.

The Business of Art
Artists come in all shapes and sizes, but so do galleries and other art businesses. Ignoring the national and global art worlds, in any given American city or town you’re bound to see non-profits, commercial galleries, studio/shops, group exhibitions spaces, and more—all working to facilitate different ends of the art trade.

During my research I was able to interview both Cynthia Spencer, director of the Arts Center in Corvallis (a nonprofit), and Theo Downes-Le Guin, director of Portland’s relatively new commercial gallery, Upfor, about some of the pitfalls inherent in running an art-based business.

Like all businesses, they have to deal with rent, utilities, maintenance, advertising, and personnel. Unlike most others, however, their customer base is extremely niche almost by default, no matter what part of the art community they are facilitating. A literal labor of love, Le Guin said that “very few people choose to make art, or write about, sell, or curate it unless they take what they are doing extremely seriously and are emotionally committed.”

Upfor, a commercial gallery with a stable of represented artists, has its own unique issues. Le Guin said that his major challenges involve “building awareness and winning the loyalty of artists, collectors, and institutions. [It] takes a sustained investment. Even if you do everything right, and I’m sure I haven’t, sometimes you just can’t define your community fast enough.” Beyond that, Upfor must also contend with other challenges associated with Portland’s particular market, where “the collecting base is very small and tends to favor regional buying or blue-chip purchases made in major markets.”

On the nonprofit side of the fence, the Arts Center’s major obstacles involve “sustainable funding with a shrinking amount of allocated funding. Greater competition for people’s time. Fewer people receiving arts/music education in school, so much of our outreach is spent ‘preaching’ the gospel of the benefits of the arts,” according to Spencer.

“Our biggest challenge is juggling fundraising, coordination of many programs, and providing adequate marketing and community outreach for it all. I was lucky to inherit an experienced, dedicated staff who work as hard as they can, but it always seem like there is more we should be doing—just don’t have the funding to give them the time to creatively do more,” stated Spencer, who believes that the best work the Arts Center does involves collaboration with others. “Public schools and teachers, several departments at Oregon State University, the Corvallis Arts Walk team, Samaritan Health Services, and many others. These allow us to bring arts experiences to many more people in the community than just at our downtown galleries.”

And speaking of the Corvallis Arts Walk (CAW), they are not a business. Just art business owners, artists, curators, and others who have created a coalition of mutual support on their own time. No business owner in Corvallis has an excuse for not knowing about the CAW, considering that their efforts bring a metric ton of people downtown every month.

Non-Art Business? No Such Thing
Corvallis isn’t an art mecca (or even close), but it has a very vibrant scene. From dozens of skilled, prolific locals to visiting artists of regional notoriety who show at venues like the Arts Center and OSU’s Fairbanks Hall, to student and teacher artists at OSU, there’s a lot going on here per capita. While you’d be hard-pressed to find a business on this planet that doesn’t use art in some way, at least two local Corvallis outfits have not only fully embraced, but supported the local arts community: American Dream Pizza, and the shoe store Footwise.

An uncommon fact is that the owners of Footwise once made a living as glass artists from 1976 until 1990, giving them a leg up in understanding art’s role in the community.

“Footwise’s primary presence in the art community these days is the window space we donate,” said co-owner Dee Mooney. “There are month-long art displays in [the] 24-foot-long window on 3rd Street.  On Madison Avenue we often have arts-focused organizations showcase their work or event.”

Known both inside and outside of the arts scene, the Footwise windows are highly recognizable downtown landmarks.

“[They] have become a destination, bringing customers and window shoppers to the store, as well as enhancing our reputation. It’s gratifying for us, Footwise owners and employees, to be giving this space to the Corvallis arts community,” Mooney added.

Mooney also pointed out that public artwork helps create an identity for a town. If one were to strip Corvallis’ city center of its public art, it might be hard to recognize from any number of other Pacific Northwest downtowns.

Around the bend, American Dream has made it clear that art was hard-coded into their doctrine back when they were founded in 1989. There is wall-to-wall artwork of one kind or another at their locations, most notably the paper plates patrons decorate and hang. Their shirts state plainly: “Music Art Beer Pizza,” and they’ve been relentlessly friendly to the art community.

Earlier this year they hosted a successful “Eat and Draw” by Oregon State University’s Art Club, Montage, of which I can guarantee there will be more. Last month they celebrated the Monroe location’s 25th birthday with an in-restaurant concert featuring local favorites Linden Wood, Summer Soundtrack, and Ludicrous Speed.

Many more businesses around Corvallis have embraced art, and as a result, the artists have embraced them. I first started working with The Corvallis Advocate due to their willingness to give word space to art-related content, over the last five years having run countless artist profiles and art-related articles. Other local places that graciously support either visual art, music, or both include Imagine Coffee, New Morning Bakery, Sunnyside Up, Cloud & Kelly’s… the list goes on and on.

Mutually Assured Success
If you are involved in business or city government, you have likely heard the terms “creative economy,” “creative class,” or “cultural economy.” That’s because these terms will be defining the future of our cities and towns. Something we’ve all known for a long time is that a vibrant downtown attracts people, and people bring money—but it goes much further than that.

In 2011 the American Planning Association (APA) released a series of briefs that not only broke down the important relationship between culture and business, but made it abundantly clear that the smart economic developers, municipal leaders, urban planners, etc. were making it the highest priority.

Their key points concentrate on looking at the issue during a planning phase, but they also apply to the nature of art’s relationship with business as a whole, speaking of a multiplier effect that can enhance economic development by sandwiching “firms, artists, and cultural facilities together.” Additionally, the brief explains that a community in general can spur development just by taking stock of its cultural assets and properly marketing them.

Their data points not only to an increase in potential sales, but recognizes that an economy that helps keep artists and art businesses afloat will attract a stronger, more diverse workforce, which leads to an increased quality of life for everyone.

Even if after all this you’re still one to scoff at art and its impracticality, smart money says that the gravy train is covered in paint, a poet at the helm, hip-hop, indie, noise, and jazz coming from every window, and perhaps a performance artist on the roof, dressed as a canary, doing something inexplicable.

Working closely with artists not only bolsters an individual business, but the entire town economy. This is a fact. And it just might make a difference for those of us working to create the opportunity itself.

To view the APA planning briefs, please visit the following website for their report on vitality: The Corvallis Arts Walk can be found all over town each third Thursday, or at For an eyeful of Madelaine Corbin’s brilliant and varied artwork, visit

By Johnny Beaver

Note: Today it has come to my attention that community staple and long time art scene friend Sunnyside Up has lost their lease. They will be missed by Corvallis, and definitely so by the many artists that were able to exhibit on their walls. Thank you personally for my two showings over the last couple of years. So sorry to see you go!