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River North Gallery Glut

By Eli Kaberon

June 17, 2009 – When it comes to art in Chicago, River North leads the pack. There are more than 100 galleries in the neighborhood according to the Chicago Traveler, and their wares range from oil paintings to photos to abstract drawings to anything else the creative mind can think up and put on a canvas.

However the art scene in River North has taken a major hit recently.  Due to the worldwide recession, fewer collectors are purchasing the photos and paintings that keep these galleries open. Three River North galleries have already closed, and the immediate future is not much brighter, according to Martha Schneider, director of the Schneider Gallery, 230 W. Superior St.

“We’ve had a tremendous drop off over the past six months, almost 90 percent,” said Schneider. “We’ll wait out the recession as long as we can, but if we can’t survive anymore, we’ll have to pack it in and close up.”

Gallery owner Catherine Edelman has also seen business decline at the gallery she opened in 1987. To combat this, she’s tried several different strategies, though having a sale is not one of them.

“I’ve traveled a little bit more lately, trying to get my face in front of some potential buyers,” said Edelman, who owns Edelman Gallery at 300 W. Superior St. “Lowering prices though sends the wrong message to both the artists and the collectors who have supported them for all of these years.”

Both Schneider and Meg Sheehy, co-owner of the Zg Gallery at 300 W. Superior St., agree that while the economy is making it a rough time to sell art that costs thousands of dollars, it is helpful to be in a neighborhood where there are so many galleries.

“People come here because it’s a gallery area. It’s strength in numbers, and it works because everybody has different taste in art,” said Schneider.

“Art galleries have always felt that forming districts and clumping together has been a good thing,” Sheehy added. “We don’t feel the competition is necessarily bad, because each gallery is selling different pieces of art. If the people and the galleries didn’t like it, they wouldn’t do it.”

D. Pierre McClenaghan is an art appraiser and consultant who has been advising gallery owners and customers for more than 15 years. He said that it isn’t a surprise to see galleries taking a hit during the recession, because typically luxury items are the first things cut from customers’ budgets when wallets get thin.

“Galleries depend on people with cash in their hands, and right now, there’s less and less of those people,” said McClenaghan “Nobody is going to be buying any art if they have to use that money to pay for their mortgage.”

River North is far from the only art area that’s been affected by the recession. The Contemporary Art Fair of London was cancelled in April, as was Las Vegas’ Summerlin Art Festival. Edelman said based on the current markets, these downfalls aren’t a surprise. Still, there’s only one thing a gallery owner can do.

“I don’t believe I can control the economy, but I do believe in what I do. I’ll be patient, because the economy always goes in cycles,” she said. “Plus, even in the good times, selling art is really tough.”

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