As 2022 draws to a close, I am feeling discouraged and a bit angry.
I recently learned that some of the artists that set up shop in City Market are being forced to leave, and that the Gallery at the Mansion abruptly closed December 11 due to “a business decision” in advance of their summer of 2023 closure for renovations.
I have written before about the commendable work of the Mansion’s Gallery Director Carmen Aguirre in showcasing such stellar Savannah artists as Stacie Jean Albano, Kristen Baird, Benjamin Dory, Joy Dunigan, Amiri Farris, Richard Law, Dottie Leatherwood, Dana Richardson, Lisa Rosenmeier, Heather L. Young and others. Now they have lost this prestigious representation (for many, their only gallery representation) and Aguirre has lost her job.
I have also written about the financial struggles faced by Stephanie Forbes to keep her Rule of Three Gallery viable. And I have mentioned that Leslie Lovell’s Roots Up Gallery has been displaced (again) because of an exorbitant rent increase in her West Bay Street space. Recently, Cleo the Gallery closed abruptly to find a more cost-efficient home, and after 11 years, Tiffany Taylor has decided to give up her gallery space on Whitaker Street. Even the consignment emporium Merchants on Bee which represented numerous local artists has closed – the building will become offices for the Savannah Bananas.
Rumors are that City Market plans to convert their north side into some kind of tourist rental situation after the artists move out when their leases expire in June. The artists on the south side have a year and a half’s reprieve while the experiment is conducted. It feels like a foregone conclusion that repeat rental income from tourists will far exceed monthly rental income from artists. How many hotels and Airbnb’s do we need?!
Artists are struggling to make a living but I wish some of the largest players in city business would care less about only increasing the number of hotel nights spent by guests.
Tourists want to visit galleries and spend money on art when they are on vacation. Sight-seeing, landmarks/historical sites, and culinary experiences are an integral part of their experience, but visitors from all income brackets want to buy locally created art. Many ask directions to the “art district,” so common in other cities, where they can meet artists at work in their studios. The American for the Arts’ “Arts and Social Impact Explorer” shares that arts are the fourth largest driver of decisions made when planning a trip.
Our city is dominated by an art school that has brought so much prosperity and creativity, but provides no tax revenue. Does it have any ethical or moral compunction to step in and fund an area of rent-controlled artist studios? Is philanthropic support the only way forward?
Savannah needs to recognize that quality of life for our residents is deeply connected to the arts. But how does that happen when the city appears to be so narrowly focused on hotel/motel tax income? The problem seems overwhelming to me. I can’t imagine how overwhelmed an artist kicked out of their gallery must feel.
Artists have to be business and marketing gurus to manage websites, Instagram and TikTok accounts to sell their work. There are only so many pop-ups art shows and art fairs a year. Many creatives rely on foot traffic, but in Savannah, creatives cannot afford to have studio or gallery space in areas with high foot traffic.
Sulfur Studios’ ARTS Southeast is a non-profit organization whose mission is to make Savannah a destination for art and culture in the Southeast “by supporting established and emerging artists and engaging a diverse community with creative programming by developing awareness and appreciation of the arts.” It is fighting the good fight and is worthy of our support, but without major financial underpinning their advocacy can only go so far.
In a thought-provoking post-pandemic article, “Five Ways Cities Can Foster the Arts and Catalyze Equitable Economic Recovery,” Econsult Solutions’ (ESI Center for the Research of Cities at econsultsolutions.com) senior advisor Maud Lyon acknowledges that tax revenues can barely keep up with the need to improve infrastructure, maintain public safety, educate the young, care for aging residents, and provide basic and essential services to residents.
“Arts and culture are way down the list of priorities, ” Lyon writes. “It is not the product of the arts that makes cities vibrant – though we all appreciate murals, festivals, performing arts productions and museums. It is the process of creating art that matters. Understanding how arts and culture improves education, health, business activity, social cohesion is far more powerful.”
My dream would be that the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA) which is charged with creating, growing, and attracting jobs and investments in the Savannah region, will broaden their purview and encourage the City, County, and Chamber to recognize that supporting visual artists is good for all businesses. Growing jobs is important, but so is quality of life. A rising tide lifts all ships.
My dream would be that every business will “adopt” artists on a rotating monthly basis. Imagine walking down Bull, Liberty, and Broughton Streets and in every window there was one piece of locally created art with matching signage directing shoppers to that artist’s contact information.
My dream would be that we live in a city where we do more than pay lip service to the importance of a diverse and robust art scene.
Buy art from local artists - however you stumble across them. Bring your out-of-town visitors to the remaining art galleries we have left. They need the foot traffic, and they need our dollars. Visit and support them. Before they are gone.