In the fall of 2004, gallerist Sara Agniel and jewelry designer Martina Windels joined forces, moving Gallery Agniel into Martina & Company’s storefront at 120 North Main St. in Providence. They hoped that by sharing the cost of rent, utilities, and advertising, they could create an extra cushion against the ups and downs of the local art and design market. “I thought it was a really great mix,” Windels says. “It was an overlap of interests, but not competing for customers.” However, poor sales last spring caused them to think hard about continuing, and they announced this week that they will not reopen after a usual January break.
The loss of any local art gallery sucks, but for many Gallery Agniel/Martina & Company was the most exciting and inspiring commercial space around. One sign of its influence was that it was where the RISD Museum turned for guidance when organizing its recent “Wunderground” show. “No other commercial gallery was as successful at showing young emerging artists from Rhode Island, not just once or twice, but consistently showing exciting work,” says Neal Walsh, the gallery director at AS220, who has shown his own abstract paintings with Agniel.
“I think both Sara and Martina have been leaders in the Providence art scene, both from an aesthetic and business perspective,” says Randy Rosenbaum, executive director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. “I’m saddened that the gallery is closing, but I’m encouraged that, based on what they’ve said, they’re looking for opportunities to do what they do in different, creative ways.”
Windels, a 45-year-old RISD alum, opened her jewelry gallery on North Main Street in 1998, offering contemporary designs from Europe and America — “jewelry presented as sculpture,” as Brown’s Bell Gallery curator Vesela Sretenovic puts it. Agniel, 31, started an art gallery out of her apartment a year after graduating from Brown in 1997, then showed work in a Wickenden Street storefront, before organizing temporary exhibitions in vacant downtown storefronts, an Olneyville mill, an old funeral home, and elsewhere. The two women met when Windels came to Agniel’s second Wickenden Street show in 1999 and bought a sculpture — the only piece that sold, a sign of the tight finances they’ve both often faced.
They kept their combined galleries open through the winter holidays, the prime sales season for Windels. And Agniel did well financially with her fall shows, particularly her November-December exhibition of Thomas Sgouros’s paintings, which nearly sold out. They both say business last year wasn’t particularly better or worse than others, but that after more than eight years weathering the financial cycles, they sought something different.
Windels now plans to make jewelry in her Armory District home, and to develop a Web site to sell her work and that of other jewelers. Agniel plans to try commodities brokering at her father’s Providence firm, Agniel Commodities. And she’ll continue to represent the 79-year-old Sgouros, while also collecting art and helping organize local art exhibits and benefits, particularly at local nonprofits.
“The likelihood that I can get this out of my system,” Agniel says, “is zero.”