Last week 5 Traverse gallery announced that it was closing. Coming right on the heels of the closing of Stairwell Gallery on Broadway, it leaves Providence, home of one of the top art schools in the country, without any commercial galleries consistently and seriously engaged with the boundary-pushing art of today — the art addressing where art is now and where art is going.
With the memory of the closing of Gallery Agniel in late 2006 still fresh, it again raises the question of whether Providence is capable of supporting commercial venues for this sort of art. "There isn't a sense of the value of these galleries to the city's identity as a creative capital," 5 Traverse co-director Maya Allison says.
Jesse Smith, who opened 5 Traverse in a building he owns at 5 Traverse Street in April 2007, said he is closing the gallery because of "just random transitions that are in my life and Maya's life." He declined to be specific, but he said, "The gallery is financially strong. It covers a salary and overhead . . . That's not why we're closing . . . If we have anything to offer the community, it's a model that works."
With crisp professionalism, the gallery consistently showed some of the best Rhode Island art, from established folks (Jonathan Bonner) to emerging artists (Michael Bizon) to amazing rascals (the Apartment at the Mall gang). Its financial model mixed curatorial services, art sales, and building an out-of-town clientele.
Smith founded the gallery, he said, as "a research facility for me, and I did it in my own style, which was a lot of listening. When it began to become more commercial that was because of the community's interest." Allison, a former curatorial assistant at the RISD Museum, was hired as co-director of the gallery in November 2008, and Smith moved to the background. "I've not been curating for a while," he said. Asked if he was closing the gallery because he'd moved on to other interests, Smith rejected that explanation as a terrible oversimplification.
Meanwhile Allison is making plans to mount exhibitions elsewhere, and is mulling opening her own gallery.
"This is a really difficult time, but it's always a difficult time to run a gallery in Rhode Island," said Elizabeth Keithline, a Rhode Island State Council on the Arts grants director.
"Galleries are second only to restaurants in the frequency that they come into and out of business," said Randall Rosenbaum, the director of the Rhode Island State Council On the Arts.
Providence has its "Buy Art" campaign to promote art sales in general, but public and private support for the arts mainly focuses on individual artists or nonprofits. RISCA provides hundreds of thousands of dollars to individual artists and nonprofits annually, but it is legally prohibited from funding for-profits.
The state agency gathered representatives of some 30 galleries in October to gauge their needs. The primary concern, Keithline says, was the lousy economy. One small step the agency has taken is to help galleries connect with tourists by promoting them on the Rhode Island Tourism Division's VisitRhodeIsland.com arts calendar.
Helping small art entrepreneurs make money is key, but also important for any start-up is helping owners mentally survive the often long solo hours after the initial rush of launching fades.
Meanwhile, local nonprofit galleries from RISD to Brown to the Chazan Gallery at the Wheeler School tend to be focused on more established international artists or have a less daring vision. So one wonders, will any of them be able to pick up the slack?