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Q&A: As gallery system morphs, Saltworks is latest to close space, shift focus online

Saltworks will close its gallery on 11th Street. (Photo by Terry Kearns)
Saltworks will close its gallery on 11th Street. (Photo by Terry Kearns)

After 10 years in the business, Saltworks gallery will close its exhibition space on Friday, August 18. Gallery Director Brian Holcombe and Assistant Director Christina Caudill have decided that the conventional big-box space doesn’t work for them any more. They want more flexibility to respond to changes in collectors’ and the general public’s viewing habits.

We talked with them about their plans and their perspective on the gallery model itself.

ArtsATL: What instigated this change in approach?

Brian Holcombe: We’ve been doing exhibitions for over 10 years, and when we looked back, we decided now it’s time to start leveraging our successes and to focus on what is working for us. We’ve thought about this for a long time, and we felt that we could better serve our artists and collectors and ourselves if we built up the online presence.

The big idea behind it is that we are shifting towards our strengths. People always enjoy when I talk about artwork, and they enjoy what I find. I need to put that in a format where I combine more great work and I can talk about it more in depth and do it to a point where I have agility and mobility, so that I continue to learn just as fast as our collectors and our community.

Now information is even more available to [collectors], so that means I need to spend even more time actually going out there to the physical spaces, which they don’t have the ability to do because they have full-time jobs. Our artists are also full-time artists. This is what they do all day, and they rely on us to be those eyes out there for them so they can just focus on the work.

ArtsATL: Can you give an example of the kinds of things you plan to have available for collectors on your expanded website?

Holcombe: I will be doing more studio visits with the artists and doing video interviews, writing on individual works like highlighting a piece, talking more about historical influences or cultural influence on the artist, things that show that this is a deliberate practice. I would like to help visualize this better so people know how to enter into the work and they know how to bring their knowledge into the conversation.

ArtsATL: So if someone finds something on your website that he would like to see in person but you have no gallery, how would you facilitate that?

Brian Holcombe changes course.

Holcombe: One of the reasons I want to be more mobile is so that I can jump on a plane with the piece and courier it over to L.A., New York, wherever. It makes more sense financially than having a space that is constantly taking the money so that, “Hey, I paid the rent this month so I can’t afford the plane ticket.” Or, “We have to find someone to watch the gallery.” Sometimes I feel trapped in the space and not using my strengths, which is going out there in the field, looking at work, going to the collectors’ homes, seeing what their taste is, finding patterns so I can help them get the perfect piece for them. I’d like to think that I am pretty good at that, and I want to be able to focus on that.

Christina Caudill: That’s also another reason why we wanted to stay in the neighborhood. We’re only moving over to the White Provisions Building, and we’ll have a small space where we’ll be able to have some intimate gatherings and also be able to have a certain amount of artwork to show.

ArtsATL: What is the percentage of sales locally versus out of town?

Holcombe: I think now it is about half and half.

Caudill: It used to be that all of our sales were from out of town, much of which was coming through the fairs. But when we had to stop doing the fairs in 2008 because of the economy, we really focused on the local, and it’s really grown in the last four or five years.

ArtsATL: If you have this local audience coming to you, it seems like a good reason NOT to close.

Caudill: They don’t come to the exhibitions. We sell locally, but they don’t step foot into the gallery.

Holcombe: They come to the space when I call and say, “Hey, come over, I have something to show you.” Or they found us because our artists are on our website. They hear Brian Dettmer on NPR or read that Jiha Moon just won a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant and say, “Oh, that artist is actually based in Atlanta. Oh, here’s a gallery that I can go to.”

We will still have all that contact and accessibility online and will even raise up that level to where I will even be stepping up and making myself more visible by writing on the work so there is more content that people can get and learn on their own.

Jiha Moon's "Storyteller"

Caudill: Maybe that’s a better way of developing collectors. Collectors still need to be developed and nurtured here in Atlanta. Many galleries assume that people know so much, and the people who love art, maybe they don’t know; they just know what they like. It’s more of an educational focus that Brian will be putting out, so that people can begin to feel where they fit or what they are drawn to.

ArtsATL: Clearly something is happening to the exhibition spaces in Atlanta. Solomon Projects and Kiang Gallery closed last year. [See our article here.] Jennifer Schwartz shut her doors last month, and now you are doing the same. What do you perceive is the change in the market that the old gallery model isn’t serving?

Caudill: People now are experiencing things online. Years ago, when we started to do art fairs, it was a shock to us that people would buy a piece of artwork that we did not have on the walls but would show them on a laptop computer. That’s totally normal now. We still want people to be able to experience the work, but at the end of the day, we are a commercial enterprise and we have to look at where our costs are going.

Brian Dettmer's "Prevent Experience"

ArtsATL: Do you think that the future of galleries is that the physical spaces are going to disappear?

Holcombe: I always feel like there are ebbs and flows, and this is just one of the times where you are going to see less of these big-box spaces. You’re going to see more galleries going online. If they have a physical space, it’s going to be a smaller space. Or we’ll see more pop-up shows or innovative ways of putting together an exhibition. . . . Every art community in every city is different. In this city right now, the annual event is riding high. The Art Papers Auction, Atlanta Celebrates Photography, FLUX: all of these things seem to be healthy and growing because people can digest them.

Caudill: It seems like we’re very diluted if we’re constantly showing exhibitions. That is why we want to do something different. When Saltworks does an exhibition or gives a talk, we want people to say, “Oh, this is something that we want to see. It’s going to be worthwhile.”

ArtsATL: So you will continue to program events?

Caudill: Yes, we want to have salon-style talks, and we’ll be at the Aqua Art fair in Miami this December. We also plan to have pop-up exhibitions. Those are still important, because some artists feel like they need that exhibition to create a body of work. There’s only so much of an online exhibition that is going to translate. Brian has been talking to some leasing people, and there are some great spaces that we’re looking at to do month-long shows here or there.

Holcombe: Another thing to remember is that Brian Dettmer will have a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia this October, and Jiha Moon will have a solo show there next year. Almost half of our local program has solo exhibitions coming up. We are going to be there for them to make sure that they can just focus on making work.

ArtsATL: So will all of the artists you represent stay with you or will the terms of your relationship change?

Caudill: We are still representing our artists.

ArtsATL: Are there other galleries that you are aware of that have gotten rid of a physical space but maintain an exhibition program and represent artists?

Holcombe: Yes. Kinz + Tillou, Brian Dettmer’s New York gallery, has not had a dedicated exhibition space for the last two or three years. It does pop-up exhibitions and takes advantage of the availability of space. But we’re also looking across disciplines, and we notice that a lot of other industries like design and fashion have created more attention by turning to special events that give them more freedom to experiment and to create more visibility for their brand.

ArtsATL: So basically, instead of doing 12 months of exhibitions a year, you’re re-focusing that down to salons, art fairs and maybe four exhibitions that won’t be in the same space .…

Holcombe: That create more of an experience.

Caudill: That’s also why we need to keep the online presence going. We can’t disappear completely and just pop up somewhere and expect people to want to see us or our artists again. The rest of our effort is going to making sure we are still talking to our audience and still providing value and content.

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