Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Art of Carmel

I don't have all the answers (in this case, at least), but I do believe the Carmel Arts & Design District could have done a better job of convincing me today that the retail fine art scene in central Indiana was thriving.

I saw a note on Twitter* about the Second Saturday promotion happening at the local galleries and shoppes in Carmel's now-three-and-a-half-years-old Arts & Design District. And I hadn't really explored the District since its inception, so after a lovely brunch with church friends at Tulip Noir (86th & Ditch, Indianapolis, you should go), I parked at the catchily-named "Hamilton County Welcome Center - Carmel," used their convenient restrooms (well, just the one), and then headed out onto Main Street. 

I headed west toward the action, stopping first in one gallery, then the next. The work was OK, overpriced in my humble estimation, but it is possible my perspective may have changed since the good ol' days. Now that I am, shall we say, less-than-optimally employed, my concept of money is more Depression-era and less Elation-era. 


I made it into Evan Lurie Gallery, which was cool -- great artwork, mostly abstract and at the high end of the priceyness continuum, so I made it clear to the gallery manager that I was not qualified to make any purchase and so relieved her from any sales-type activities targeting me. I looked around and found some cool small bronzes by Ted Gall and asked the manager about them. We got to talking and I guess a number of galleries used to be in the District but are no longer there, victims of either poor business plans or the art-business-chilling economy, or both. Which is disappointing, because this idea of an Arts District in Carmel has a lot of promise. The challenge, I believe, is figuring out a way to educate and train Midwestern art consumers -- if we all buy a little bit, the District will be in super shape. Only problem is, at $10,000 a painting, there's not a lot of us who can do that right now.

Upon leaving I walked in the frigid temps down to the next gallery, which was closed, for lunch or something? (Thanks for nothing.) And then I walked down to the other gallery, which was also closed. (See you in Hell.)

I Google-411ed Carmel's crime-fiction bookstore The Mystery Company (233 2nd Ave SW, Carmel, you should go), which used to be somewhere but is now somewhere else...somewhere near the Arts & Design District, I'd heard. After decoding Carmel's unnecessarily complicated (but once you figure it out, really quite straightforward) road-naming system, I ended up at Jim Huang's store. (I think he lives in my parents' subdivision. Seen him walking his dog a couple times.) Anyway, I bought a book and then high-tailed it back to my car, because it was freezing, with a capital F. Et oui, j'ai l'intention de double entendre.

So, a bunch of the galleries were closed, there wasn't really anything special about Second Saturday going on as far as I could tell, and I was pretty much the only one in any of the galleries (except in Evan Lurie Gallery). Not stellar. On my way back to the car, I started thinking about how today's foray into the District had disappointed me, and what maybe could be done to pump up the Arts & Designiness. In addition to "Make the temperature more than 10ºF" and "Turn this mother-humping economy around, already," I came up with some actual workable** suggestions:

Figure out what the District really is and should be. It seems to me that it should position itself as the destination for visual arts (and fashion?) in central Indiana. Which is going to take more than 5 galleries, two of which were closed at 1pm on a Saturday. (Maybe more are in the plans? But apparently some that opened years ago have already had to close...)

Embrace snobbery. Have I ever told you what happened to me the first day I went to IU? I was moving into Teter Quad for the Intensive Freshman Seminar program, and someone asked where I was from. "Carmel," I said. "Oh," was the response, with a facial expression that said, "Oh, so you're a jerk." Well, you and I both know that sometimes, yes, I am a jerk, but that has nothing to do with Carmel. My point is this: Carmel has a reputation around central Indiana; we're not going to change it. The people who matter -- the people who will be spending the money on fine art in the 46032 -- are the ones who either fit the stereotype or who work for/with the people who fit the stereotype. The District has done enough to foster "accessibility" to art, now it needs to play up the "exclusivity" of its offerings. To have world-class art -- art that you would see in the galleries of New York, LA, Chicago, and Miami --  just down the street is a big deal; it's OK to act that way. Oh! And! Avoid promoting Second Saturday with the phrase "The January event will feature a chili cook-off!" -- three reasons: (a) "Chili cook-off" should never come with an exclamation point after it, (b) Come on. If you're looking to big-city up the place, a chili cook-off is not going to do it, and (c) Not gonna lie, there was no chili in any of the galleries I visited; this displeased me.

But it has to be priced right. If I had any money whatsoever right now, I'd open a gallery in the District. I would sell mid-sized abstract oils and mid-to-large-scale abstract photography priced under $1,000, and we could probably sell the hell out of it, creating a viable business and training buyers who could then work their way up to other galleries' offerings. As long as it wouldn't violate anti-trust laws, I'd work with the owners of the other galleries to find out what they're selling and funnel prospective clients to them, if the clients didn't like what I had. The work in Mr. Lurie's gallery was probably priced about right, but the stuff I saw in the other galleries struck me as very aggressively priced, for what it was. The average person browsing in a gallery is accustomed to thinking, "$3,900 for that?!" but when someone who's worked in the field (i.e., me) thinks that, there may be an issue.

The Carmel Arts & Design District is a wonderful idea, and perhaps when the economy turns around and when people believe the economy has turned around and when the economy has turned around to the extent where people really, really, really believe the economy has turned around, the District will be in better shape. In the meantime, while I'm reluctant to call Monorail! on the whole endeavor and I hesitate to Lyle Lanleyify the civil servants and consultants*** who led the charge, I will say that, today, there was an air of "meh" about it, lo these few short years later.

Maybe by next month's Second Saturday, we'll have something better to report?

* OK, I actually clicked a link I didn't intend to click, but what the hell, it worked out fine.

** Take this all with the grain of salt labelled, "What The Hell Do I Know?"

*** I especially hesitate to Lyle Lanleyify Mr. Lurie, who seems to have sunk ("to have sunken"?) a whole lot of money into the District, what with his gallery building and the associated condos. (Whether he is, in fact, inciting fury, I can't really say, although I will tell you that I, myself, was not infuriated in the least on my visit.)


Anonymous said...

Art & Soul (not visited, that I can tell) is the best market-driven gallery there, although Magdelena is a close second.

Unfortunately, Carmel (via the mayor and especially the CRC) doesn't have a real clue what they're doing with the district. It's now run like a patronage system of political IOU's, rather than like a the arts and restaurant business incubator that it must become, in order to continue sustainably. Can something long-term happen out of their political horse-trading? Unlikely - given how the money and focus is currently being channelled. Actions motivated by politics don't correlate to providing an economic environment that supports (already fragile) businesses, such as galleries and innovative restaurants.

Unless and until embarrassment about the outcome (or lack thereof) supercedes the impulse to use the district for horse-trading, the trajectory of the district seems foreseeable, in my opinion.

Scott S. Semester said...

Yikes. I didn't, haha, you know, expect anyone who knew what they were talking about to actually read this. :) And so I am deeply curious as to who "Anonymous" is. (Mostly so I can say thanks for such a thoughtful and courteous and insightful comment!)

I did stop in Art & Soul, but for just a sec. The art didn't really resonate with me so, thinking there were tons more galleries to visit, I didn't spend a lot of time there. Little did I know, there were only 5 galleries total, 2 of which would be closed when I got to them.

I am intrigued by Anonymous's thoughts -- and how the embarrassment about the lack of outcome could/might/should become a shared, public sentiment...enough to transform what's going on right now into the vision of what could be...