Art, ideals collided at Main Street Fine Art

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Community Voices

“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”
— Winston Churchill


By Deborah Carter
Most visitors to Main Street Fine Art, the sophisticated new art gallery next to Beau Jo’s on historic Main Street in downtown Evergreen, had no idea it was a co-op. Original paintings, photographs, sculptures, art glass and jewelry graced the space and enticed collectors to step in for a closer look. This was not the place for tourists to pick up a souvenir T-shirt, mug or shot glass. Downtown’s Main Street already had successful crafts and curio shops. The concept for Main Street Fine Art was to be a fine art gallery. And it was. Until mid-January, when approximately 12 of the 21 member artists took their work off the walls and went home. So, what happened at Main Street Fine Art?
In early 2011, following directives of the Evergreen Artists Association, the then-president solicited all 100-plus EAA members to become a part of a cooperative fine art gallery. Gallery members would be subjected to high standards, an ongoing jurying process to maintain those standards, and a monthly financial and volunteer work commitment. (After all, this was a co-op.) This was to be a “select” group of EAA members who were willing to pay the brick-and-mortar expenses and stick their necks out.
In June 2011, with minimal “seed money” from EAA and absolutely no promise of continued government assistance or bailout from the EAA treasury, a number of pioneering artists rented space on behalf of EAA, painted the walls and opened the doors. Gallery members elected fellow members to serve on the jury, executive, PR and operations committees. Member artists bought equipment and supplies, and created websites, logos, press releases and events. Main Street Fine Art was operational and was selling art. A few artists left the gallery for reasons of geography, time, finances. Several artists voiced concerns that the jury was too stringent and favored the better-selling artists. Complaints arose that wall space was not allocated fairly, that each artist should be given an equal amount of space to display an equal number of pieces. After all, this was a co-op. But new artists joined, many precisely because the quality and “look” of the gallery was clearly so high. For them, the rigorous jury process challenged and inspired them to create better art. In six months, the enterprise was nearly self-sustaining. All of a sudden, Main Street Fine Art had started to look and act like a business, promoting and rewarding individual excellence, developing marketing ideas and strategic plans.
So what happened? Was Main Street Fine Art too sophisticated? Were the standards too high? Was this new gallery just another victim of an unforgiving economy? On the contrary, what happened to Main Street Fine Art is a textbook lesson in economic ideology. Socialism cannot peacefully co-exist with free enterprise. The entrepreneurial behavior of Main Street Fine Art proved to be inherently inconsistent with the overriding socialistic policies of a co-op.
Under new leadership in January 2012, EAA redoubled its assertion of governmental authority, announcing plans to restore fairness to the co-op. Characterizing the gallery as “designed as a co-op … a place to come together and be a part of a group; also to share and grow as artists,” the new EAA governing body would appoint a non-gallery board member to oversee gallery affairs, assure that all gallery artists were allocated approximately the same amount of space, establish a “gallery manager,” and appoint a new jury made up of gallery members as well as non-gallery EAA appointees. The dichotomy between the capitalistic and the socialistic approaches became clear and irreconcilable. A number of gallery artists had erroneously characterized the gallery as a business. They thought that since gallery members were paying the bulk of rent and expenses and volunteering their time, the gallery’s operations should not be impinged by centralized government/EAA interference. These artists made the difficult decision to walk away from what all had collaborated so diligently to create: a sophisticated fine art gallery that actually was starting to be a viable enterprise. The problem? They were adhering to a system of entrepreneurial capitalism rather than socialism. They had to go. Within days, additional member artists who anticipated unwanted change also left. With over half of the contributors to the monthly rent now out, one might be concerned about the ability of Main Street Fine Art to keep its doors open. But here is where socialism comes in handy. The new EAA president has promised that EAA now will be “backing” the gallery, keeping the gallery open, paying the rent and expenses until more artist workers participate, and assuring that everyone is treated fairly and equitably. Exactly the correct, textbook approach. After all, this is a co-op.

Deborah Carter is a member of the Evergreen Artists Association and, until her departure from Main Street Fine Art in January 2012, served as chair of the gallery’s executive committee. “Many talented and dedicated artists currently display their work in this attractive space, and new artists are welcome. I was honored to be a part of this group, and encourage readers to continue to visit and support Main Street Fine Art.”