Two essays on the challenges of keeping art-related businesses afloat
Royal Street galleries: A culture at risk
By E. Jason Hutter
Steve Beyda is a natural raconteur. Stories of growing up in New Orleans pepper our conversation. We are writing his memoirs. At 60, he’s of an age when many men consider being memorialized, but unlike most men, his past reads like a treatment for a film. Mostly there’s a search for beautiful things, which he found in art. Art gave him legitimacy. In a way, it saved him from a quick end, like that of the hustler friends he saw die young and desperate.
Now he’s watching helplessly as life drains slowly from the business that he loves.
His gallery on Royal Street has been losing money. It was understandable after Hurricane Katrina, but six years later the storm can no longer be the lone cause. The drop off in sales poses troubling questions that have no easy answers. For a man who has made his living off his instincts, this is doubly troubling. Beyda entered the world of art and collectibles more than 40 years ago in Los Angeles, a protégé of his first cousin, the famously colorful Eddie “The Hat” Nahem. Neither man had formal art schooling or training. It was a time, he says, when dealers and artists had an understanding and a mutually beneficial relationship. That relationship has changed, at least from the perspective of the galleries on Royal Street. The problem is elusive, and is the result of a perfect storm of causes that may have profound implications for Royal Street in the near future.
Like many businesses who haven’t made a fluid transition to e-commerce, Steve Jarret Galleries has entered the present as a supplicant to the gods of the Internet. What specifically concerns Beyda about the Internet is the way it has rewarded buyers and artists by undercutting galleries. As a consumer, this doesn’t sound so bad. But Beyda, and even other artists, fear the general art-buying public won’t understand the importance of Royal Street galleries – until they’re extinct. As a gallery owner and businessman, not an artist, Steve Beyda can see the eventual impracticality of circumventing the gallery. Artists are contributing to the demise of the very institution that works the hardest at promoting them.
“For maybe over 100 years,” says Beyda, “Royal Street was the best kept secret in the art world. People who really prized art and antiques knew to look here for great deals. What the buyers are doing now is just coming into the shop, finding something they like (and) then contacting the artist to see if they can buy it directly. A lot of times artists will sell it to buyers for a lower price than I can, because I’ve made an agreement with the same artists to not sell their works below a certain price. So while I’m promoting an artist, that same artist is undercutting me, the gallery owner. The sad part about it is even when the consumer contacts the artist directly, they rarely get the artist; they get a representative. These shops here on Royal Street are an institution. If this happens any longer I’ll be out of business.”
What the Internet has done with art is put it on the level of widgets or any other commodity. It has de-mystified the experience of buying art, which, at one time, was the same as buying into the artist. If done right, galleries are tantamount to churches where, instead of the Holy Spirit, the creative daemon of the artist is on display. Now Beyda feels more like an outlet store. Price-driven consumers have taken the romance out of the sale, and he’s as much salesman as he is art connoisseur. He loved talking up his artists, explaining their technique, their merits. He bought into artists because he liked their art. He was willing to invest in them because he was a true believer. He is presently in the paradoxical position of losing sales because the artists he carries are so well known. He can get next to nothing on consignment because the fame of his artists is working against him and they won’t run that risk.
These are established artists such as Fabian Perez, who painted for the 2010 Olympics. Beyda speaks highly of Perez, the person. “But there are not enough artists like Bill Mack,” says Beyda. “He is one of the finest alto relief sculptors in the world and he makes a point to not undercut his galleries. I don’t want to have to compete with my sources anymore.”
New Orleans breeds artists. It also attracts them. They pulsate with the city and, with or without galleries, New Orleans artists are always doing exciting things. Brilliant and vibrant artists such as Alex Harvie are taking their art into live settings, painting right in front of an audience. Like less established artists, he finds his own shows to promote himself. Harvie is young. He is symbolic of the new generation of artists. His art is modern, expressive and audacious. It is a sort of hyper reality defined by bold strokes, texture and dreamy colors. But he still looks at the Royal Street art establishment with due reverence: “There is a contemporary scene in New Orleans, obviously.
There is exciting stuff going on. There is White Linen Night in the warehouse district. Du Mois Gallery is awesome. Julia Street is great and there are contemporary museum pieces there. But when I showed my first piece of art on Royal Street, I finally felt like I had arrived. It’s a street that’s known throughout the world. [George] Rodrigue arrived when he opened his gallery on Royal.”
Nevertheless, that little enclave on Royal Street is a saturated market and, with a sluggish economy, there are fewer buyers. Luxury items are the first thing to be put on hold when money runs low. One gallery has even bowed out gracefully and transformed into an antique jewelry store. Dixon and Dixon Gallery departed altogether.
Outside Steve Jarrett Gallery a mime is hard at work doing nothing. He is frozen mid-pose, waiting for quarters to plop in his change box. A few feet away there’s a violin and banjo duo. It seems the word “ambience” was created to describe the French Quarter. What other art venue can duplicate this? When I mention this to Beyda he explains that the hard truth is that the buskers are fun, but they, along with the T-shirt shop next door to his gallery, are set up to appeal to a middling crowd. More and more fanny-pack-and-T-shirt-loving tourists are drawn to the French Quarter, not because of its long history and cultural importance, but because of its status as an oddity, a place where odd people go to do odd things. I experienced this when I entertained friends from out of town recently. I took them to the Garden District, to the lake and into the French Quarter to see the Ursuline Convent. Their friends called that evening. Had they walked down Bourbon Street? Did they drink a hurricane? They hadn’t. Perhaps I had misjudged the real attractions.
In his plea for sympathy, Steve Beyda is careful not to blame anyone or anything. He has discovered a dignity in acknowledging the forward march of change and the possibility that he won’t find a place in it. He is resigned to his fate, whatever that may be. What he cannot abide, though, is the cheapening of the sensibilities in this area. The T-shirt shops and tacky bric-a-brac stores that are replacing the galleries, door-by-door, are almost too much to bear. They are a pernicious infestation, as dangerous to the structure of the Vieux Carré as Formosan termites.
There is a fear among more sophisticated merchants that souvenir shops will eventually degrade what is left of the old world elegance of Royal Street, and indeed the entire French Quarter. That elegance still exists in certain pockets, but if the galleries go and the antique shops follow, the only remnants of culture in the French Quarter will be the architecture.
Beyda gets angry for the first time. “Even if I had exclusivity deals with each of my artists – which I would love to have – the real art buyers, the people who used to look at Royal Street as a great market, rarely come here anymore.
It’s turning into one big tourist trap. There is a businessman here who is putting a T-shirt shop on every block. He doesn’t care if this street is an institution.”
In 2008 The Times-Picayune covered the Landmark Commission’s attempt to address this problem. Kishore Motwani was accused of destroying the “historic fabric” of the city, a euphemistic denunciation of Motwani’s slash-and-burn business philosophy. He is an adherent to the Religion of the Quick Dollar, and that religion views an issue like “historic fabric” as an idol meant to be smashed, and the Landmark and Vieux Carré Commissions are entirely heretical movements. Motwani’s business is emblematic of the struggle between cultural preservationists, city departments and merchants. The Landmark Commission wasn’t entirely successful in restricting Motwani’s T-shirt and ATM “empire,” because there will always be a lawyer ready to defend someone’s right to make money (especially if they are getting some of it). Tourism drives the French Quarter and if a businessman can make more money selling inexpensive trinkets to tourists, the argument goes, who’s to say that they don’t have the right to do so? It appears that no commission, however well intentioned, is sufficient to prevent the French Quarter from turning into Larry Flynt’s version of urban planning.
The artists and their devotees in the community are the best defense against the trend towards cheap shops that sell cheap things. Dirty Linen Night – a tongue-in-cheek response to White Linen Night – has done much to promote Royal Street. The event brings visitors to tour the galleries and meet the owners and also to meet the artists who either show their work or have their own galleries. It has brought home the fact that Royal Street art is an institution. The event has also been a first-rate showcase for singular talents such as the wonderfully weird Amzie Adam, who’s both an artist and a gallery owner. As long as the tradition of art on Royal Street is perceived as culturally significant and vital to local artists, the community and the economy, it has a chance. This cultural awareness needs to be raised to the level of environmental awareness. Most people don’t litter, not because they fear being ticketed, but because the notion is repugnant to them. Let it be the same on Royal Street. Will there be a time when landlords and merchants won’t sell out to the coarse, quick dollar because the notion is repugnant to them? Like any vice, just because one can doesn’t mean one should. There aren’t enough commissions and departments in the city to prevent more Motwanis from chewing up the historical fabric of the city if the community at large doesn’t come together with one voice. When world-famous institutions sit conveniently in our backyard, they deserve to be protected. This type of vigilance should be ingrained in us. Maybe then our community will be able to recover what is at risk of being lost forever.
Le Chat Noir owner Barbara Motley
Can small business really save the job market?
By Barbara Motley
THERESA CASSAGNE PHOTOGRAPH
This process of winding down 12 years of operations at Le Chat Noir, in its current form at least, has had me thinking. From President Obama to Mayor Landrieu, the battle cry these days is “Small business will dig us out of this job malaise.” However, most small consumer businesses are owner-dependent, like mine. This is particularly true of New Orleans, where the owner-operated business is so prevalent and the franchise or chain store/restaurant is so rare. (On a recent trip to Fort Worth, Texas, it became clear that most of the United States is populated by chain restaurants and big-box stores, which definitely don’t qualify as small businesses in New Orleans.)
In reading up on the topic of owner-operated businesses, there are some common themes about success and longevity. I am using a very broad brush, because the scale can vary from a one-person shop where the owner hangs out a shingle to sell advice, or a company with sales in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
First, the Small Business Administration knows that almost 50 percent of all start-ups fail within five years; many fail in under three years. The cause is most often poor management; someone starts a business because he or she likes what the business produces, not realizing that most of the time in running a business is spent on ancillary management and administrative responsibilities such as accounting, personnel, legal, taxes and purchasing. One writer used the phrase “entrepreneurial seizure” a condition where the new business owner charges into the challenge with little more than a good idea and a willingness to work hard. Other early symptoms that a small business is in trouble include a lack of capital and underestimating cash flow needs, and the lack of clear goals from the beginning. It is hard to find a feasibility study and business plan with evidence of daily referral on the bookshelf of many start-ups.
In my opinion, these problems can be fixed. Just find one of those experts who hung out a shingle and hire her to help you with planning and organizational issues. Often, these are ex-big business types who have made a career of specializing in this sort of exercise; corporations spend enormous resources in planning to guide the mother ship!
However, the most troublesome and least fixable challenge for an owner-operated business is burnout. Owning a business isn’t for the faint of heart; at the start-up phase, it’s of necessity a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, every day of the year job. Family, friends, hobbies and other interests are invariably deserted for the sake of the business. If this sort of management-by-being-there goes on too long, however, eventually every small business owner will experience acute burnout. Since the owner is generally the evident energy of the enterprise, this is a problem that begins to accelerate a downward spiral in the business if nothing changes. Experts suggest that the owner must be able to recognize this in advance of real trouble and take actions to change working patterns. Some call this re-balancing the owner’s life. Some even recommend something as extreme as taking a sabbatical (though this sounds like a dangerous option to me in an ongoing operation). With the owner-operated business owners I know, either option to re-balance would be a hard sell. Unfortunately, in this sort of organization, the decisionmaker is also the one who has to analyze optional decisions; it’s hard to admit that what you’re doing isn’t right for your business.
I predict that new small business start-ups will grow among three sectors: the 20-somethings who don’t want to work in the structure people of my generation were drawn to; those who have been laid off from corporate jobs and decide to strike out on their own (this sector is growing because of the job climate); and retirees who, at 65, still feel too young to stop working at all, but are even so being retired from corporate America. The younger and older sectors seem very vulnerable to me, one because of lack of life experience and access to capital, and the other because the timeline starts with a briefer expectation of a full workload. It is difficult to see many owner-operated businesses from either of these sectors becoming big employers or creating many permanent jobs. The jobs that are created will be at risk because of business failure or owner burnout, which often lead to throwing in the towel or a nosedive in the business’ success. If government leaders are hanging their hats for job growth on these start-ups, some serious effort needs to go into analyzing how this frequent turn-over from working for one small business owner to another can be stabilized into anything like an upward trend. Small businesses often defy existing occupational categories, requiring shifting skill sets among workers.
There was a great quote in our most recent All Kinds of Theatre’s production of “Native Tongues: The Food Edition”: the “chef-owned restaurant is only open so long as the owner wants to wear the apron.” How true, especially among all the “storefront” businesses in New Orleans. Does this mean that it will take 1,000 small businesses of short duration to create the next big business with staying power? Owning a business is the experience of a lifetime … at least owning mine was. However, I did experience classic burnout and chose to take that sabbatical.
Being employed by a small business can be a rewarding experience filled with a sense of being close to the mission and part of a tight, effective team, but it’s a stretch to call it a stable career. I wonder if this sector is up to the burden of shouldering a sustained job growth expectation.
Barbara Motley is the proprietor of Le Chat Noir cabaret theater and president of New Orleans on Stage, LLC.