Dee Aguilar sits at her desk in the Oceanside Village Resort Gallery shortly before she was forced to close the gallery last December.

THURSDAY SPOTLIGHT: the evolution of art sales in Parksville Qualicum Beach

Part one of a three-part series exploring art, galleries and sales

Shortly before Christmas, Dee Aguilar stood in the middle of her Oceanside Village Resort Gallery in Parksville, a bright, airy space filled with high-end sculpture, painting and photography, but utterly devoid of customers.

“We have some of the best artists around. I feel I’m letting them down by not selling their work,” said Aguilar. “We need something miraculous now or we’re going to lose this place.”

But there was no Christmas miracle on Resort Drive. Aguilar, facing declining traffic and sales and unable to make her rent payment, closed the gallery at the end of 2015, after two years in business.

Almost as much as its resorts, wide beaches and retirees, the Parksville Qualicum Beach region is known for its vibrant arts community and array of galleries.

But when it comes to art, can there be too much of a good thing?

Factors ranging from economics to demographics to building design, along with the ever-evolving impact of the World Wide Web, are changing the way art is bought, sold and displayed. This shift is creating winners and losers in the business of art in Parksville Qualicum Beach, even as the number of people creating art appears to be on the upswing.

The closure of Oceanside Village Resort Gallery followed the 2014 closure of Art Worx Gallery in Qualicum Beach. Another Parksville gallery owner, Jane Davidson, has temporarily gone to showings by appointment only at her Gallery of Artisans gift shop, with plans to re-open with regular hours for the tourist season.

One closure might just be tossed off as a failed business model; after all, art galleries open and close all the time. But artists and gallery operators across the region say there has been an observable drop in the amount of art being purchased locally. Nobody can seem to identify a single cause.

Among the range of potential culprits cited are a glut of local artists and art on the market; the predominant demographic of newly arriving retirees who are downsizing and shedding possessions; open-concept housing designs that open views by eliminating wall space where art might be hung; the advent of Internet sales, where art can be purchased without ever stepping into a gallery; and, of course, that all-time favourite: economics.

“Art is a luxury item,” said Corinne James, director of The Old School House Arts Centre (TOSH) in Qualicum Beach. “If you’re choosing between a piece of art or a loaf of bread, that’s not much of a choice.”

TOSH is a membership-based arts community located in the former Qualicum Beach schoolhouse. The building offers extensive gallery space that is filled with works, mostly by local and regional artists, on a rotating monthly basis.

But sales of that art are not what keeps TOSH afloat, a shortcoming James said was recognized in late 2001.

“We don’t expect the exhibition program to pay for itself,” said James. “There will be times we don’t sell any pieces. We had to diversify to keep (the centre) open.”

Along with membership fees, the non-profit society pays for operations through its gift shop, rental of its working artist studios, a Music on Sunday concert series and other special events.

That sort of diversification may well become a more common model in the private, commercial gallery business as well.

Bonnie Luchtmeijer, co-owner of The Gallery at Qualicum Art Supply in downtown Qualicum Beach, has long been an arts patron and supporter. But her business succeeds by the grace of sales of art supplies and stationery, not through sales of art in the adjacent gallery.

“We’ve cut down on the gallery space significantly, by more than half, in the last year,” said Luchtmeijer. “We found sales weren’t supporting the size of the gallery, no matter how much effort I put in.”

“We’ve picked a smaller niche, supporting artists who have supported us through the years.”

Certainly, there is no shortage of art — or artists.

At its recent monthly meeting at the MAC, the DeCosmos Artists Society drew 50 people on a weekday afternoon for a painting demonstration by Jean Delaney.

Qualicum Beach painter Patt Scrivener, who both sells paintings and teaches workshops, essentially saw her bottom line unchanged from 2014 to 2015, even though sales of her original work dropped off noticeably last year.

“My workshop sales were up,” she said. “So, overall, my business income was about the same.”

Perhaps ironically, Luchtmeijer’s art supplies business is doing better than ever, even as she shrinks her display gallery space.

“Because there are so many artists in our area, we do well for that,” said Luchtmeijer.

Shane Wilson is an antler carver who relocated to Nanoose Bay from Northern B.C. two years ago. Even though his work is primarily commission-based and he does not rely on gallery exhibits, he has seen the changes in the art market.

“I’ve been part of the (Nanoose Bay) studio tour since I got here, but from what I’ve seen, there isn’t a huge appetite for art,” Wilson said. “It could just be correcting; the world was art-centric and art-happy for some time. Before 2008, everything was going great.”

At the Parksville Chamber of Commerce Visitors’ Centre, executive director Kim Burden did not have any hard numbers on art sales in the region, though he admitted that sales of consignment pieces at the centre dropped a bit over the last year. But that’s not to say every artist is struggling.

“I bet some of the artists are doing better than others,” said Burden. “If you’ve got a niche, you’re probably going to do really well. And if you focus your marketing beyond the Parksville Qualicum Beach area, you’re probably going to do better.”

That model seems to be working for one area gallery, which is promoting well-known, contemporary artists from across the country and marketing them throughout the world.

Oceanside Art Gallery owner Heather Tillmar has seen sales increase each year since opening the business three years ago in downtown Qualicum Beach.

She had previously attempted a gallery that closed down after less than two years in business — in the exact Oceanside Village Resort location Aguilar just shuttered. But in Tillman’s view, tourists are seeking an experience, while art buyers will focus on finding the galleries with the pieces they’re after.

“Knowing your market here is crucial, and it’s not tourists,” said Tillmar, who operated at the resort in 2007-08 and once had a month when only three people walked through her doors. “We’ve become a destination instead of being in the destination. We’re in the business community, instead of the resort community.”

Next week: Seeking success through new models.

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