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Croatian art gallery on Beach Drive struggling

On the eve of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Croatian artist Kamilo Vujcic painted a bleak, wintry landscape with an indigenous artwork on a cliff, depicting a scene of brewing political turmoil.

The piece, nicknamed Naive Art Threatened, now sits in the Croatian Naive Art Gallery, which itself is on the brink of extinction.

"We opened the gallery as a labor of love," said Jim Nannen, who created what is now the world's largest collection of Croatian naive art, painted in reverse on glass. "The gallery wasn't designed to generate significant income, but we certainly didn't plan to lose money."

The gallery will probably not make it to its second anniversary in August, Nannen said. Though situated at the base of Parkshore Plaza next to busy Beach Drive shops and restaurants, the idiosyncratic art hasn't captured crowds the way Nannen wanted and hasn't generated enough sales to pay its $60,000 annual rent. Nannen blames no one, but feels the city just wasn't ready.

"People say St. Pete is a city of arts," Nannen said, "but it has to be said it's a city of nonprofit arts."

Nannen discovered the Croatian naive art eight years ago when his wife, Donna, took him to an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. He was so taken with the colorful amateur art that he set about to form the gallery and share it widely in the United States. He's now offering discounts of up to 50 percent to move his inventory of nearly 200 paintings.

"Discount sales, that's the kiss of death," said Tim Finn, operator of Finn Gallery, around the corner on Fourth Avenue N. "It's unfortunate. I wanted to see him succeed."

Finn agrees that the city's arts scene is not geared toward for-profit galleries like his and Nannen's. Finn's advantage is the marquee draw of P. Buckley Moss, whose art comprises his main line. Moss is also Finn's landlord.

"If it wasn't for the fact she owns the building," Finn said, "I probably couldn't afford to be here."

The current economic downturn affects all galleries but more so those not fully established. Finn has owned his business for five years but has been selling Moss works for 23. Nannen has decades in retail, but this was his first art gallery.

"It's a tougher business than it looks like," said Nancy Markoe, who has had her gallery on St. Pete Beach for 22 years and also teaches others about the business through the Arts Business Institute.

Selling art is not like selling other products, Markoe said, because expenses are different and because the business is as much about fostering art as it is about making sales. Then, when times are tough, shoppers change their priorities.

"People need food and gas first," she said.

Institutions that don't rely on sales have a cushion, said Evelyn Craft, the executive director of the nonprofit Arts Center, which promotes arts and education. Craft said grants and gifts help her organization, though her gift shop sales have been steady. She said she wishes the environment were more conducive to for-profit galleries.

"I would love to have a thriving gallery scene, but these are small businesses and they need sales," she said. "There's enough people here with the money, but they often travel to buy their art."

Still, Craft said the community has come a long way in her 10 years with the Arts Center, citing development of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Salvador Dali Museum, the Florida Craftsman Gallery and others. That those are all nonprofit ventures underlines Nannen's point.

Nannen said he could move the entire operation to New York or San Francisco or Chicago but would rather downsize and keep it here. He is hoping to find a small space and keep the gallery alive long enough for the arts market to mature, but in the meantime will experiment.

"This is something we went into with our eyes wide open," he said. "We'll just have fun with it for the next six months."

Paul Swider can be reached at pswider@sptimes.com or 892-2271.

Croatian art gallery on Beach Drive struggling 03/04/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:25am]
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