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Buying art for art's sake

On a typical opening night for a show, Erika Greenberg-Schneider packs about 500 people into her small gallery in Tampa Heights, Bleu Acier.

They marvel at the contemporary artwork and chat with fellow art patrons over wine.

They leave feeling satisfied they did their part to support the arts.

They leave without spending a dime.

It's a scenario Greenberg-Schneider has seen happen at galleries across Tampa. "People like to come and party, but they don't buy art," she said.

The reality has prompted her to scale back her show schedule and focus more on her fine arts printing business, which pays the bills. In an e-mail last month to Bleu Acier patrons outlining her plans, she stated "as hungry as we are for culture we seem unable to sustain a healthy art market."

People wrote back saying, "How could you do this to us?" She responded, in somewhat gentler words, "Send me a check. Your body heat is costing me A.C."

Despite efforts to make Tampa America's next city of the arts, establishing a collectors' base has been difficult. People will spend a few bucks on something eye-catching from a local art festival, but they aren't buying art as an investment or to build their portfolio.

They like art but don't necessarily need it. And they sure as heck don't want to spend $1,000 for it.

Longtime gallery owners like Marcie Hoffman Porges have learned to adapt. She's been in the gallery business since 1978, and in Ybor City for 17 years, and has a theory about local art buying:

People move here from other places with dreams of playing golf and tennis and spending time in the sunshine. Their mind-set is relaxed and informal.

They aren't thinking about enduring the cold winter months at art shows and theater performances. "They don't move here for art," she said.

Hoffman Porges isn't sure how she has stayed in business all these years. She doesn't have a wealthy backer, and this isn't her hobby. It's her livelihood.

But to sell art, you have to roll with the realities, she said, and if people aren't busting down the door to buy your latest masterpiece, then diversify. For her, that meant adding framing and interior design services.

The challenge hits gallery owners, as well as art boosters. Jenny Carey of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County hears frequent complaints about people not buying art or even attending major museum exhibits.

Take the Tampa Museum of Art. The recent acclaimed Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit drew a record 24,865 people. Officials cheered, and newspapers noted it.

But considering Hillsborough County has 1-million people, should we really celebrate?

Carey says it's a matter of educating people about art and making it mainstream, like sports. Fan or no fan, everyone knows about the Bucs because of their bigger-than-life presence. But does everyone hear about art?

No one balks when we spend millions for an athlete, but pay $10,000 for a painting?

Since opening Bleu Acier in 2002, Greenberg-Schneider has sold a measly $3,000 worth of art from her shows. To try to recoup her expenses, she started soliciting donations for wine. The result wasn't kind. In October, she received a letter from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation stating that someone filed a complaint that she was selling alcohol illegally.

She fumed. "If people were buying art, I wouldn't have to ask for donations."

Price seems a big deterrent. Too many times, people have offered her $50 for $1,000 pieces from acclaimed European artists. At first, she felt insulted. Now, she tries to educate them about the artist and the value of the item.

Seldom, however, does it work.

Even huge shows like the annual Gala Corina don't sell as much as expected. Pieces under $250 sell, anything over doesn't, said John Langley, one of the founders.

To educate people about buying art, Avant Garde, the young professional arm of the Tampa Museum of Art, held an event last year to offer tips on how to get collections started. Instead of hanging a Dali print in your living room, find a painting from a local artist that moves you.

But buying art can be intimidating, especially for young people with limited income, said Avant Garde president Jennifer Mitchell.

"On the outside, it can seem pretentious, that you need to be an art historian," she said. "But that's really not the case."

So, a plug on behalf of artists:

Try it, and you may catch the art-buying bug. The galleries are full of great stuff.

THE LAST DROP: Here's a chance to speak up about the arts. The Arts Council of Hillsborough County's artist advisory committee is having a meeting to gather input. The event runs from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday at Covivant Gallery and Studio, 4906 N Florida Ave.

Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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