Holding a bake sale to fund an art gallery is either ridiculous or inspired. The five NAU art students who did it mostly remember it as embarrassing.
Oil painters Devin Kelly, Patrick Keig, Sumer Khan, Andrea Newman, and Jeff Urdang had been sharing studio space while working on their undergrad degrees at Northern Arizona University when Newman found out about a gallery vacancy in the Old Jerome High School in Jerome. Though they were somewhat unsure, the friends recognized the opening as an opportunity they couldn't pass up. So they rallied.
"That was part of the fun of it -- how stupid and desperate we were to get this space," Keig recalls.
Considering the limited opportunities art students are typically given to show their work through a university, renting a gallery space is not such a bad idea. And considering the lack of emphasis on sales in university art spaces, it's a great one. Luckily these students aren't navigating completely uncharted territory; they're taking cues from a gallery on Scottsdale's Marshall Way that has been selling student art for the past 20 years.
In addition to the bake sale, the artists received contributions from family members, teachers, and the NAU art department. Because they initially did not have any long-term goals for the space, they raised just enough for the deposit and the first month's rent.
"We called the gallery Ephemeral Studios because we thought it may be a short-lived event, lasting only a couple months," says Newman.
But when the artists made enough to cover the following month's rent at the inaugural opening in May, they began to wonder if they could make something more out of this project, which they are now calling a student collective gallery.
I spent an afternoon with three of the founders -- Kelly, Keig, and Urdang -- as they were gearing up for a show at Beaver Street Gallery in downtown Flagstaff. These guys are the picture of the easygoing college student -- Keig in a backwards baseball cap, Kelly riding up on his bicycle halfway through the interview. But don't be deceived. This group does not shy away from hard work.
Artists taking the sale of art into their own hands is not unheard of, but it is relatively rare -- especially for student artists. Although NAU does have a student art gallery on campus (Beasley Gallery), it is generally reserved for BFA shows and school-related work. Arizona State University's three on-campus galleries operate in much the same way.
ASU's Night Gallery, which opened at Tempe Marketplace in 2008, is an anomaly, an experimental space that serves as a forum for ASU students and alumni to set up their own shows on their own terms. Yet even this gallery has a more museum-like function in the local arts community. Prices of artwork are almost never posted, and though the gallery does have an attendant present during its limited hours, there's no system in place to handle sales.
The founders of Ephemeral Studios are quick to admit that their schooling hasn't really prepared them for the business side of the art world. In fact, the suggestion actually makes them laugh. Luckily, they are a pretty pragmatic bunch. The group points to sales as a primary motivation for the location of their gallery.
"Flagstaff is not exactly a booming art town," Keig says. "Everyone is kind of artsy and creative, showing off their crafts and projects, but it seems like no one really wants to buy art."
Jerome is a different story. The quaint old mining town has long been known as an arts oasis in the southwest, with tourists visiting expressly to purchase artwork. The Old Jerome High School, built in the 1930s, now provides studio and gallery space to artists working in a variety of media. Ephemeral Studios occupies a relatively spacious former classroom, complete with old wooden floors, large six-pane windows, and sweeping views of the desert.
Each of Ephemeral's members has sold work to outside buyers with varying degrees of success. The artwork ranges in price from $20 to $800, but most pieces are in the $200 to $400 range. In the three months that the gallery has been open, they've sold around 20 pieces.
They estimate that Khan has likely sold the most work so far, but Keig and Urdang have some of the stand-out pieces among the five painters. Keig, who is from the Valley originally, has a series of Baldessari-esque obfuscated portraits, and Urdang works with abstracted aerial views of the desert.
The artists interact like a group of friends who maybe spend too much time together, though not quite to the point of finishing each other's sentences (yet). They exchange knowing glances before admitting that disagreements arise occasionally, but they are united in their goal of keeping the space going each month. They aren't trying to make it big; they just want to build some real world skills before heading off to graduate school.
They say Kraig Foote, who owns and runs Scottsdale's Art One Gallery, has provided their business model. Foote has been showcasing student work at Art One since 1993 (and has represented Keig for years now), but what the collective members really admire about him is the way he demystifies art sales.
"When you walk into his gallery the first thing he tells you is that you can touch anything you want," says Keig.
"He's just super-down-to-earth," Urdang chimes in.
Art One may be the black sheep among the high-end galleries of Old Town Scottsdale. The gallery's price point is a bit higher than that of Ephemeral, yet much lower than that of surrounding art spaces. But its location allows student artists to gain exposure to actual art buyers, and unlike many counterpart galleries located in the hipper Phoenix downtown arts district, Art One actually manages to sell art.
Lisa Sette has run her namesake gallery -- arguably the most established in town -- down the street from Foote for years. She thinks Art One plays a vital role for burgeoning artists.
"I know that I was influenced by an art teacher as far back as junior high school; even at that early point it really can encourage a direction. College focused more on concepts in art and the reason one makes art at all. So for Art One to be there for students of any age to teach them some real world lessons is important," Sette says.
Foote was pleased to learn that Ephemeral Studios had opted to stay open. "It's so hard for students with the way the economy is," he says. "But student work is something that is good for the general community."
When asked why more artists aren't striking out on their own, the Ephemeral crew describes the amount of work that goes into putting on an art show once a month. All five of the artists have jobs and four of them go to school in addition to operating the collective. During the summer, Keig says he has been going to school every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then working a minimum-wage job from 5 to 8 p.m.
As the bags under his eyes attest, creating new paintings to show each month and getting the gallery ready is "actually pretty unreasonable," he admits.
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Still, they plan to keep the gallery running as long as it's feasible.
"We all have each other's backs," says Urdang. "It makes it a lot easier when you have a support group."
Ephemeral Studios is located at Studio 300A in the Old Jerome High School. The gallery is open the first Saturday of every month from 5 to 8 p.m. with a selection of artwork from NAU undergraduate art students. For more information visit ephemeralstudiosgallery.com.