Culture News

Scottsdale Fine Art to Close Amid Crumbling Old Town Gallery Scene

Another gallery in the Scottsdale arts district long known as Old Town is closing at the end of June, providing yet another reason to wonder what’s to become of this part of the city that’s long prided itself on plentiful arts and culture offerings.

“We are saddened to announce that after 9 years in Scottsdale, we are closing.” So begins the notice New Times received from Scottsdale Fine Art gallery on June 10, which indicates that the gallery storefront will be “closing forever” on June 30.

It's the latest in a series of changes that have taken place in Old Town during the past few years. Two significant contemporary art galleries moved out of Old Town and into Phoenix. After 28 years on North Marshall Way in Scottsdale, Lisa Sette Gallery moved to midtown Phoenix in June of 2014, citing that area's "up-and-coming energy." 

After 22 years in Old Town, Bentley Gallery made its move from North Marshall Way to the Phoenix warehouse district in October of 2012, where it became part of Bentley Projects first established in a former warehouse in 2004. Bentley Gallery is undergoing changes even now, as it downsizes its exhibition space and explores other ways to activate Bentley Projects.

Like David Lavikka, who will close his Method Art gallery on North Marshall Way at the end of June and move to a studio space across the street, Bentley Gallery director John Reyes says gallery foot traffic is decreasing as online sales increase. It's a trend prompting galleries of various sizes in different locations to shift gears in response to a changing art market. 

Scottsdale Fine Art owner Beth Lauterbach is offering “special savings throughout the gallery” to reduce inventory, and says she’ll have to send works that don’t sell back to the artists who made them. Currently Scottsdale Fine Art represents more than 40 artists. Some are being placed elsewhere, including Bonner David Galleries, May Gallery, and Biltmore Galleries.

When we talked with Lauterbach by phone on June 12, she said several factors influenced her decision.

“Retail is a fickle character,” she says. Canadian buyers helped Scottsdale Fine Art through the recent recession, but they’re scarce now that Canadian currency is performing poorly relative to our dollar. “Generally we get Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas oil money,” she continues. But oil prices are down, prompting those buyers to “put their hands in their pockets.”

She cites changes in buyer preferences, too. There’s been more interest in tactile, whimsical works in recent years, according to Lauterbach. She’s changed what she carries accordingly, which explains why you’ll find an ecelctic assortment of artwork in her gallery these days.

Sculptures of staples of American life from M & M candies to the medication Adderall are interspersed with bronze works of people who seem to hail from the 1950s. Mixed media works with aerial views of diverse pedestrians share gallery space with oil paintings of flowers and other traditional fare.

But adapting to changing tastes wasn’t enough to keep the gallery open. Lauterbach says that when it came time to renew the gallery’s lease, her landlord wanted 25 percent more than she’s been paying. Lauterbach wasn’t interested, in part because she’s convinced the city isn’t giving Old Town the attention it deserves.

“The city has ignored this area long enough,” Lauterbach told us. “The aesthetics and infrastructure of Main Street are not so great anymore.” And the “carts and cocktails” mentality of what she calls the “bar district” isn’t helping either. Think vomit on the street, street fights, and heavy police presence — all things she says drive gallery-goers away.

Even as Old Town has languished, she says, the city has created a number of pop-up venues that appeal to “people who are excited to be entertained.”

She gives three examples: Scottsdale Arts Festival and Celebration of Fine Art, which will mark 45 and 26 years respectively in 2016, and the much newer Artisan Markets that happen Thursday nights and Sundays along the Scottsdale Waterfront. “Here,” she says, “I’m pointing a big fat finger at the City of Scottsdale.”

Lauterbach suspects that shifting demographics are also at play, noting that the older, more affluent population living in North Scottsdale isn’t making the trek into Old Town now that they have other options nearby. With the exception of those living in Paradise Valley or Arcadia, she says, most people living in proximity to Old Town don’t have the money to shop these galleries. Many Old Town galleries carry pieces that cost several thousand dollars. 

However, it’s worth considering whether the Old Town gallery scene might be an outdated model for fomenting arts creation, appreciation, and commerce.

Old Town has some fierce competition nowadays, including lounge-style events at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, bus and bicycle tours of public art installations, and Canal Convergence mash-ups of visual and performing arts in outdoor settings.

The downtown Phoenix art scene, despite growing pains wrought by new developments in and around Roosevelt Row, presents additional alternatives — including mural art, First Friday artwalks, and unconventional events like ARTELPHX.

Two significant galleries, Lisa Sette Gallery and Bentley Gallery, have moved in recent years from Old Town Scottsdale to downtown Phoenix. Unlike early Old Town days, Tempe and Mesa now have their own visual and performing arts centers. Old Town isn’t the only horse in this race.

So what’s to become of the space Lauterbach is vacating at the end of the month? R.C. Gorman Gallery is moving from its current location at 4251 North Marshall Way into the Main Street space on July 1.

Lauterbach says the Scottsdale Fine Art brand will continue to have an online presence, but she’s got additional things on her radar at this point — including spending more time weighing in on Scottsdale politics and its impact on the city’s arts and culture.

Someday, perhaps, we’ll see Scottsdale Fine Art inhabit a new space. Lauterbach says it's not out of the question. “If we could get six to eight quality galleries to move north with low rent, we could create a whole new arts scene.” 

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