BOSTON — Newbury Street is known for its high-end shops, salons, eateries and art galleries. Victoria Munroe Fine Art occupies an airy, 1,000 square-foot space. The location seems ideal. Its interior bathed in natural light. Its white walls are lined with contemporary drawings and paintings. Tiny round, red stickers are stuck on a bunch of the pieces, indicating they’ve been sold.
“Going out of business is very good for business,” gallery owner Victoria Munroe said, clearly amused. “We’re kind of laughing at it because we haven’t had such a good month in a long time.”
Munroe’s optimistic disposition is sincere, despite the fact that the enduring hard economic times have been dogging her sector. A dramatic drop in sales, compounded by a major rent increase, pushed Munroe to make the very difficult decision not to renew her gallery’s lease. The career art dealer is sad about it because of her history in Boston.
“It’s interesting,” she explained, “to know I started on Newbury Street in 1978.”
Two years after that Munroe moved to New York City, but returned to Boston 10 years ago, bringing along artist Joel Janowitz. Now he has to find a new gallery to represent him. Munroe has a stable of 20 artists. Janowitz is one of six with works in the gallery’s final show, which wraps up on Saturday.
Standing in front of one of his large watercolors Janowitz gave a woeful nod and said, “Yes, it’s a beautiful gallery, and a shame that it’s going to close. It’s painful.”
It hurts because Janowitz said the support of a gallerist gives artists a sense of reliability, and security.
“To know that you’ve got a place where you’ll have a show every two years, which is what the standard is in galleries, gives us something to work toward, and to get feedback.”
And, of course, it also gives them an outlet to sell their art.
“Yes,” Janowitz echoed, “so it’s a loss.”
And it will affect his bottom line.
Boston’s commercial art galleries have been closing for all kinds of reasons over the past few years — from high rents, to the recession, to competition from online dealers and art fairs. And while it’s undeniably tragic to the individuals directly involved, these spaces also play a major role in the larger local art marketplace. It could be looked at as an “ecosystem” made up of a myriad of interacting organisms.
“Whenever you lose a commercial gallery that showed contemporary work it’s a loss for everybody,” Kathy Bitetti told me.
Kathy is an artist, arts advocate and an independent curator at Medicine Wheel Productions, a nonprofit exhibition space. Bitetti explained how one single gallery’s closing has the power to cause a ripple effect. Other artists feel it. Other galleries feel it. People who run alternative spaces, museum curators and collectors feel it too — all the way up the art food chain.
A lot of people are waiting it out, hoping the contraction in the contemporary art gallery scene isn’t permanent.
Meg White, treasurer for the Boston Art Dealer’s Association, estimates nine commercial dealers have called it quits since 2008.
“It’s a tough climate,” she told me on the phone, adding, “most are surviving.”
Nick Capasso, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, is disappointed by the Munroe gallery’s passing.
“She’s been in the business for a long time,” he said. “Initially the impact is profound because it’s one less place to see contemporary art, and it’s also one less place to see work by local and regional artists.”
At the same time Capasso isn’t necessarily surprised by the news of even a well-respected gallery going dark these days. He recalled the famous quote, saying, “You know, it’s the economy, stupid.” But the Boston area art scene veteran also believes the market is cyclical.
“The storm will be weathered, and when conditions improve we’ll have a reinvigorated gallery system, and that’s something to look forward to,” Capasso said.
Even so, Capasso realizes that outlook doesn’t make it any easier for the artists.
“They’re the first to feel the negative impact and the last to feel the recovery, so it’s kind of a double dose of bad.”
Sara Miller, an independent art adviser, will miss using Victoria Munroe Fine Art as a resource. One of her main clients is Boston architect and philanthropist Graham Gund. She manages his vast private collection.
“It’s a strange sort of art market out there,” Miller observed, “in the sense that it has been tough on the mid-range and down galleries.”
Meaning galleries like Victoria Munroe’s. “Blue chip” art, top-tier artists and the priciest galleries haven’t been battered by the economy in quite the same way, she said.
The demise of Munroe’s business leaves Miller with one less resource. In the past she would go to the Newbury Street location hoping to find new artists, but also to stay plugged into the the city’s contemporary community. On the day we spoke Miller was heading over the the Massachusetts College of Art and Design to check out a show before dropping by the French Library for a photography exhibition.
She’ll miss visiting Victoria Munroe, Miller said, because of the dealer’s knowledge and engaging personality, but also because, “she’s a major player.”
Miller explained how Victoria Munroe has helped feed collectors (and aspiring collectors) a diverse and steady diet of locally made art that doesn’t have a $1 million price tag. And she said nurturing a culture that loves and values art is critical to sustaining Boston’s art ecosystem for the long haul.
And while Victoria Munroe is leaving Boston, she isn’t giving up her role in the art world. She also runs a gallery in East Hampton, N.Y., called The Drawing Room where she said customers have continued to purchase art throughout the recession.
The final exhibition at Victoria Munroe Fine Art closes Saturday, March 3. It’s located at 161 Newbury St.