Galleries Suffer, But Art Community Lives On
Catriona Fraser will remain involved in the Bethesda art scene after her namesake gallery closes on April 2.
When Catriona Fraser opened a fine art gallery on Wisconsin Avenue nine years ago, she had high hopes for what was then a flourishing business.
Her sales peaked around the time she opened a location in Bethesda; at times, she sold $20,000 worth of art in a week, attended multiple art fairs out-of-state and was part of a successful online network of dealers that brought a great deal of popularity to her collections.
Today, things are different at Fraser Gallery: customers look, but don’t purchase and days go by without sales. Opportunities for online dealing have diminished, and local demand for fine art has fallen. Her once-booming business, Fraser said, has fallen victim to the economy.
“Since the market crashed in 2008 and we’ve been in this recession, it’s been really difficult to sell the artwork,” she said. It was this realization – paired with her location’s decreasing ability to support the 15 artists it represents – that prompted Fraser’s decision to put an end to her namesake gallery.
But while April 2 will mark the venue’s final day, it won’t be the end of Fraser’s art career. A photographer, Fraser said she plans to remain just as engrained in Bethesda’s art and entertainment district as she is now, and will use her free time to assist with its initiatives.
“I’ll probably end up being more active, because I’ll have more time to actually get out there,” she said. “We just have to be more creative about how we can keep the visual arts alive in Bethesda.”
Fraser will join other former gallery owners who, in what has become a local trend, closed their locations for similar reasons. They have hardly disappeared from the art community: after closing her gallery last year due to financial concerns, Elyse Harrison, the former owner of Gallery Neptune, has put her free time and passion for art to use by opening an art studio. She now teaches art classes for children and adults.
“We know the recession posed a challenge to many people in many different ways,” Harrison said. “Although art is in my mind a very important element in society, certainly we’re not limited to appreciating art by buying it.”
Harrison and Fraser agreed that while the appreciation for art in Bethesda still remains, at the end of the day, independent galleries must sell their products in order to stay alive. They said larger, free venues in the area such as the Smithsonian became competition when their own galleries entered a look-but-not-buy world. As a result, local gallery owners are compelled to find alternative, creative ways to remain involved in local art.
“If you’re in this area, you can access these [larger] galleries,” Harrison said. “But a privately-owned gallery really isn’t a miniature version of that; it’s a business. Some viewed my gallery as entertainment and really didn’t understand that.”
Though Fraser said the closing is a logical business decision, some are still surprised to hear of Fraser Gallery’s end.
Lee Goodwin, a fine art photographer who has been showing his work at Fraser Gallery for several years, said Fraser helped him get started as an artist in the D.C. area. After winning Fraser-hosted international photo competitions, his reputation climbed.
“I began to get approached by other people doing shows … the fact that I had been shown in the Fraser Gallery definitely gave me credibility that I wouldn’t have had if I’d just been saying, ‘Look at these pretty pictures. Do you want to show them in your gallery?’”
Goodwin said his options as a local artist are becoming increasingly limited – there were eight traditional galleries in the downtown two years ago; today there are five – and Fraser’s closing in particular comes as a shock to him.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “I got my real break there.”
Fraser said she has been overwhelmed by the reaction, like Goodwin’s, to her gallery’s closure. She’s received e-mails from artists thanking her for her support and from locals expressing their sadness to see one of their favorite spots go.
“I really didn’t think it would be that much of a big deal … but many collectors and artists are devastated,” she said.
Marketing Director Stephanie Coppula of the Bethesda Urban Partnership, which organizes monthly art walks for galleries to showcase their collections, said the local art community is also struggling because of changes in the industry.
“People make purchases online or go to fairs and festivals. There are other ways to purchase art now other than just the traditional gallery market,” she said, adding that visual art is a “luxury” on which she feels people today have stopped spending money.
She said Bethesda’s art walks have shrunk as a result; there were 11 venues in last spring’s walks and only seven today. But, she said, the Bethesda Urban Partnership will continue to promote and organize them so long as interest is present.
The partnership also organizes annual art competitions and events which Fraser chairs – the Bethesda Painting Awards, the Trawick visual arts prize, and the Bethesda Fine Arts Festival. Though Fraser Gallery will no longer provide space for these events, Coppula said they will go on normally in other locations each year. Fraser will continue to participate.
“The idea is just to continue to do initiatives to promote the visual arts, and hopefully more [venues] will open up as the economy grows,” she said.