Galleries try to make Newport more of art market

  "Newport Rocks'' (oil), by John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872).

"Newport Rocks'' (oil), by John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872).

This article, by Robert Whitcomb, originated in GoLocalProvo.com

'Whither the Newport art world?  Most of a range of experts told GoLocal that it’s getting livelier, and they suggested ways to boost the city as a place to make, sell and buy art.

Karen Conway, who now runs exhibitions at the nearby Jamestown Art Center but who is still deeply involved in the Newport art world, where she used to be a curator at the Newport Art Museum, told us that, yes, the city’s art sector is growing, fueled by an expanding regional, national and international community that buys art.  But, the experts complained, too few buy art in Newport.

Ms. Conway noted the City by the Sea’s very old and close links with New York, where the U.S. art market is based, and also with Paris and other major cities where a lot of work is bought and sold.

Kara Popowich, a vice president at Sotheby’s (which is among other things one of the world’s largest art brokers), cited “the high quality of work’’ and “the incredible mix of people’’ in Newport,  while noting that prices for art sold there are “more competitive’’ than in the Big Apple. “And not just New York hedge funders are buying.’’

“The Newport art scene is growing,’’ said New York-based painter Amanda Fenlon, who has shown in the Atelier Newport gallery. But, of course, it’s “always very tough to predict what the market will do.’’

She, as did some others, lauded Atelier Newport, started in 2016, to, among other things, promote high-quality contemporary artists and in so doing raise the stature of the city in the international art world. There are several other very interesting galleries -- Blink Gallery might be the best known -- highlighting regional contemporary artists. And a new gallery called Coastal Contemporary bears watching.

Norah Diedrich, the executive director of Newport Art Museum, said that while there’s “more cultural engagement’’ these days, and more shows, the city is not yet a major “destination point’’ for the arts besides its famous musical events. Still, she says, there are “more lectures and shows, more experiences’’ these days as art has become more of a “total experience.’’

The dynamic and frequently referred-to Bobbie Lemmons, who runs Atelier Newport and had a gallery in Manhattan before moving to Newport full time, cited the many connections between Newport and Gotham and lauded the “overwhelming community of artists” in Newport. “There’s an express lane between New York and Newport,’’ a city that she said that she has fallen in love with.

She sees her role as “trying to stretch the buyers’ eyes’’ in promoting the work of innovative, idiosyncratic contemporary artists, as opposed to more typical Newport work such as paintings of sailboats and old houses. She’s helped by the role of the Internet in “changing the buzz.’’

Ms. Lemmons, like the others we talked with, noted the crucial role of very rich people in supporting the art market in Newport. Some of them are buying art for their yachts.

A young New York-based painter, Hannah Stahl, who has shown at Atelier Newport, was pleased that the publicity she got by exhibiting in Newport  “radiated back to New York,’’ where it can be tough to be one artist of so many. “Newport is a big hug compared to New York. It’s very welcoming’’ to young artists, she said.

Newport’s art world is obviously most dynamic in the summer,  but, she said, the art world “seems to be expanding’’ there in general, with a “hugely diverse and international community,’’  “growing energy’’ and more contemporary work being shown, in addition to the traditional “sailboat pictures’’ that many people associate with the city. “Now people can see interesting art in Newport; they don’t have to go to New York to see it.’’

New York-based painter Richard Nocera was somewhat more restrained. “The best thing about showing in Newport is that it gets me into New York. I often find the same collectors in Newport as in New York.’’

While he’s had “consistent sales’’ in Newport the past three years, “Newport is a stop along the way – not where I’d like to end.’’

And long-established and well-known painter Bunny Harvey, who has done business in Newport as well as in New York for years, told us:

“I don’t see Newport as a major place to buy and sell art in,’’ although the local art community is “trying to be more than just a regional place to buy art and trying to connect more with the New York art world.’’

To this end,  she said, she hopes that the city “will attract better galleries.’’

Newport Art Museum, Discover Newport Photo

A challenge is that “Many collectors, including in Newport, want work to be vetted by New York galleries. Many buyers are insecure. And they feel purchase implies knowledge.’’

Art dealer William Vareika, with his wife, Alison, owns the nationally known William Vareika Fine Arts, on Bellevue Avenue. The gallery specializes in paintings of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries but the Vereikas also have an extensive collection of contemporary art in their house. He says that so far as a place to buy and sell art, Newport remains only a modest market.  Not many people come to Newport to buy art, he told us, although “world-class art’’ has been created in the city for many generations.  Only about 1 percent of his sales come from people coming to his gallery and buying there and the vast majority of his buyers are from out of town.

How to boost Newport’s ranking in the art world?

One is to address the shortage of studio space for artists so that more could move there, full or part-time, from, well, especially New York. Some artists we talked with said that they’ve so enjoyed being in Newport that they’d like to reside there. “I’d live there maybe half the year if space were available,’’ said artist Hannah Stahl.

Unlike many old New England cities and towns, Newport has never had a lot of former industrial space, such as closed textile mills, that could be transformed into artists’ lofts.

Ms. Diedrich cited closed public schools – enrollments in the Newport school system are falling -- as one possibility for conversion into space for artists.  She said that workspace is “too hard to find and too expensive’’ now. Bunny Harvey and others suggest that former Navy buildings might be options.

Ms. Stahl, for her part, put forward the idea of artists getting space in some of Newport’s boatyards.

Ms. Popowich suggested a summer-residency program for emerging artists, such as the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, in Maine, while Ms. Harvey liked the idea of summer residencies for established high-quality artists, some of whom would be from New York and happy to escape it for the cooling breezes of the City by the Sea. Maybe something like the MacDowell Colony, in Peterboro, N.H. She said that perhaps Rhode Island School of Design architecture students could be brought in to design studio space.

William Vareika Fine Art

Mr. Vareika said artist-residency programs might boost the art market in Newport simply by drawing more attention to the city as a very active arts center.

Ms. Popowich thinks that linking the community more tightly with studio-art programs such New England schools as the Rhode Island School of Design, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, Yale and Dartmouth would Newport boost the power of its art synergies. (Salve Regina University has a studio art program, too.)

And to boost sales, most of those we talked with agreed that an annual or -- more practical -- high-end biennial art fair, along the lines of the Art Basel shows in Basel, Switzerland, Miami Beach and Hong Kong, should be considered. Maybe, said Kara Popowich, there could be some synergy between Newport’s famous music festivals and an art festival.  While Newport is much, much smaller than the aforementioned cities, it has an international reputation for wealth, glamour, seaside beauty and dramatic architecture that would help promote a major art fair.

Fenlon cited the success of the New Orleans art biennial, created after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, in boosting that city.

Perhaps a Newport biennial could be best held soon after Labor Day, when the weather is still fine but after the summer tourist crowds have thinned out.

“An art fair attracting art-buying agents’’ is a great idea, said Hannah Stahl. “It would tell the public that Newport is clearly an important place to buy and sell art’’ much more effectively than individual galleries could. Some see one or more of Newport’s famed mansions and/or Salve Regina University as possible venues.

But, Ms. Harvey cautioned, “Who has the energy and clout to organize such events? Galleries are stretched thin. And beware of alternative art fairs with discounted art. You’ve got to go high.’’ The Newport Art Museum’s Diedrich, for her part, noted that while the city’s art institutions “do some things together, it’s not a tight unified group.’’

And Mr. Vareika emphasized that a well-heeled sponsor or sponsors would be needed to get an art fair going and to connect it with the New York art scene. Well, Newport does have a few billionaires….

Of course, the art world goes up and down with the broad economy, but the extreme wealth of some summer residents of Newport could provide a high floor. Perhaps one or two could be persuaded to step forward as the city’s uber art patrons and get an art fair going.Tuhu