September 27, 2011 | last updated December 2, 2011 5:23 pm

Gallery owner embraces changing art world

Photo/Rebecca Goldfine
Photo/Rebecca Goldfine
Available space in a prime location convinced painter Matt Welch to open Flat Iron Gallery on Congress Street

Matt Welch, a former salesman and an artist who bloomed a little later in life, has opened a new art gallery in the wedge-shaped Hay Building across the street from the Portland Museum of Art and above Starbucks.

While it takes a certain bravery to open an art gallery as the markets roil with anxiety and the art world -- like so many other parts of the economy -- is transformed by technology and online consumerism, Welch says he has a few things going for him.

First, his location. "I wasn't looking to open an art gallery, but this space became available," Welch says. The 46-year-old signed his lease in July, invested $20,000 to fix up the space and had a grand opening earlier in September for his Flat Iron Gallery with a show that includes work by Maine artists Judy Glickman, Carol Bass and Laura Fuller. The light-filled space at 594 Congress St. is shaped a bit like a funnel, helping direct your eye down the room and over the art much like an artist might do with lines of perspective. And while the gallery is on the second floor - a retail challenge - it's a stone's throw from the art museum, ensuring a steady stream of foot traffic from art-loving passersby.

Welch also says he wouldn't have opened a gallery if Portland's First Friday Art Walk was not as popular as it is, driving many people out onto the streets and through the city's galleries and museums the first Friday evening of every month.

Welch plans to use the space to show his own paintings as well, creating a more direct way to push his paintings than having occasional shows at coffee shops. He started earnestly painting about a decade ago and says demand for his pieces is picking up. With a business degree from Babson College, he's hoping to generate alternative revenue streams by opening his gallery to business functions. If a financial adviser wants to invite prospective clients in for a talk about his services, he or she can rent the Flat Iron Gallery, and Welch, too, says he can give a tour and art talk.

"We'll have to think creatively how to create revenue here," Welch says.

Selling art in the digital age

Welch will have to manage not just his physical gallery but also a virtual gallery, and like any business owner, promote his gallery via the Internet and social media. "Online has to be part of the formula," he says.

The idea that brick-and-mortar galleries might be less relevant as more artists use the Internet to display and sell their creations was the subject of a talk last March at Space Gallery called "Rethinking the art gallery in the digital age." The talk broached the question, "Are galleries still relevant in the age of Etsy, Facebook and other digital ways to connect artists with collectors?"

Andy Verzosa, owner of Aucocisco Gallery on Exchange Street and a panelist at that talk, says, "They are relevant, and the reason why is that art is one of these things that you have to be there for, you have to be in that physical place where art is to experience it. I can tell you all about the Grand Canyon, but if you've never been there, where is the authenticity, the experience, where is the truth of it all?"

That being said, he and Daniel Kany, an art reviewer for the Portland Press Herald, point out just how much the Internet has affected the business of selling art. Kany says more artists are producing work that will translate well to a digital medium, so that "what you see online is what you get."

"Galleries don't have the monolithic presence they once had," Kany continues. "In some ways that makes it far more confusing for collectors and clients. [Yet] artists who might not have made it into galleries now have a chance" to get their work noticed.

Welch says he'll use Facebook and a website to promote the artists he's representing, seeing Facebook as a new arbiter of taste. "A lot of people are using it and paying attention to it," he says. "They're not looking at magazines as much."

While it's not always easy to fall in love with an online reproduction of a painting, Kany says artists can help their sales by posting articles and videos about their work as well as videos, if they have them, of presentations they've given at a university or museum. If buyers have questions about the work's value, they might be reassured by watching the artist give a talk at a lauded cultural institute. "Even though looking at his pictures you will miss the intricate details of the surface, you can do a lot more research, you can look at close-up shots or corners of the frame," Kany says.

Dudley Zopp, an artist from Lincolnville, says she uses the web for "self-promotion," blogging and sending out an occasional newsletter about her upcoming shows and art residencies. "All these things have changed my life as an artist and really takes time away from the studio," she admits. At the same time, she says she enjoys "the idea of communicating" with people interested in her work.

Zopp makes a point, however, of not selling work from her website because she says she doesn't want to compete with the galleries representing her. Kany says this phenomenon of art living simultaneously on artist websites, gallery websites and social media streams, and in galleries has raised ethical questions about how to divvy up sales, "what's right, what's wrong, what's legal," he says.

Versoza points out that while artists may have many more opportunities to self-promote and self-publish, they can't rival the benefits of gallery representation. "Having people work with you, it's an endorsement," he says. "Anyone can sell their own house, but there are a lot of pitfalls and sophistication involved." Plus, he says he helps artists get reviewed by critics and establish their prices.

In the end, Kany says the Internet age has done the arts a huge favor by developing people's visual sense. He says that before the recession, "the numbers at museums were way, way up. I think it is the graphic age, the Internet and graphic design, every single person is developing a more sophisticated perception."


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