Until recently, art dealer Jay Etkin spent his days inside his South Main art gallery, waiting for customers to walk in the door. But when the economy began to slow, so did art sales at Jay Etkin Gallery.
That's when Etkin decided to take his show on the road. After Christmas, Etkin began traveling across the country to sell local art to film studios, hotels, casinos, and other corporate clients. His gallery is now open by appointment only.
"The traditional business model of the contemporary art gallery is no longer effective in this new economy," Etkin said from his cell phone while in New Mexico. "I looked at the reality of sitting and waiting for people versus the reality of going out and directly making contacts."
Though individual buyers are becoming more cautious about where they spend money, Etkin said corporate clients are still willing to buy higher-priced artwork.
"Some people may think of art as a luxury item, but if someone is building a fancy $50 million building, they're not going to buy $25 prints to hang in the lobby," Etkin said.
Other local galleries are also feeling the pinch. After Christmas, Midtown's Lulalyn Gallery went from being open five days a week to being open three days a week.
"When the economy started going south, there seemed to be a lot of guilt in people's eyes when they'd come into the gallery," Lulalyn co-owner Kevin Mitchell said. "I don't think my customers have been as financially affected, but it's more of an issue of 'Look at my new $5,000 painting, brother-in-law, who just lost your house.'"
Lulalyn Gallery is now featuring more affordable artwork by up-and-coming artists.
"People seem to be happier to support a younger artist. It's more guilt-free art," Mitchell said.
Debra Edge of South Main's D'Edge Art & Unique Treasures had to take on a second job to keep her folk-art gallery open. Now the gallery is open only a few days a week, but she's added new display areas to keep morale up.
"We've been very flexible with pricing, and we offer layaway," Edge said. "We even help people look for alternatives, like maybe a print instead of an original piece."
David Lusk of East Memphis' David Lusk Gallery said business has recently picked up after an unusually slow Christmas. Lusk said he's also noticed that artists have become more business savvy, focusing on work that will sell better in tough times.
"I definitely feel that in a down economy, people want art that is more digestible and more comforting," Lusk said. "I've seen that to be true in the past few months. We haven't sold as much edgy abstract work as we have beautiful and inspiring landscapes."
John Weeden, executive director of the UrbanArt Commission, agrees.
"When you're feeling bad, you want comfort food, like mashed potatoes," Weeden said. "Same thing with art. When you feel bad, you want paintings of sunsets over the Grand Canyon."