August 23, 2005 in Business

Love of art not enough to sustain gallery

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review
 

Dennis and Danna Douglas closed their art gallery at 8 N. Post last week.

They spent the weekend removing the last few precious works of art by Russians Yuri Gorbachev and Alex Khomsky, London-based Govinder, and Jo Simpson, the popular Coeur d’Alene artist.

Unless an opportunity to move into a nearby space materializes, the paintings will not again see the light of day until retrieved by an artist who placed them with the gallery on consignment, or until purchased off the Internet.

Dennis says business, seldom robust, slumped after the 9/11 attacks. The couple was optimistic when they moved into the space on Post in March 2002, only to have the block torn up for six months. That, and the recent construction that has seemingly blocked every thoroughfare in the city, nurtured the bias that downtown was hard to get to. And the parking meters. Those in front of the Douglas Gallery allow for just half-hour parking.

“What can you do in 30 minutes?” asks Danna. Dennis leaves twice during an interview to plug his.

But the Douglases are not laying the blame on the city for their decision. Despite numerous outreach efforts and a focus on customer service, they say that the gallery never built the client base that could sustain it.

“We really tried to find a niche,” Danna says. “We found out too late that niche wasn’t there.”

They started with their own love of the visual arts and their own collection, accumulated with incomes she earned as a nurse in heart bypass surgery at Sacred Heart and Deaconess medical centers, and his as an attorney.

“Our house was full of art, so we kind of turned our hobby into a business,” Dennis says.

A friend, Ken Brooks, offered space during the Christmas season in his former office next to the Atrium Building on North Wall. They ended up staying 2 1/2 years. They moved on when Joe Dinnison said he would refurbish a building at 130 S. Wall to their specifications. Some pieces were displayed in a walk-in vault installed by a former bank tenant.

Those years in the late 1990s were the gallery’s best. Gorbachev’s bright, gilded paintings based on Russian folk and religious themes lifted sales one month to $75,000. The best year was 2000, when sales hit $375,000. The sales of the Gorbachevs reflected the popularity of the work itself and the ebullient personality of the painter – a cousin of former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev – who made four appearances in Spokane to support his shows.

Dinnison sold the building, so the Douglases decided to move yet again.

In addition to their long relationship with Gorbachev, the Douglases also take pride in an exhibit of original etchings that included works by Rembrandt. The gallery, thanks to a friendship with the owner of the original plates, was the first in the United States to exhibit the works.

Friendship, too, gave the couple the opportunity to sell a limited-edition bust of the Virgin Mary that was cast from a mold of Michelangelo’s “The Pieta.” The enthused couple did mailings and called clients announcing the opening. Only three people came.

“That was the response we got to a Michelangelo,” Danna says. “It broke our heart.”

The effort and expense of bringing the work to Spokane drained them financially as well as emotionally.

For a couple immersed in art, the lack of interest is discouraging. Dennis says one law firm asked the gallery to furnish art for four floors of office space for just $1,000. Expensive homes are decorated with cheap posters, or prints sold as investments that all too often are diluted by over-production.

The Douglases allowed clients to take home artwork so they could get a feel for how it would look in their homes. Sometimes, a phone number might be all the information they had about the client. Yet, says Danna, no one failed to return a borrowed piece.

Danna says the gallery carried gift items priced as low as $25, but could not overcome the preconceptions voiced by one woman who stuck her head in the door recently and told her companion “Oh, that’s for rich people.”

The gallery carried booklets explaining the basics of art and hosted events for nonprofits as a way of introducing people to art. Danna recalls one affecting visit from a class of blind students she allowed to run their hands over the gallery’s normally hands-off sculptures.

Danna says making the gallery available for community events was the only way the couple, working every day six days a week, could give back.

With the gallery closed, the Douglases plan to upgrade their Web site and continue to display and sell artwork that way. They say they need time to regroup, and Danna is looking for a nursing position.

“We’ve just tried so many things,” she says. “I think Dennis and I are hopeless art lovers.”

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