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Front and Center: Steve Gibbs, Art Spirit Gallery

Steve Gibbs, owner of The Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene, is “all about promoting art as part of the city’s culture.” (Kathy Plonka)
Steve Gibbs, owner of The Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene, is “all about promoting art as part of the city’s culture.” (Kathy Plonka)

Coeur d’Alene gallery owner promotes, showcases local talent

COEUR D’ALENE – Just as art can inspire flights of fancy, so too art galleries.

“People imagine this is an easy job,” says a bemused Steve Gibbs, owner of The Art Spirit Gallery at 415 Sherman Ave. “Just sit behind a desk, greet people who wander in and talk about art.

“It’s true that’s one of the wonderful things I get to do,” he acknowledges. “But the behind-the-scenes work – meeting with artists, cataloging their work, marketing it, getting everything hung, then stored – is huge. I probably average 70 hours a week.”

If you’re tempted to break that down to a dollars-per-hour ratio, then owning an art gallery isn’t for you. Gibbs sold a mere $75 worth of art in his first six months as a gallery owner.

During a recent interview, he discussed how his business has evolved since 1997, and the outlook he envisions for fine art galleries.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Gibbs: Rapid City, South Dakota.

S-R: What were your interests back then?

Gibbs: Art and the outdoors. There wasn’t much opportunity to look at art – we didn’t have museums in South Dakota, and we didn’t have the Internet – but I would draw. I started out with crayons and graduated to watercolors. I also made and sold belts through junior high and high school. I was constantly making things.

S-R: Did your parents encourage that?

Gibbs: They appreciated it. And my dad was an innovator – he knew how to jury-rig anything.

S-R: What did you study in college?

Gibbs: I finished three years of architecture at Montana State University in Bozeman before I realized what I enjoyed most was the presentation of it. So I switched majors and earned an art degree with an emphasis on graphic design.

S-R: What did you do after college?

Gibbs: I was hired by a Billings billboard advertising company to run their design department. Next, I went to work for an architectural company, doing presentation work. Then I had my own design studio for nine years. That was followed by a 5-year stint in Southern California, working for AST Research, the first company to develop enhancement boards for computers. Afterward, my girlfriend and I backpacked around the world for a year and a half before moving here.

S-R: Why did you decide to open a gallery?

Gibbs: It wasn’t intentional. I wanted to transition from graphic art to fine art, and John Thamm, a local artist, agreed to teach me. We’d been using the main floor of a little house he owned at 908 Sherman as a studio, and one day he suggested I turn it into a gallery as a way to meet other local artists and have a place to show my own work. So I remodeled the space and named the gallery after Robert Henri’s “The Art Spirit” (1923), one of the best art books ever written.

S-R: How long were you there?

Gibbs: Six years. Because it was a small space and there were a lot of artists, I changed shows every month and developed a good following. When John decided to sell the house, I looked around and found this place. I paid $159,000 for it in 2002, and put that much more into turning it into a gallery.

S-R: You must have had confidence in the business.

Gibbs: I was scared to death. But I got in when buildings were still affordable. And I saw a potential to market Coeur d’Alene as an arts destination the way Sandpoint had done for years. We had individual entities – summer theater, an opera company and a gallery scene – but we didn’t have an umbrella organization. So I helped start the nonprofit Coeur d’Alene Arts and Culture Alliance.

S-R: Was there a moment when you finally saw Art Spirit Gallery as viable?

Gibbs: I’m still waiting for that moment (laugh). I have to sell $30,000 of art each month just to break even.

S-R: What were the best and worst times?

Gibbs: Our most successful year was 2008 because of the shows we were able to offer. That August, I had the first show ever of George Carlson’s paintings, and people flew in from all over the country. The show before that featured Beth Cavener. Since then, the recession has hurt sales, and this is shaping up to be my worst year in more than a decade.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Gibbs: Bringing artists and clients together, and promoting Coeur d’Alene’s arts culture. I’ve written $2.8 million in checks directly to artists in the past 10 years.

S-R: What do you like least?

Gibbs: The uncertainty of whether there will be enough sales to pay the bills at the end of the month.

S-R: What commission do you charge artists?

Gibbs: From one-third to one-half.

S-R: How many fine art galleries were there in Coeur d’Alene when you started 17 years ago?

Gibbs: Four or five.

S-R: And now?

Gibbs: Nine.

S-R: How is Art Spirit different?

Gibbs: We run it almost like a museum – each month we put up a completely new show featuring regional artists’ original work.

S-R: By changing shows so often, do you get a lot of people who are just curious, rather than shopping?

Gibbs: Absolutely, and that’s fine. We’re all about promoting art as part of the city’s culture. And some lookers eventually become buyers.

S-R: How many people visit the gallery?

Gibbs: The busiest days are receptions, when we get 300 or 400. On a Tuesday in winter, we may get as few as a dozen.

S-R: What’s your average sale?

Gibbs: Most are between $500 and $5,000.

S-R: Are prices negotiable?

Gibbs: Artists set the prices and we do our best to get that. But we offer a 10 percent discount if a customer buys multiple pieces.

S-R: Do you offer time payments?

Gibbs: Yes. A lot of people put 10 percent down on a piece, and it stays here until it’s paid off – usually in six months, but sometimes two or three years. Probably 60 percent of the pieces on time payment are purchases by fellow artists, because they know more about art but don’t necessarily have deep pockets or steady incomes.

S-R: What’s the outlook for art galleries in Coeur d’Alene?

Gibbs: I’m nervous about that. Our clients have typically been 50-, 60- and 70-year-olds who have now moved into their 60s, 70s and 80s. We need to figure out how to cultivate the younger set.

S-R: What’s the best reason to buy fine art?

Gibbs: Because it makes you feel good – it’s something you love to look at every day. And it won’t wear out, the way your couch does or your car does, so you can pass it on to future generations and it will keep on giving.

This interview was edited and condensed. Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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