As someone who never misses an IDADA First Friday, in recent years I've noticed the rise in venues that would be categorized as alternative spaces. Looking at the FF map, you've got to wonder why this has happened and so few commercial galleries remain.
In the art world, an alternative space is a space other than a traditional commercial gallery venue used for the public exhibition of artwork. Coffee shops, bank lobbies, former schools and old warehouses have been converted into temporary gallery spaces and have become popular places to show work. Contrary to traditional galleries, alternative spaces generally do not hold inventory, do not represent artists, don't have sales staff and frequently show work not found in commercial galleries.
While many people attending art openings on a First Friday don't draw the distinction, First Friday venues are as varied as the art they show. The Indy gallery scene has dramatically morphed over the past two decades. Once dominated by traditional retail galleries such as Patrick King Contemporary Art, On View Downtown (I'm going back a bit here) and more recently by Ruschman Gallery, Artbox, and WugLaku's Studio & Garage (names now from the past), it appears the appetite for alternative spaces has grown with artists looking for options to show and the public's growing appetite to see their work.
This shift has probably taken place for variety of reasons. In my opinion, the recent economic downturn and online selling are the two biggest factors. It's no secret; starting in about 2008, the weak economy caused many commercial galleries across the country to close. Combine this with the steady growth of internet shopping for just about anything, including art, and it stacks the deck against the independent gallery owner. In the past, the dealer, based now on what appears to be an antiquated model, represented a stable of artists that were contractually obligated to show with, and sell through, the gallery. This was before the internet pulled back the curtain, much like Dorothy's dog Toto did in the Wizard of Oz, exposing what before had been hidden from the public, and granting instant access. Online galleries, online auctions and eBay have probably forever changed the dynamics of the marketplace.
This is not to suggest traditional galleries are doing anything wrong. On the contrary, I operated my gallery based on this very model for over 25 years. Locally, Editions Limited, Long-Sharpe Gallery and Kuaba Gallery to name a few, are top-notch commercial galleries, offering quality art, advice and services that often only a dealer-based gallery can provide. Fortunately for the customers they serve and artists they represent, galleries remain in business precisely because collectors find value in what they offer and appreciate their expertise.
But if you look at current trends, the tide, at least for now appears to be changing. Indy Indie Artist Colony, Mt. Comfort, New Day Meadery, 3 Mass and similar venues are popping up across the city, offering an alternative to the mainstream gallery experience. While alternative spaces do have a tendency to come and go and keep irregular hours, most offer a no-strings approach that many artists find appealing. Even if you look at some of the current mainstays of the local art scene: Harrison Center for the Arts, 924 Gallery, Murphy Center and the Stutz Building, I would suggest they have more in common with alternative spaces than commercial galleries. On any given First Friday, they attract large and loyal crowds and there never seems to be shortage of artwork. Most artists are making their own sales or networking for future business. Many are building their careers through their own initiatives, not relying on the gallery system to do it for them. Some might point out that there just aren't enough commercial galleries to meet the demand for exhibition space today and so what's an artist with a studio full of work to do?
Whatever the reason, I think it's safe to say the alternative space is here to stay. I personally appreciate the variety in the current art scene and it provides opportunities for artists you might not otherwise see. There may be fewer commercial galleries now, but with an improving economy and despite the internet, I'm confident you'll see more traditional galleries return to the scene - which is good for everyone.