As local art openings go, that of Take Out, scheduled for this Friday, May 23, at the Ellen Curlee Gallery, promises to break a few rules.
For one, the show is immense: It will feature 100 eight-by-ten-inch photographic works. Also, the works are priced to move at $100 each. The artists' names will not be displayed, and gallerygoers can take their purchases home with them that evening.
"Instant gratification," Ellen Curlee says. "Our hope is that by the run of the show there will be no work on the walls. It will be a metaphorical deconstruction of this space."
Oh, and that leads to the most remarkable thing about Take Out: It's the Ellen Curlee Gallery's final show. When it's over, the gallery will close its doors for good.
"This has been a fabulous ride," says Curlee, who'll shutter the gallery on June 14. "I cannot tell you how supportive the community has been. So in a way the show is an homage to that community and also to this space that we're deserting."
Since opening the gallery in June 2005, Curlee has made a lot of friends on the city's art scene (including me). For Take Out, Curlee is calling on artists to produce photographic works that deal loosely with the theme of composition and decampment. Though many of the exhibiting artists, such as Erik Spehn, Brandon Anschultz and Kim Humphries, work in other mediums, plenty of others, such as John Pfahl and Elijah Gowin, are photographers who have previously exhibited at Curlee's gallery.
"Some are famous, some are not, but they're all artists with whom we've worked in the past, artists who've helped us in some way," explains Curlee. "The works will all be signed on the back, so when somebody buys something, they won't know who the artist is. They're buying it because they truly fell in love with it, not because it's a good deal."
By design, the show will diminish as it progresses, until ultimately there is not a single photograph on the wall — the gallerygoing community will literally have deconstructed Curlee's gallery.
"I'm hearing about the show from people I don't even know," says Dana Turkovic, an independent curator who has worked at the gallery for the past two years. "There's something about the drama of the gallery closing that's brought out real interest."
If the closing of Curlee's gallery has ignited a rush of curiosity about the show, it has also raised a question: How is it that in the midst of one of the most robust arts scene in recent memory, one of St. Louis' premier galleries can no longer stay afloat?
The answer, it appears, resides in a confluence that is at once social, economic and cultural.
The Ellen Curlee Gallery was always a bit unorthodox. For starters, in a town that didn't have a commercial gallery devoted to traditional fine-art photography, Curlee concentrated her efforts on contemporary international fine-art photography — a rarefied niche.
"My thinking was that St. Louis needed a photography venue — it had been a long time, and no one was addressing contemporary photography [in a commercial gallery]," says Curlee. "In retrospect, I think I underestimated my market. I sliced the market too thin; I niched myself too tightly."
Working out of a tiny Washington Avenue space, Curlee established herself as a discerning curator whose intellectually sophisticated shows featured artists tackling similar themes from wildly different perspectives. Often pairing local photographers with foreign talent, her unflinchingly modern aesthetic featured digital, abstract and video works.
What was missing from the roster were the more traditional silver process prints (think Edward Weston and Ansel Adams) favored by many collectors, which are the bread and butter of many a commercial gallery. And though several local collectors did buy works from Curlee, the quality of her shows was rarely reflected in sales.
Another factor was the gallery's em-phasis on outside talent. Whereas many local galleries exhibit almost exclusively homegrown works, Curlee's practice of pairing St. Louis artists with their national and international counterparts came at a steep price, in the form of shipping and insurance costs.
"My idea was, 'Oh, some of this stuff is really expensive, but all I have to do is sell two and I'm paying for my cost' — that was kind of my premise," she says. "Well, sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn't."
Those same shipping expenses prevented out-of-town artists from sending more than a few works, meaning that Curlee's inventory — a dealer's economic lifeblood — grew very slowly.
"The show you have up may or may not sell well. But if I sell five paintings from a show, I might sell five from my inventory as well," notes Bruno David, whose eponymous gallery specializes in local artists. "Based on my conversation with a client, I'll invite them to view pieces from my inventory. It's why I have a private viewing room. That's where it all happens."
Ultimately, Curlee's Washington Avenue address, a seemingly ideal location, yielded precious little foot traffic. The rent was high, and with the exception of the Philip Slein Gallery across the street, there were few other nearby arts venues to create a critical mass for gallerygoers.
Obviously, it's a significant loss. That gallery was a lot less conservative than a lot of commercial galleries," White Flag Projects director Matt Strauss says of Curlee's gallery. "But there is no gallery in St. Louis that I would not be surprised to see fold tomorrow: It's all that precarious, it's all that fragile and it's all based on an individual's desire to continue to eat it [economically]. I'm very sorry to see it go, and I hope it finds some other life somewhere else, somehow else."
In fact, Curlee is already planning a new venture. Rather than another commercial gallery, though, Curlee envisions something of a salon.
"I'm not going to limit myself to photography anymore," says Curlee, who is in negotiations for another space on Washington Avenue. "My goal is to do some small, edgy projects. I will have room for a little gallery, and I might do installations for the entire space."
She wants her reincarnation, titled Ellen Curlee Projects, to feature video art, an expanded inventory and possibly a sitting room with a library. She's also thinking about collaborating with other galleries.
"I want it to evolve naturally. I don't want to build too fast, because I want to promote my artists so that their art can be shown [in galleries] out of the city," says Curlee, who intends to hold her first event in October. "I'll be streamlined, bare-bones and free to do interesting and fun things. I want to play more.
"Because this space," she says, indicating her gallery, "is kind of serious and stuffy. But art should be about playfulness and experimentation. I want to create a place where those kind of things can just happen, and I'm not so worried about the bottom line."