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Galleries survive, hope to thrive

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Nicole Capozzi stands with her husband, Joshua Hogan, in their art gallery, Box Heart Expressions in Bloomfield. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Christine Frechard, owner of the Christine Frechard Gallery poses for a portrait in the Christine Frechard Gallery in Squirrel Hill, Friday. Photo taken February 15, 2013. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review

Hurt by few daily visitors and even fewer sales, Fein Art Gallery on the North Side closed its doors for good last month.

The North Side gallery owned by Stuart Epstein and Bruce Klein opened in April 2007 on East Ohio Street, just a few doors down from Pittsburgh Custom Darkroom and Bernie's Photo Center, which are both owned by Klein.

The gallery, which hosted monthly exhibits by regional artists and arts groups, also offered custom framing and stained-glass design, fabrication and installation. But in the end, the decision to close “all came down to lack of sales,” says the gallery's manager, Bob George.

Faced with a slow economy, high unemployment and a lack of discretionary income among most Pittsburghers, Fein Art Gallery is just one of several Pittsburgh art galleries to close in recent years, including Watercolors Gallery, Downtown, and Gallery Sim on the South Side.

There are galleries that have survived, but with difficulty.

Christine Frechard Gallery

Christine Frechard says she was on the brink of closing her namesake gallery in Squirrel Hill last month.

“I was ready to go out of business at the end of January,” she says. “I was half packed and out of the door — with sadness, of course — when a Belgian angel passed by. He asked to partner with me. … That happened three days before closing.”

Frechard's new partner is Belgian artist Marc Brun, who has shown his work in Pittsburgh before and owns a graphic-design firm in New Kensington called Genesis Pittsburgh.

Frechard had been looking for nearly a year without any success for a business partner to help with keeping her gallery going.

“My landlord had already found someone who would rent (the gallery space) for a higher price,” Frechard says. “Nevertheless, she strongly believed in me from the beginning, and kept telling me that this was my space, that I was a smart and successful woman, but that I was just missing a partner.”

Up until then, Frechard had tried several strategies to keep her gallery operating, since opening it in October 2009. She says she reached out a few times to collaborate with other existing art organizations.

“I was not very successful,” Frechard says. She tried selling works by artists who priced their works in a more affordable range to reach a wider audience. “It did not work,” she says.

“I realized soon that I had to change strategies to survive the recession and bring more awareness in the city,” she says.

To that end, she says the gallery had to evolve quickly into a space hosting a larger range of art forms; hosting poetry circles, jazz events, different musical performances, art lectures, even a burlesque dance show.

“People responded well to it, but it was a lot of work and not a lot of income, especially when you share (the proceeds) with all the musicians,” she says.

One constant source of income came from the Institute of International Art and Languages, a for-profit language-learning program Frechard created in 2006, which she ran from the gallery, offering beginning language classes after business hours and on weekends.

“You can learn French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Italian, German with native speakers,” Frechard says of the program. “People from Squirrel Hill and all around responded very well to it, and, thanks to the language classes, the gallery survived the recession.”

Frechard plans to continue to run the language program out of the gallery, with Brun working on advertising and promotion.

“Hopefully, the gallery will be rejuvenated by this new partnership, and we will be reaching out to more people in Pittsburgh who appreciate art,” she says.

Box Heart Expressions Gallery

Finding Pittsburghers who appreciate art as much as they do their sports teams has been the real challenge, not the recession, says Nicole Capozzi.

“The recession hasn't changed the way we go about owning and operating our business,” Capozzi says, “Pittsburgh changed it.”

She, along with husband Joshua Hogan, opened Box Heart Expressions Gallery in Bloomfield in June 2001 in the same space that used to house John Mowder's Bloomfield Artworks on Liberty Avenue. The couple has since bought the building the gallery is in and are renovating it to include additional exhibition space, a frame shop, studio and living space.

“There is no doubt that Pittsburgh offers great culture, but there remains a fundamental lack of appreciation and respect for artistic expression that prevents our art community from being integrated into the city in a way that effectively expands our art-related economy,” Capozzi says.

In that regard, Capozzi says, “There are many days when it really seems like it would be better to work one regular job, make a steady paycheck, and live a normal life.”

After opening the gallery, Capozzi says she and Hogan spent seven years working odd jobs to keep the gallery open and pay for their own living expenses. Today, she says, “the gallery maintains itself, we no longer work extra jobs to maintain the gallery, but it doesn't pay me.”

To that end, she says, “The biggest challenge in keeping an art gallery open is making the choice to do so.”

Nevertheless, she says, “We are starting to get tired. Working all day to work all night is getting hard. As we get older, we also become more aware of the sacrifices we made in our own life for the gallery. It is our whole life, and we risk everything to keep it going. Yet, it largely revolves around promoting, supporting and embracing the careers of our artists, not ourselves.”

The gallery mounts a dozen exhibitions a year, mostly of works by local and national artists, but a few by international artists, such as their annual “Art Inter/National, Here and Abroad...” series, which draws entries from all around the world.

“The artists are here, some really great artists,” Capozzi says about Pittsburgh. “But, the infrastructure for them to build a successful art career here is not. Professional artists and nonprofit organizations need the same programs that small for-profit art businesses need. When our large institutions, corporations and organizations ignore the vital role galleries play in the development of an artist's long-term career, then the entire city's arts robustness is severely limited — maybe even stagnant.

“From that stand-point, we exist because we understand our true audience, translate this understanding into artistic products and services that provide connectivity, and strive to deliver results that support a building of affinity, affection, and trust with both our artists and our customers.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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