Lights, cameras, action, and art filled two formerly empty storefront windows at 30 W. Main St. in downtown Cortez for the first time in late August. Gallery Windows, a pilot project of the Cortez Public Arts Advisory Committee (of which the author is a member), opened an exhibition space and welcomed local artists and patrons during a sidewalk gathering that introduced the visual arts in a dedicated professional arts presentation space.
The renovation of two empty storefront windows replicates a museum or gallery setting found in cities where arts are a visible factor in the local economy, and welcomed as a community asset.
Dedicated exhibition gallery space and the lack of data that could support it was addressed by the Cortez Public Arts Advisory Committee when it launched a survey/registry for local artists in 2018. It was completed in summer 2019 and the results showed that the group was sitting on a piece of valuable information from respondents in various genres – a desire or demand by artists for dedicated gallery and exhibition space.
The 120 local artists completing the survey/registry represent the suppliers of artwork that cannot be shown to the public in Cortez because the venues available to them are limited to locations not focused on the arts but on restaurant business and home décor.
Nearly half of the respondents replied that a professional exhibition space was needed in Cortez. It could facilitate exhibitions of art work produced in the region and help create the traction the arts need to play an vital role in the local economy while adding to the quality of life for residents and visitors.
The survey showed that nearly 60 percent of local respondents are 55 or older and work as visual artists. Literature was the third most engaged arts profession, identifying poetry and non-fiction memoir as the top contenders for format and content.
But the survey also showed that affordable studio and workshop space was unavailable to Cortez artists. Consequently they show and sell their work elsewhere and often work in studio spaces away from home. Durango and Mancos garner most of the market sales for Cortez artists, followed by cities such as Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Denver and Flagstaff.
As the Arts Committee began to explore creating a sustainable arts economy in the artists’ home town, the empty Main Street storefront windows emerged as a possible factor to address the missing exhibition space, while introducing the public to the artists.
Arts committee member Brenda Van Keuren saw the opportunity to develop a pilot project that addressed two challenges to the public-facing personality of the city on Main Street — no visual arts venues in combination with empty storefront windows. Together they presented a potential opportunity.
As she began working on how to merge the empty storefronts with the need for exhibition space she found support, she says. “At least three others had a similar concept in mind,” she said.
But the committee had never attempted a project of this scale or complexity. Navigating the new schematic concept was challenging, she explains. It was helped by the scrutiny and advice of the city attorney, the manager, and the various city departments during the process. “I observed great thoughtfulness on everyone’s part in this venture as we developed the strong financial package and the articulate written proposal it needed in complement with in-kind support by community members and businesses.”
She admits that the group does not know a whole lot about strength of demand, due mostly to the present lack of arts economy in the city. A survey can quantify only part of the equation. Another method for gathering feasibility data is to test the market directly, explains Van Keuren. The Gallery Windows project is an approach that addresses what is possible on a smaller, limited-service scale.
The location selected for the project is almost in the center of the busy block between The Farm Bistro and the High Desert Outdoor Gear retail business. Van Keuren worked with the building owner and the city to secure the windows for exhibition space. Montezuma Partners LLC agreed to contribute rent of the window spaces and utilities for three months.
Gallery Windows is not a typical retail business. It is not open for business during regular business hours. Instead, visitors are invited to view the work outside of the window space.
In place of an on-site sales person, the group has created a visual “key,” a flyer posted around the windows that identifies the art work, artist, price of the work and contact information.
There is also a large flyer titled, How to Buy Art. People are encouraged to text or call the artist if they want to purchase the work on exhibit.
A slew of support grew once the lease was arranged. Chris and Kim Lindell built the moveable exhibit walls after securing a contribution for the materials from Alpine Lumber in Durango. Maxx Solutions supported the project by supplying a crew who assisted in the buildout, as well. Vicinity Solutions installed the security camera system. Zumacom is supporting internet service during the Gallery Windows pilot project and Van Keuren and David Coit purchased the security camera system for use in the space. Visiting family members Chrystal Van Keuren and Terry Simms installed baseboards while Montee Van Keuren built the furnishings for the entrance area in the foyer.
“Connection with others is a blessing,” Van Keuren says. “I meet and interact with heroes and amazing people every day. But it is important to recognize, too, that the City of Cortez supported CPAAC as it fulfilled its mission in this project by enriching the cultural environment and experiences of the people of Cortez.”
Most revealing about the lack of exhibition space is the recent emergence of fine arts bronze sculptor Samantha Combs. When she responded to the survey last year she was relatively unknown here. The link to her website on the survey showed an accomplished young Cortez artist creating a vigorous and mature body of work. Influenced by her lifelong passion working with horses and her undergraduate work in equine science, Combs immortalizes her animals in cast bronze. She is represented by Equis Art Gallery in New York and Gallery Equus in Minnesota. Her work has not been seen in a professional public exhibition space in Cortez until three of her latest bronze sculptures were placed on exhibit in Gallery Windows.
Phil Conner, one of the six artists in the current exhibit, told the Four Corners Free Press that this venue project is a major accomplishment. “It would be wonderful to imagine our town as a place of galleries where artists and tourists come not just to see the beauty of the surrounding landscape but also the beauty found in the creations of the local artists.”
Lara Branca, known for her dynamic, energetic brush marks and color, is showing two Montezuma County landscapes that have not been on view in Cortez before. Wildlife and animal muralist Touria Berrada has three pieces in the exhibit. One is her first oil portrait of a woman, Calla Gypsy. It hangs near Ed Singer’s figurative painting of a traditional Navajo woman in a folding chair with two rez dogs at her feet. He uses the leitmotif often to depict his experience of reservation life at Gray Mountain, Ariz., near the Grand Canyon.
Perhaps the most iconic local image in the exhibit is the painting done by Conner of the landmark grain elevator in Dove Creek. Susan Matteson and Silvia Pina joined the exhibiting group of artists agreeing to hang their work inside in the foyer until it can be rotated out into the windows space when sales are made.
Follow the interest
A 20 percent commission on sales is paid by the artist to the Cortez Public Arts Advisory Committee pilot project fund. The commission is about 30 percent lower than today’s average gallery commissions because the opportunity to exhibit is not supported by a full retail operation.
Gallery organizers hopes to attract viewers to the exhibit space through their Facebook page, Cortez Public Arts, direct email invitations, press releases, and word of mouth.
Pina’s gold leaf and acrylic painting, Yo Tambien, became the first sale during the soft opening. “This is a great, great project. I hope people will come downtown just to walk up to the paintings and admire them.”
The project does not model after any other exhibition venues. But Van Keuren says that while walking along 5th Avenue in New York a few years ago she saw some similar elements. “Gallery Windows has all the earmarks of strong retail exhibition space, except the experience is more like windows shopping.” The interior foyer space will be open to the public during CPAAC special artsrelated events.
Van Keuren is looking into tracking foot traffic to gauge interest. “We would like to know whether this project indicates feasibility for the longer term, or if the limited-service format is just right and works for our town. Much more information will be available at the end of the project in late October.”
Karen Kristin, internationally known for her enormous architectural-scale sky replications, has submitted two Pleine Aire oil paintings for the inaugural exhibit. After the lights turned on and people gathered in front of the windows to see the exhibit for the first time, her enthusiasm was palpable.
“Here comes a great big hand-clapping response for the success of this effort in getting an art gallery exhibit on Main Street in Cortez, the first in many, many years,” she said in an email. “I loved seeing the work of all the artists . . . and I feel proud to be among them. Gallery Windows is so appreciated by the artists, and I hope the public will respond with their support, as well.”