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Accessible art: A work in progress

In the two years that art&jules was open, over 100 artists and their work passed through the Gottingen Street gallery. While its space is now empty and its doors shut, gallery owner Keegan Whalen is committed to revitalizing the business in an online format.

“When we first decided to do it, we thought most of the artists wouldn’t be interested, because you don’t have that fancy brick and mortar setting with a glass of wine,” says Whalen, 24. “We were shocked, actually, at the number of artists that were interested in staying on with us.”

Of the 40 artists who were showing their work at art&jules, a little more than three-quarters have agreed to participate in an online setting. Whalen charges each artist a flat fee: $65 plus HST for six months of online presence on the art&jules website. In exchange, he drives people to the site through various local marketing and email campaigns that will hopefully attract people who wouldn’t normally go to a gallery event.

“A lot of people like art but they don’t feel like they know enough about it to go into a gallery,” says Whalen. “It’s a fairly intimidating thing, especially if everybody’s kind of dressed up and a little avant-garde in a cultural artsy fartsy way … that was one thing we were really trying to get away from, and I think we did. Because art really can be enjoyed by anybody.”

This arrangement remains consistent with the way Whalen, along with his artist mother, ran the physical gallery. Artists would pay $65 per month to display their work, and any sales were split 70/30 with 70 per cent going to the artist and 30 per cent to the gallery—a business plan unusual in the province.

“Most galleries run on 50/50—that’s standard,” says Whalen, who graduated from Dalhousie with an economic degree in 2007. “And 60/40 is generous.”

“(Fifty-fifty splits are) preposterous. It’s not fair for the artist, when it’s your time, your effort, your energy, and your creativity. A piece of you goes into this and you give 50 per cent of it away because someone puts it on a wall and has a show? The artist does the work, the artist should be compensated.”

Whalen acknowledges that perhaps that kind of business strategy was part of the reason the physical gallery could not remain financially viable, forcing him to close. Still, though, Whalen is confident that if he had kept the status quo he wouldn’t have attracted the same caliber of artists and he “wouldn’t have slept the same at night.”

By offering such a good deal for artists, art&jules gave artists across the province the opportunity to get real representation in a gallery—something that is quite difficult to do when you’re first starting out.

“As an artist getting your first few shows is really difficult unless you’re a genius off the bat, and most people aren’t,” says Whalen. “Part of getting established and being taken seriously is getting a few shows on your resume.”

Of course, the new format will pose some challenges for Whalen. A photograph of a painting or sculpture on a computer will present a different feel compared to actually seeing it up close. Whalen says he’s trying to get around it as best he can but, ultimately, “it won’t ever be the real thing.”

The WordPress website also doesn’t offer the same kind of variability that Whalen would ideally like to have, however he accepts that he can’t afford to pay a webmaster $20 an hour to write the HTML code every time an artists adds a new piece of work. With WordPress, Whalen can tweak it himself anytime.

Whalen is also still figuring out whether social media can play a role in the gallery’s online presence. He hasn’t updated the gallery’s Facebook page since it first opened, and Whalen is hesitant to approach tools like Facebook and Twitter until he figures out a way to do it tastefully.

“I’m certain it would make thing more accessible and make people more active,” he says. “But there’s a certain way to go about it and I didn’t feel we could properly. It would end up coming off cheap and that’s the last thing you want art to do.”

While the gallery’s transition to an online realm will provide a public forum and a market, art&jules’ presence isn’t strictly confided to the internet. Whalen still plans to host gallery events at venues like the Halifax Club on Hollis Street. This mix of platforms from which Whalen can promote the artists seems to open art to a broader market overall.

“As it stands right now, art for the average person isn’t all that accessible,” says Keegan. “The galleries need to be more pro-active to reaching out to people.”

art&jules’ new website should be fully up and running at the beginning of April.. For now, check them out atartandjules.wordpress.com

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