Phoenicia’s Arts Upstairs gallery may have breathed its last

Local artists are mourning Arts Upstairs, Phoenicia’s community art gallery, which has closed down after 14 years of operation. Margaret Owen, a founding member who took over the running of the gallery along with a group of member artists in 2011, said, “A part of me is gone.”

After a period of financial struggle, Owen was preparing to hand the space over to Phoenicia resident Lynn Davidson, who wanted to renovate and reopen with an eye to making the gallery self-sustaining.

In the midst of the transition, with the walls and rooms already emptied out, artists who had planned to participate learned that Davidson’s vision involved more of an up-front monetary and work commitment than they were willing to make. The lease expired at the end of January without a tenant in place.

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“I still think about going there,” said Phoenicia artist Ann Byer, “and then realize, ‘Oh, it’s no longer there.’ I did as much as I could, without resorting to financial resources which I don’t have, to keep it afloat. It was a great outlet for me personally. Margaret was phenomenal, to keep it going as long as she did.”

After several years as a commercial art gallery, the space was taken over in 2004 by Owen and seven other artists. “I was tired of galleries where you bring slides, and you get in or you don’t,” explained Owen. “We decided anyone could bring their art.” Artists paid $10 per piece to show their work, and the gallery took 35 percent (25 for members) of the sale price on any item sold. The income was usually just enough to pay the bills. A new show went up each month, with a potluck opening on the third Saturday, usually packed with artists, their friends, and out-of-town visitors.

“It’s always been a place where people come and have a good time,” said Owen. “We had people who have never shown their art anywhere. A veterinarian from Staten Island had a solo show. The gallery created a community of artists.”

When Owen’s husband, Gavin, also an artist and one of the founding members, died in 2014, she dedicated one of the gallery’s rooms to his work as a memorial. “It’s a nice space, like a home with all the different rooms, more comfortable than a big open gallery,” said Owen. “I could hang as much art as I had, salon style, and never ran out of space. And you never knew what you would get — some of it was weird — but we had something that other galleries didn’t have.”

The members were responsible for gallery-sitting on weekends and hanging the art for each show. After a few years, some members dropped out. The gallery was on the verge of closing in 2011, when Owen decided to take charge, running the day-to-day operations and seeking new members who would pay $50 a month, in return for hanging as much of their own work as they wanted, plus an annual solo show in a side room. A group of 12 formed, and the gallery did well for a year. Funds continued to come in from concerts, readings, and classes held in the space — including a memorable jazz series and an annual spoken word reading. But membership soon began to decline, along with sales. Owen would sometimes have to pay part of the rent out of her own earnings from selling her hand-dyed and hand-painted shirts, scarves, and other clothing. Attendance at the openings dwindled, although the Chicken Night community potluck, with live music, was held once a month at the gallery and drew a substantial crowd.

Over the past four years, Davidson had volunteered as a gallery-sitter and had displayed art she had bought in Cuba and was trying to sell. “It’s been painful watching the gallery’s decline,” she commented recently. “Artists were leaving; the place looked really shabby. I ached to bring it back to the thriving gallery it used to be.” Her offer to help came when the membership was down to six, and Owen had depleted her savings to fix frozen pipes in her house. “Lynn said she wanted to invest in the gallery,” Owen recalled. “I had been asking for this, and no one wanted to help.”

Davidson planned to close the gallery for two months to paint and plaster, as well as to replace the steep staircase at the entrance, which she felt discouraged visitors. Although she did not yet have a lease, she had the rooms cleared of art and furniture so she could jump into renovation on February 1.

A number of artists indicated an interest in the project. But when Davidson requested a $700 commitment for the coming year from prospective members, they balked at the request. (She notes that this amount was only $100 more per year than what they were previously charged, and she would waive the 25 percent sales commission.) Soon after, the landlord offered a lease Davidson described as “convoluted,” and she abruptly cancelled her plans.

“I think Lynn went in with good intentions,” said West Shokan ceramicist and gallery member Astrid Nordness, “but I don’t think she thought it through very well. I don’t think she understood that it was a community space. She didn’t want to know about anything that didn’t make money, and she scared a lot of us off. ”

Davidson points out, “I offered to keep the gallery going. I loved the gallery, and it was a great asset to our community. However, I couldn’t do it alone, and the gallery eventually needed to be self-sufficient. It has been a place where people could hang out, but that didn’t pay the bills. I really don’t think they understood that rent, electric, phone all had to be paid. I never offered to be their patron.”

“I’m sad,” said Patricia Charnay, a gallery member for several years. “The gallery was a focal point for the community and a great place for music, poetry, all kinds of things going on there. We need a center for the arts in Phoenicia.” Owen would like to create a community center in town, but admits that the gallery, situated over two storefronts, is not the ideal location because of the stairs.

She’s already involved in a new project — a fundraiser for the Reservoir Food Pantry in Boiceville. “I’ve been getting food there, and the people running it are wonderful,” she said. “One day it was below zero, and they were freezing because they only have enough electricity for the fridges, not for heaters.” She is meeting with the food pantry board to discuss organizing a food-themed benefit.

Owen had been selling her painted clothing from a room at the gallery and has now moved her items into Mélange, the store downstairs. When the Phoenicia Open Market reopens at the former pharmacy in May, she will again have a stall at the craft market. But the loss of the gallery is painful to her and to the other artists.

“I’m in total shock,” said Nordness. “I spent 12 years sitting in that gallery every Friday afternoon. I met such wonderful people. I hope we can keep that spirit going in some way, shape, or form. It was one of the best artistic experiences I’ve had in my life.”

Anyone interested in joining in with the fundraiser for Boiceville’s Reservoir Food Pantry may contact Margaret Owen at paintingsilk@gmail.com