During a recent trip to New York City, I stayed in Chelsea, home to some of the most famous art galleries in the country. I spent an entire afternoon strolling through the gallery district, viewing some of the greatest contemporary art in the world. As I watched tourists and locals alike bustling in and out of the shops and restaurants nestled among the galleries, I began to daydream about how a gallery system, even a very small one, could transform downtown Jacksonville. Southern cities like Asheville, Atlanta and Savannah all have thriving gallery systems … so why not here?

Above photo: Steve Williams is CEO of Harbinger Sign and owner of the Florida Mining Gallery.

When I got back in town, I met up with local artist and gallerist Steve Williams, CEO of Harbinger Sign, to discuss what a gallery system in Jacksonville might look like. Williams is the owner of the Florida Mining Gallery, one of the only viable contemporary art galleries in the region according to many local artists and collectors. Williams has been active in the contemporary art scene here for decades as both an artist, a galleriest and a collector. In the 1990s, he and fellow artist Jim Draper renovated a three-story Queen Anne style house in the heart of Riverside and turned it into an art gallery named Pedestrian.

“The first two shows we had,” he recalls, “I’ve never seen that many people come to an opening. I kept thinking this thing [the house] is going to fall down.” Pedestrian came and went like many galleries do, but Williams carried on with his mission to support the arts in Jacksonville.

Since the ‘90s, he has seen a growing energy and desire among the community for the kind of exhibition space only an art gallery can offer. “Some people just think of a gallery as a luxury item, but it’s really about investing in the community. Every single piece of art that’s sold — even if you buy just one painting or sculpture or photograph once a year — goes back into the community.” If that starts happening on a broad scale, the message that Jacksonville buys artwork can have a huge impact on the city, Williams says.

Look at other cities such as Asheville that have really taken off in the last 20 years. Williams remembers in the late ‘90s when there wasn’t much of a gallery scene, but there was this one gallery that stood out and nourished art culture. “Blue Spiral was killing it,” he says. Following its success came dozens of new art galleries to Asheville, and now, he says, “There’s this little system downtown, and people come there for that.”

And this is where art can really make some waves in Jacksonville’s economy: tourism and business. “When you have these galleries, people want to visit. It really becomes a tourist differentiator,” Williams says. “Also, when businesses are looking to move here, they are definitely looking at what kind of arts and cultural scene we have. The more sophisticated ones will look for a gallery system.” Investing in art is one of the greatest economic engine boosters we can make, he says.

For the working artist, a supportive gallery can be the difference between growing a career or struggling to make ends meet. Galleries provide the business services that can be far too time-consuming for the artist. “People sometimes just want to cut the gallery out,” Williams says. “But its actually hurting the artist when you do that, because it’s such a huge job. They don’t have time to focus on their work if they’re working all of these different departments — marketing, sales, inventory management, shipping and exhibition space.”

American realist painter and University of North Florida professor Jason John somewhat agrees, especially for those who are just starting out. Right out of college, John began working with galleries. “If you’re a young artist trying to do all that — marketing, trying to find collectors, bartering, setting the price — it’s easier to start with a gallery,” says John. “I’m not saying it can’t be done, but if you calculate how much time goes into it, you may not have time for your actual work. I’m not necessarily pro-gallery, but I know it can be really difficult.” But there’s a price: a gallery typically takes 50 percent of the artist’s sale, John says.

He says that in order for there to be a gallery system here in Jacksonville, “We would need to make it a destination, and attract a lot of collectors like they have in Santa Fe. There would have to be an immense amount of money.” He points out that although we have a lot of artists living here, it’s not so much about how many artists reside in a town. To make Jacksonville a gallery destination, we would need to attract big art from around the world. Even in New York, it doesn’t matter if the artist is local. It’s about the galleries near each other and convenient for the collectors. John shows his work in both Los Angeles and Chicago, both cities with large gallery systems that draw collectors.

Collector Charles Gilman III, president of the board of the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art, certainly knows the ins and outs of collecting through a sophisticated gallery system. Although he has a great appreciation for some of the art coming out of Jacksonville, he still regularly visits New York, San Francisco and Paris to collect. As a serious collector of photography, these three gallery systems are critical destinations. His mother, Sondra Gilman, has been a collector for as long as he can remember, and she owns one of the most extensive collections of art photography in the world.

Sondra began collecting paintings and sculptures in the late 1960s, and Charles remembers that he didn’t always enjoy tagging along with his parents. “I used to go to all the galleries on the weekends. It was a little fun, but mostly torture. To throw a kid in a car and make him go to galleries all day Saturday.” But the exposure to fine art left an indelible mark on Charles. Curating his own collection as an adult became a source of great pleasure.

Charles sees the art market simply as an industry. “The way the gallery system functions in New York is like any other industry. You have the key players there: artist, gallerist and collector. And if you take a player away, it’s going to be weaker. But those are the three components that you need.”

“I would agree that there is no gallery system in Jacksonville,” Charles says, but he’s quick to point out that it doesn’t mean there isn’t a vibrant art community. Even so, from a collector’s perspective, the most convenient places to buy art, whether from a Chicago artist or a Jacksonville artist, are concentrated in a few very large markets.

For Charles, collecting photography and sculpture is very gratifying, but he doesn’t foresee opening an exhibition space of his own. His gallery will always be contained on the walls of his home. The reasons that he collects are straightforward and simple: “I do it because it’s fun. There’s this treasure hunt feel to it. I like to discover.”

The treasure of discovery is a big part of the contemporary art gallery experience: discovery of beauty, reflection and community for viewers and collectors, and discovery of talent and career paths for artists. Without a gallery system, where does that leave us here on the First Coast? It leaves us with a lot of buried treasure with no map to find it.

You can see Jason John’s work at his exhibition, Crossing the Threshold of Self, this month at The Florida Mining Gallery. It opens September 30. For more information visit floridaminingallery.com

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Jason John is a nationally known American Realist painter and professor at the University of North Florida.

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Charles and Marilyn Gilman in their Jacksonville home.

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“If you’re a young artist trying to do all that — marketing, trying to find collectors, bartering, setting the price — it’s easier to start with a gallery.”
— Jason John

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