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Island galleries, shops build inventory to brace for seasonal rush

By Staff | Dec 3, 2014

Watercolorist Rod Busch of the Tower Gallery in Sanibel. Craig Garrett

As seasonal visitors and islanders surge back to Sanibel and Captiva, artists are gearing up at local galleries, nonprofits and shops.

That’s because the five months that begin in December are the most profitable for artists and gallery owners. It’s also the time that artists gain the most notoriety, which pushes web sales and helps them access more galleries. Dozens of Sanibel and Captiva artists survive solely on the work they produce in island studios and cooperatives.

Island shops and art cooperatives bulk up inventory in anticipation of seasonal visitors, selecting new artists, traveling the world looking for trends and positioning the islands as a hotspot for art before the season begins this month.

The Tower Gallery, for instance, has 22 artists selling their work at the historic cooperative that dates to the 1980s. Each artist bulks up his/her inventory in expectancy of the seasonal rush, said Rod Busch, a Tower Gallery artist recently working one of his six required shifts a month to help staff the popular and brightly colored gallery on Tarpon Bay that was once the studio of the renowned artist Ikki Matsumoto. The gallery building, its interior a mix of striking artwork, will celebrate its 100-year anniversary in 2015.

Southwest Florida, Busch said, is a flourishing place for artists, collectors and casual buyers.

Maureen Watson Craig Garrett

“And that’s wonderful for us,” said Busch, a watercolorist who on Nov. 25 had sold several hundred dollars worth of gallery art to vacationers seeking Christmas gifts. The purchases were a mix of Tower artists.

Tower and other island art shops, galleries and nonprofits generally see sales begin to recede in late April.

Tower Gallery artists share duties like paying the bills and ordering supplies to keep the enterprise humming and braced for visitors, said JoAnne Bedient, a Tower ceramic artist for the last 23 years. Artists in Tower are accepted by a consensus of the cooperative, and each pays a percentage of sales to cover rent and utilities. She said artists work year-round to build inventory, but focus more closely on their crafts entering September. The month of March, she said, is the peak for Tower sales, when lines of the curious and serious collectors can tail out the door. Sales in peak season total some $35,000.

An artist’s goal, Bedient said, “is to always try to have something new.”

The Hirdie Girdie gallery is another island cooperative whose artists gear up for the season. The gallery closes in late April, reopens in November with the anticipation of the seasonal surge of buyers. Hirdie-Girdie Gallery artists produce works in watercolors, acrylics, wood, metals, glass, photography and sculpture, among others. The gallery will host an early evening Christmas reception Dec. 8.

Behind the curtain, and what makes a gallery work or not, is the interplay between the artists, several involved in island artwork said. Juried committees at the cooperatives seek new and edgy artwork but, as importantly, artists that fit together like a puzzle, said Denny Souers, whose photographic artwork shows at the Hirdie Girdie.

“It’s like a big family,” he said.

Most of the artwork produced and sold in Sanibel and Captiva is not considered souvenir art, though many purchases could be deemed as such with visitors ballooning the islands through winter months. Serious island artwork can fetch many thousands of dollars, though most is targeted to average buyers.

Maureen Watson at her Sanibel shop searches the world for edgy and eclectic artwork from places like New York City and Santa Fe, she said. A serious advocate and buyer, Watson closes her Watson MacRae Gallery in September to strip and renovate the shop off Periwinkle Way. This year she added movable walls to position the work she sells.

Buyers, Watson said, “Want new things to look at. We’re a visual business, more like theater.” Watson will add Europe to her search list in the 2015-2016 season, seeking evermore edgy art, she said. Along with new artwork and other projects, Watson in December will present handmade holiday artwork and southern themed events.

“People,” Watson said, “can get bored with the same stuff.”

The efforts of island artists, cooperatives and shops are already paying dividends, with sales beginning to surge. Cindy Guerry of Panama City was one of the interested shoppers recently at the Tower Gallery.

“I’m an artist,” she said, “and so many times, in places around Florida, it’s real kitschy art. Not here. It’s much broader and more interesting. This is very nice.”