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Mark Ruschman: the exit interview 

Mark Ruschman's announcement on June 12 that he was closing the fine art gallery he had operated since 1984 sent a collective shudder through the Indianapolis arts scene. Ruschman and his assistant gallery director, Telene Edington, had, first on Massachusetts Avenue and then on Alabama Street, developed a business model for representing and selling the works of Indiana visual artists that seemed built to last. But the prolonged economic downturn was ultimately too much for the gallery to bear.

Ruschman's involvement in the arts scene extended beyond the span of his gallery. He was a prime mover in the creation of IDADA, the Indianapolis Downtown Artists and Dealers Association, which sponsors First Fridays, the phenomenally successful series of gallery openings involving 25 venues on the first Friday of every month.

The response to Ruschman's news from artists and colleagues associated with the gallery was swift and heartfelt. "Everyone I talk with is in a state of shock on hearing about the closing of Mark's gallery," wrote painter Robert Eagerton, who was represented by Ruschman, in an e-mail.

Betsy Stirratt, another Ruschman artist, called the closing "devastating news," adding, "I have been represented by Ruschman Gallery for over 10 years and the support and assistance of both Mark and Telene has been essential to building my career. It is very difficult to be a successful artist in Indiana with our limited resources and opportunities. This loss is enormous to me as an individual, but also to the culture of our state."

Lee Marks, a private dealer in fine art photography who has collaborated with Ruschman, e-mailed, "If you believe the arts are an important component of economic development, then we're losing a star attraction."

Ruschman spoke with NUVO last week about his gallery and the state of the arts in Indianapolis.

Ruschman

I graduated from Indiana University with a degree in teaching art. I moved back up to Indianapolis and I was living downtown and watching the scene that was happening along Massachusetts Avenue. I always had an interest in the business of art, even though I didn't know anything about it. I didn't have experience working in art galleries. But when I started going to openings at Patrick King and the Cunningham galleries, I caught the bug. So I contacted Bob Beckmann. He helped me find a space on Massachusetts Avenue and I white-boxed it.

Having trained as an artist and not being very good at it, at that time, at that age, I also wasn't drawn to teaching. So I decided to give the business a shot. Over the years I did more right than wrong.

On his business model:

I had an idea of what type of gallery I wanted to have. I was traveling a lot to New York City and visiting galleries in the East Village. That was when that whole scene was happening; galleries were popping up in storefronts and some were only in business for a short while. In some respects, I used that guerilla mentality in my business - except I stayed put.

The idea was to show a group of artists' works representing exclusively this area and not getting sidetracked by other things - staying true to the core mission of selling fine art. My business model is pretty much the same as it was then: doing monthly exhibitions of one or two artists' works, not selling a whole lot of other services. My passion has always been selling contemporary fine art.

I think my business model played to the strengths of the city. I think there was a desire to support the local art scene. And so I represented a lot of artists who had some connection to the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana. That pool of talent was available and I tried my best to showcase their work in my gallery. The public reciprocated. I gave them what I think they were looking for and took pride in that.

On the changing scene:

We've come a long way since the early '80s. At that time it was all a grass-roots effort. The resources of the Arts Council and the city government weren't available to us, so it was all just business people coming together to create a scene.

Fast-forward 20 years and it's a completely different situation. Mayor Peterson's cultural tourism initiative and the involvement of the Arts Council created a situation where you had for-profits and nonprofits working together to create streams of revenue even though money doesn't come from the Arts Council to a for-profit gallery. It's been a strong collaboration.

But it's also very fragile. You have to keep your eye on the ball.

When I opened a gallery and didn't do a lot of research about what the market was like, it was an act of passion. We were young and could go for broke. There were opportunities to rebound if we needed that. Today, the stakes are much higher. Now I think anybody coming in to open a gallery would look at the costs of doing business - whether they were renting a building or buying and building out. You have to look carefully at all the costs. So if I'm coming into the market and I'm looking at the costs of doing business, I'm also looking at what kind of support system is in place, what kind of government or administration am I going to be interacting with. If you look at the situation right now, it would give you reasons to pause.

A couple of years ago, the Arts Council was receiving full funding, there were public art works coming to the city, there were marketing opportunities through the CIB [Capital Improvement Board]. And while none of these things directly affected Ruschman Gallery on a daily basis, in my mind they all add up to an environment that I'm doing business in.

On the art market:

There's no doubt the business has changed drastically. What I'm doing is competing for peoples' time and money. It's a challenge to have them carve out the time to come into the gallery and spend time looking at art. I'm also competing against other things they could be buying, like high-end computer equipment, expensive cars, vacations - all other lifestyle purchases. My competitor isn't the gallery down the street, but it's Best Buy or a Saab dealership.

The collectors I was selling to 25 years ago are not only not buying as much work anymore, they're actually downsizing. They're giving work to museums and family members, or even selling, in some cases. I also recognize that the next generation of collectors isn't as numerous and they aren't as active. I'm not saying there aren't collectors, and I'm very appreciative of those we have, but I think it's safe to say that the next generation has a lot of other interests.

On Telene Edington:

I first met Telene during the first days of the gallery on Massachusetts Avenue. She came to work 21 years ago and she's been with me ever since. She's been a big part of the gallery's success. She knows everyone in town, which is a big help. This business is all about personal relationships and networking: working one-on-one with people and helping them to feel comfortable expressing to you what they're looking for. Telene's always been good at that.

Life goes on:

I really don't have any plans after I close on July 31. I didn't close the gallery with another job in mind. The decision for me was made pretty quickly, after I put all the information together in my head and talked it over with Telene. I didn't want rumors out there. I contacted all my artists and visited those who lived locally. I have some projects and commissions that will keep me busy for the next few months. After that, I'll figure out what to do next.

Many of the artists I represent have been with me for 20 years. These are longstanding relationships and the gallery has been one component in helping them build careers. Once you're represented by a gallery, the gallery takes care of all business matters associated with your creative process. The painting, photograph or sculpture comes into the gallery and we handle the sale. When an artist goes to a gallery they're looking to give up the business end of things so they can spend more time in the studio.

With the gallery closing there's a bit of apprehension in this particular market. Artists are wondering where they're going to go. Many of them have other galleries across the country. Some may not show locally for a while until they find the right situation. That would be a big loss for the city of Indianapolis and Indiana. Given that many of them are in the latter part of their career, they have some very difficult decisions to make. It's not unlike other businesses in town that close and you wonder what happens to all the employees. You have this entity that has been here all these years - monetarily, emotionally and in all other respects. If it goes away, you have to fill that void somehow.

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