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Local art galleries try to master fine art of survival

Charlotte artist Andy Braitman remembers when someone might wander into the Jerald Melberg Gallery on Sharon Amity Road, see a painting of his they liked and purchase it right there. Times have changed.

"People just don't walk off the street and buy paintings anymore," Braitman said.

Even as the NoDa and South End districts host gallery crawls tonight, members of Charlotte's art community say their business is changing rapidly. In the face of tough economic times, some gallery owners have moved to online sales or coupled art with other lines of business.

In the funky NoDa neighborhood on North Davidson Street near uptown, the very definition of "gallery" has changed, said neighborhood association President Hollis Nixon.

In the past two years, NoDa has lost three traditional galleries: Center of the Earth, Beet Contemporary Crafts & Functional Art and The Boulevard at NoDa. Now, artists are more likely to show their work in restaurants, bars, even hair salons.

Orange Olive Hair Salon in NoDa features work by a different local artist every month. Manager Heidi Cantrell said the artists get the full profit from any sale. The salon, like other neighborhood businesses, is doing whatever it can to keep art alive in the district, Cantrell said.

Pura Vida, an art shop that sells everything from jewelry and folk art to higher-end pieces, moved to NoDa last October. Manager Teresa Hernandez opened the original location in Plaza Midwood in 2004. Hernandez said since 2008 she's sold mostly jewelry, folk art and other lower-priced pieces, an adaptation she's seen throughout NoDa.

Said Nixon: "The days of a gallery where a $5,000 to $10,000 painting may be hanging on the wall are over. People just don't have the expendable income."

Across town in South End, galleries are changing their business models to keep a presence in the art world. Ted Boyd, Director of Historic South End for Charlotte Center City Partners, said some South End galleries that closed, such as Studio 21, have moved their business online. Others combine art sales with different products. For example, Sophia's Fine Art is now part of Boutique Home, where art is sold alongside furniture and home accessories.

Larry Elder, owner of Elder Gallery in South End, said he thinks struggling galleries need to consider another option: selling art that costs $500 rather than $5,000. But even though he has tried to sell high-quality art at lower prices, Elder says he sees few other galleries doing the same.

"A lot of people in this industry refuse to compromise," Elder said.

Braitman said some gallery owners he's worked with won't sell less expensive art because they worry previous customers will think the work they bought there has lost value.

Other gallery owners, like Kellie Scott of RedSky Gallery and Christie Taylor of Hodges Taylor, said it isn't fair to the artists to cut prices to stay afloat because works of art aren't mass-produced. Scott said she's found other ways to save money and make up for lower sales.

"Whenever times get tough, I work lots more hours and I have less staff," Scott said. "That's where we tighten our belts."

Galleries that are selling less expensive work have had success. The Charlotte Art League in South End offers its space to local artists who can't afford to show in a more expensive gallery. As a result, prices are lower and business is better, said board member Sandra Gray.

"I would say if anything, (business) has picked up," Gray said. "Our work is more affordable than most places."

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