More closings and a question: Can galleries survive here?

It's been a crappy year for the arts as the lousy economy has pushed venerable institutions like the Rhode Island School of Design to cut staff, Brown University's Bell Gallery to leave a curatorial position unfilled, and galleries in places like New York and Boston to shutter in droves. The latest bad news is that Stairwell Gallery on Broadway and Yes Gallery + Studio in Warren are closing.

Stairwell co-founders Natalie Purkey and Haley O'Connor are shy about discussing the details with me, but Purkey says "[we're] relinquishing our storefront space, and will be continuing Stairwell projects in a more free-form manner." Think something like the exhibits they curated at Boston University late last year and in New York. In the meantime, they plan to focus on their own artmaking. O'Connor e-mails that she's "headed west to participate in the Mountain School of the Arts in LA. Natalie has a few shows lined up, the first in Baltimore this winter."

Stairwell launched on America Street in 2005 and moved to Broadway the following year. Along with 5 Traverse Gallery, which Jesse Smith started off Wickenden Street in 2007, Stairwell became one of the most exciting galleries in Providence's small scene. "Natalie and I tried to fill a gap in this conversation between Providence artist[s] and the larger creative community," O'Connor writes, "by showcasing work curated without commerce in mind (yet in a gallery setting) to encourage collectors and neighbors to join in on the dialog."

Shows featured a circle of talented young(ish) Providence artists — Brian Chippendale, Paper Rad, Jungil Hong, Jo Dery, Raphael Lyon, CF (aka Christopher Forgues) — as well as kindred spirits from New York, Philly, and elsewhere. The art maintained a scrappy, rascally vibe as Purkey and O'Connor's presentations became ever more sophisticated. "I will miss the access Stairwell Gallery provided to a whole community of artists whose work is very difficult to see in this area otherwise," says Maya Allison, director of 5 Traverse.

Leigh Medeiros opened Yes Gallery on Water Street in Warren in April 2008. It crossed a traditional gallery — showcasing jaunty, illustrationy art from all over the place — and a boutique. Which suited it's off the beaten-path locale. Medeiros attracted visitors with live music and receptions, but this spring the business was one of many sputtering in the poor economy. Two months ago, she notified her artists that she was closing. Her final exhibit, of illustrator and cartoonist Jim Bush of Warren, closes December 20. Since she rents the whole building, and lives upstairs, the end of the gallery also means she's moving to a new home around the corner.

"It's definitely bittersweet," Medeiros says. She's figuring out what she'll do next, perhaps more screenwriting. She says a comedic script she wrote has been optioned by a producer for development and this summer she won a Rhode Island State Council on the Arts fellowship for her writing. She plans to continue to be involved in community activities related to the arts in Warren.

Rhode Island only has a handful of commercial galleries, and these departures leave the scene even smaller. Allison says the closings, along with the departure of Gallery Agniel in Providence in late 2006, suggest "the traditional gallery model is not a sustainable model for this community . . . unless the gallery is able to find a collecting base outside of Providence or build a collecting base that didn't exist before or they're able to fund the gallery outside of sales." She says 5 Traverse is hanging in there, but making it work is a puzzle. "There are way more artists here than collectors."

Related: Ghost stories, Wanting more, Photos: Boston expressionism at Danforth Museum, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Bell Gallery, Haley O’Connor, Haley O'Connor,  More more >
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