For Catriona Fraser, the Fraser Gallery’s decade-and-a-half run in Georgetown and Bethesda ended on a simple note: “Nobody was buying any artwork from me.”
Case in point: the 10th Annual International Photography Competition, one of the gallery’s best-known feature exhibitions, which just closed at Fraser’s remaining outpost in downtown Bethesda.
The work is affordable, with most of it priced under $500. The work has been seen: The opening reception, Fraser says, was “heaving with people.” And the work is good: Washington City Paper called the exhibit “impressive.”
Yet Fraser did not make a single sale. And so on March 1, following several Bethesda galleries that have recently met the same fate, Fraser Gallery announced it is closing at the end of the month.
“Since the end of 2008, I’ve been doing art fairs to maintain the Bethesda space. I go up and down the East Coast—Miami, Boston, New York,” Fraser says. “Unfortunately, even that now isn’t working.”
Through 15 years in the art business in Washington—she launched the gallery at age 24 in 1996—Fraser considered herself unflappable. “But this year I really felt the stress,” she says.
Of course, the economy has had a lot to do with it: Collectors who are otherwise passionate about obtaining art have seen their discretionary budgets hit hard. But it didn’t end there. For a gallery that represents emerging and mid-career artists in painting and photography, Fraser says, there’s also a specific problem with the structure of the D.C. market. On the one hand, the city’s buyer base consists of wealthier collectors who hang their artworks in D.C. but buy them in New York. Another segment of D.C.’s luxury class buys décor, not fine art. And then there are fans who see galleries as “mini-museums”—places to see art, but not buy it.
Yet that breakdown may characterize the art community of any large city outside New York. What distinguishes Bethesda is that it’s a wealthy suburb that pitches itself as an arts hub, even though it orbits the District’s larger arts scene. The arts district between Old Georgetown Road and Wisconsin Avenue doesn’t feature much in the way of downscale urban space to which art dealers can retreat during scrappier times. With the closings of Gallery Neptune and Heineman-Myers Contemporary Art in the last two years, after March 31 Osuna Gallery will stand alone as a Bethesda gallery with serious chops.
Maxwell MacKenzie, a D.C.-based architectural and landscape photographer who had several notable shows at Fraser, calls the closure “a terrible loss to the art community, and to Bethesda. Kate has been working so hard for so many years and presenting consistently—enormous amounts of really good work. If Fraser can’t survive in Bethesda, then nobody can.”
To be sure, Fraser had its successes over the past decade and a half. Even surviving that long in a niche fine art market is an accomplishment—especially given the risk involved in posting up in Bethesda.
Fraser’s Georgetown location was open from 1996 to 2005, and the Bethesda outpost opened in 2002. For most of the first decade, Fraser operated the galleries with her then-husband, Lenny Campello.
“When Catriona and I opened the first Fraser Gallery in 1996 in Georgetown, our first two shows almost sold out, we got a huge article in The Washington Post, and I recall Kate and I saying, ‘Wow, this is gonna be easy,’” Campello writes in an e-mail. “It wasn’t, and as we learned, building an art gallery required not only an immense amount of hard work, but also realizing that it is a labor of love, and that more often than not, your finances are getting by (if you’re lucky) by the skin of your teeth.”
Campello, an artist and art dealer who blogs at Daily Campello Art News, says the gallery didn’t take the easiest artistic path.
“In my opinion we established a very distinct gallery presence from day one. When we announced that we would focus on contemporary realism, which we described back then as ‘realism with a bite,’ and photography, everyone told us that we’d be closed within a year,” Campello writes. “That first year, in spite of the great success of the two initial shows, was very tough and more often than not we were using our financial backers, Mr. Visa and Mr. Mastercard, to pay the artists and the gallery’s bills.”
The situation at Fraser improved as the gallery gained traction, but the addition of the Bethesda outlet offered additional risks—distance from heavier concentrations of galleries downtown, for one. The Georgetown Fraser Gallery location closed at a time when the art scene was moving from Georgetown and Dupont Circle further east, following dealers like George Hemphill, who moved from Georgetown to the 1515 14th St. NW gallery building. Fraser opted instead for the suburbs—albeit reasonably dense and very wealthy suburbs.
“Ms. Fraser was brave to strike out in Bethesda, and when she moved there, there was hope that a Friday arts crawl would develop, but unfortunately more Bethesda galleries closed,” says Adah Rose Bitterbaum, director of Dupont Circle’s Studio Gallery.
Fraser mounted significant shows by such photographers as MacKenzie and Lida Moser as well as the annual photography contest. Almost by accident, the gallery found a specialty in showing contemporary Cuban artists Aimée García Marrero and Sandra Ramos, introducing them to the U.S. market. (Or perhaps not by accident: Campello is Cuban-American.)
Fraser provided early exposure for glass artists Michael Janis and Tim Tate—whose first solo show sold out—and hyped the work of tape artist Mark Jenkins.
David FeBland and Chawky Frenn are realist painters whose work found favor at Fraser at a time when abstraction was in most cases easier to sell.
“Fraser was always sincere in its efforts to exhibit figurative, representational, and technical artwork,” says Andrew Wodzianski, an artist whose career Fraser boosted. “Their absence is a loss for showcasing craftsmanship.”
Fraser says she isn’t leaving the art business, just changing the venue from a brick-and-mortar gallery. Stephanie Coppula, the head of marketing for the Bethesda Arts and Entertainment District, puts a brave face on the closure. “We understand that it is currently an economically challenging time for arts organizations and specifically art galleries,” Coppula says, “but the Bethesda Urban Partnership and the Bethesda Arts & Entertainment District are working to keep downtown Bethesda a viable and attractive place for cultural activities.”
The final exhibit, opening this weekend, is a solo showing of landscape photographs by a District-based photographer, Lee Goodwin.
Other gallerists agree with Fraser: The challenge to brick-and-mortar spaces won’t be solved even by a miraculous economic recovery, says Christopher Addison of the Addison/Ripley Gallery, one of the oldest standing art galleries around. “The gallery scene here in Washington continues to be in flux, perhaps evolving, seeking new ways to bring the work of artists to the attention of the public,” Addison says.
What may have pained Fraser the most is that commercial imperatives began to crowd out artistic ones. “I felt like the past two years I’ve been treading water, not taking any risks,” she says. “That’s been frustrating.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery