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Originally published August 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 17, 2008 at 2:46 PM

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Art straight up, hold the olive

A new business model for art galleries: Add a lounge and a liquor license.

Seattle Times art critic

A new trend in the art business is flourishing at a moment when the economy is tight and sales are slow at galleries around town. What's the idea? Add a bar.

It's not entirely new to mix art and alcohol. In nightspots where artists hang out, such as Seattle's Two Bells tavern and the Virginia Inn, paintings have been exhibited above the booths and bar stools for decades.

What's sprouting up now is something different, though. These aren't bars with art added: Now, the gallery is the main focus, with a separate lounge adjoining. That way, artworks can be displayed to their best advantage and stay somewhat protected from the more uninhibited bar scene.

"I didn't want to do an art bar," says Lele McLeod, partner in McLeod Residence, which opened as a gallery in January 2007. The quirky upstairs hangout, in what once was a private home, started out as an art space/private club and has since been granted a liquor license. "I wanted to open a gallery, and my friend wanted to open a bar. I said no. He said we can do both."

Recently, several other venues have popped up almost simultaneously. Erik Guttridge, owner of Grey Gallery and Lounge on Capitol Hill, which opened in January of this year, had decided some time back to sell his house and invest the money in a new business plan, when he got a call from McLeod. "Lele called and the first thing out of her mouth was: 'Why don't you open a gallery and bar with me?' "

Guttridge was dumbfounded. "I said: 'Are you [messing] with me? I'm going to be opening one too!' "

Even before that, artist and former gallery owner Greg Lundgren was stretching the concept of what a gallery could be. In 2005 he teamed with Jeff Scott to open the Hideout, a gallery-esque cocktail lounge on First Hill.

Even though it doesn't have a dedicated gallery space, the place is hung floor to ceiling with paintings for sale and serves as a sort of stage-set-in-waiting for various art happenings and chic hanging out.

There seems to be a kind of synchronicity to it all. The idea has even popped up in art schools: At Cornish College of the Arts BFA show this spring, one student did a senior performance/installation called "Lexington's Lounge." A working bar, with the artist — who goes by the name Maxx Lexington — as bartender, the piece played on the role of art as commodity and the social hierarchy built around it.

Dollars and sense

It all comes down to the bottom line. A bar can provide instant income, while a gallery often takes years to turn a sure profit and establish a clientele.

"I'd written a number of business plans," Guttridge says of Grey Gallery. "Still, I couldn't see how an emerging-artist gallery would work without some kind of daily income. About 4 ½ years ago, I thought: What about liquor? A full-service gallery with dedicated space and a full-service bar."

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He figured he could provide a comfortable, welcoming environment for people who aren't already in the arts scene.

"Galleries are always quiet spaces, but I felt there were younger potential collectors who were — I wouldn't say intimidated, but galleries weren't an obvious connection for them. Art in this country hasn't always been that integrated into the culture.

"Since we opened, we've had a number of people who have bought their first piece of art here. That's really satisfying. That's when I feel like the vision succeeded."

For emerging artists, the first challenge is finding a way for their work to be seen. Competition to get into a traditional gallery in Seattle is overwhelming. Hundreds, even thousands, of artists vie to be represented by a few dozen art dealers.

In recent decades, artist-cooperative galleries such as Art/Not, Soil and Punch have helped fill the gap. They allow artists to chip in money and time to keep an alternative-art space running and ensure an opportunity to display their work.

But co-ops have their own drawbacks. Gallery hours often are limited and haphazard, visitors are a dedicated few and the exhibitions can be hit and miss, lacking a strong curatorial vision.

For artists, the best thing Guttridge can offer is a whopping big audience. Grey Gallery and Lounge is open seven days a week and late into the night in an already bustling Capitol Hill neighborhood, near the Comet Tavern and Neumo's.

"I wanted there to be a lot of life around the artwork," he said. "We have thousands of people come through here in a month." At least half of the art sales take place at night, Guttridge says. At one busy opening reception, he sold a piece at 1 a.m.

Keeping it all safe

Which brings us to an obvious problem with trying to exhibit art around a bunch of partying people with drinks in their hands: Security. How do you keep the artworks safe from spills, stains and damage — or even from walking out the door?

"Security cameras, lots of insurance," says McLeod. "Good bouncers who watch out for the art. Most of our employees are artists or have worked with art. We've had such good [clientele] from the beginning. We didn't build this for the money but to do something really special, and I think people sense that."

They did have one artwork stolen from the gallery, McLeod says. "The next morning, the guy brought it back and said, 'I'm sorry. I was drunk and wanted this.' "

She attributes the return to good luck, but says they don't count entirely on people's best intentions. If the thief hadn't brought it back, the security videos would have revealed his identity anyway.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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