A “bombed-out storage space” is the way gallery owner Jonathan Colon, 25, described the 21 N. Prince St. room.

Today, after countless hours of work by Colon and friends, the contemporary art gallery boasts a new bathroom, pristine floors and a tile entranceway. The former storage area is now the gallery’s main showroom.

For Colon, the gallery is an inspiration.

Yet nine months after the first art show there, the Bancroft Collaborative’s finances aren’t as exhilarating.

“I’m completely in the red,” Colon said.

Bancroft Collaborative is one of the galleries opened in the newly christened “Gallery Row” on the first three blocks of North Prince Street, which helped spark an arts revival in downtown Lancaster.

However, while the city’s commercial gallery owners are excited about the future of downtown’s arts scene, for now many are struggling financially.

To survive, some galleries have diversified by adding framing services or supplementing sales of high-priced original art with lower-priced posters and prints.

Others are pinning their hopes on Lancaster becoming widely known as an “art city,” which they say could attract more out-of-town buyers.

Yet the financial plight of gallery owners raises questions about how much the galleries can aid the city’s long-term revitalization, if new galleries have saturated the market and whether contemporary and abstract art galleries can thrive here.

“We intend to make money on this. That is a definite,” said Ellen Slupe, 60, co-owner of Pfenninger Gallery, which opened two years ago at 52 N. Prince St. and specializes in large, abstract art.

“Labor of love is where it is right now,” said Slupe, echoing a view voiced by many of the 13 gallery owners interviewed by the New Era.

Closing shop

Love of art only takes a business so far, however.

Central Market Art Gallery at 15 W. King St. will close in December after a 17-year run, as previously reported by the New Era. The gallery sells original fine-art works, many from Lancaster County artists.

Alchemy Art Gallery, a multimedia art gallery at 50 N. Prince St., will also close next month. They follow the August closing of Liquid Heat Studio 8, a contemporary art gallery at 138 N. Prince St., which shut down because of weak sales and low foot traffic.

“Basically we had a lot of verbal support, but not the monetary support,” said Eliana Lopez, 26, co-owner of Liquid Heat.

David Steudler, 55, owner of Alchemy Art Gallery, said his gallery was unprofitable since it opened two years ago.

“It was impossible to make that gallery work on consignment,” Steudler said. “It has lost money since day one.”

Carol Foley Bolt, 40, co-owner of Central Market Art Gallery, said that while she was closing mostly to spend more time with her family, she had seen sales slide roughly 20 percent this year.

“It is not a fruitful market. You have to do it for the love of the community,” Bolt said.

Art galleries make money by taking a commission — usually 40 percent on every piece of art they sell. For gallery owners with high overhead and publicity costs, making ends meet can be tough.

Lopez said she needed to sell $7,500 worth of art every month to pay $3,000 in monthly expenses, including $1,200 for rent. Not included was a salary for herself.

Lopez said that a typical day drew no more than a dozen walk-ins, and few buyers.

“We had a lot of people who said they loved it and then walked right back out,” she said.

Artistic potential

Despite the difficulties, many gallery owners possess an abiding faith in the cash value of the arts.

“The reason a lot of people are opening up is they see potential,” Colon said. “The city as a whole sees the potential for there to be big dollar signs.”

Downtown Investment District executive director Kelly Withum agrees.

“I think the more the public realizes that downtown is an art destination, the more sustainable it becomes,” she said.

Withum, who formerly helped run the Alchemy Art Gallery, said the number of venues and amount of foot traffic for downtown art galleries, especially on First Fridays, mean the arts are here to stay.

First Fridays, which began in 1998, are now coordinated by LancasterARTS, a new group that’s part of the Lancaster Campaign.

First Friday has grown to include more than 60 shops and art galleries — including 20 who signed on just in the past year — drawing nearly 700 people to downtown every first Friday of the month.

Thomas DePaul at Gallery DePaul, a contemporary art gallery at 226 N. Arch St., said the influx of people on First Fridays is welcome, even if many visitors aren’t art buyers.

“It gets people to come out and they are aware of these galleries,” DePaul said. “It is marketing. You’ve got to position yourself to make the sale.”

DePaul echoed the view of several other gallery owners who said that the more galleries that locate here, the better it would be for everyone.

DePaul said the mix of galleries could create a class of people familiar with art, which could generate art buyers.

“Basically the art market is very small at the moment, but the people market is huge,” DePaul said.

While gallery owners agree that First Friday is entertaining, the lack of sales can be frustrating.

“All it does is make me stay here an extra five hours, without getting remuneration for it,” Steudler said.

Business artists

Turning the art buzz into sales often means adopting a business-like approach, which can be uncomfortable for gallery owners who identify themselves more as artists than entrepreneurs.

Lisa Troupe, 43, an artist and co-owner of Troupe & Co. Fine Art, a fine art gallery at 112 N. Prince St., said she took business classes before opening three years ago.

“As artists, sometimes we’re not always real savvy on the business side of things,” Troupe said.

The decision to open an art gallery may also be based more on a love of art than an understanding of business.

“There is a prestige to having a gallery, rather than the money that they’re making out of it. And of course, that means a lot if you love art,” Steudler said.

Steve Witmer, founder and former owner of Central Market Art Gallery, left the art to artists while he concentrated on running the business.

“Many galleries take a chance and show new artists, but if they don’t sell, it hurts,” Witmer said.

Witmer opened the gallery in 1988 and sold it in 1998.

“I found it to be a good business. I didn’t make a million dollars. But it was profitable enough for me to be able to sell it after several years, instead of just closing it up,” Witmer said.

Lancaster Galleries at 34 N. Water St. is the longest-operating commercial art gallery in Lancaster. It offers original art, custom framing and restoration services.

Owners Joyce and Michael Heberlein said their 21 years in business have taught them the need to adapt to the market.

“It is like any other business. You have to be able to weather the bad times,” Joyce said. “It is a hard business; there is no question about that.”

Lancaster Galleries began by selling posters and prints, gradually adding a frame shop and original art sales. Half the gallery’s income now comes from sales of original art.

“Just like a business portfolio, we don’t want to put it all in one place,” Michael said.

While the non-profit Lancaster Museum of Art has a distinct financial advantage over its for-profit peers, executive director Cindi Morrison said even it is feeling squeezed by escalating costs and low profit margins.

“As our costs have gone up, it has been a challenge the last couple of years,” Morrison said. “We are looking at the same costs of staffing and utilities. ... How we come up with the funding is different.”

The museum offers most of its displayed art for sale, earning 30 percent of the selling price. The bulk of the museum’s income comes from various fund-raising efforts, according to Morrison.

The museum is keenly interested in the survival of commercial art galleries, Morrision said.

“We all have a need we are filling in the city of Lancaster,” she said.

In 2007, the museum will move closer to many of its commercial peers when it takes up residence in the former Empire TV and Appliances store at 215 N. Queen St.

Making sacrifices

An abundance of studio and gallery space in some of Lancaster’s historic buildings has several other artists thinking of creating new galleries, despite the financial risks.

The Keppel Building, a former candy factory at 323 N. Queen St., now hosts 25 working artists.

One of the artists, David Reinhart, 38, is trying to organize gallery space on the first floor. But with average winter temperatures only hitting 45 degrees in parts of the building, opening a gallery would require costly heating upgrades, Reinhart said.

George Mummert, who has been a full-time Lancaster artist since 1998, hopes to turn the building at 420 Pearl St. into studio and gallery space.

Mummert, like many artists and gallery owners, has a part-time job to help pay the bills.

“The sacrifice is something you make to do something that you love and enjoy doing,” said Mummert, who works one day a week in a pizza shop.

Mummert said he wasn’t surprised to see some galleries close, but he felt the long-term prospects for Lancaster arts was good.

“If the timing isn’t right, we may have some (galleries) that will fall by the wayside,” he said. “But I think new galleries and studios will crop up where those fail.”

While many gallery owners and artists like Mummert say they are not in it to get rich, they eventually have to earn an income.

“It is at the point where the galleries need to make money,” Colon said. “And in order for the momentum to continue, something has to change.”

Colon, who works part-time as a waiter, said he hopes his Christmas show gets his gallery’s finances on track.

“The next show I’m having is a tipping point,” Colon said. “If it goes horribly and makes no money, I would scale back and get a full-time job.”

What to Read Next