Self-Directed: A Crash Course in Opening (and Closing) a Gallery

The following essay by Nancy Zastudil is part of “Beyond Survival: Public Funding for the Arts and Humanities,” a call for reflections on and provocation about the precarious state of arts funding after decades of neoliberal economics and the long culture wars.

When I opened Central Features Contemporary Art in downtown Albuquerque, I did so because I wanted to run my own business and I yearned to help promising artists succeed. From the outset, I decided not to pursue nonprofit status for Central Features primarily because I did not envision the gallery as a long-term venture.

Central Features consisted of an exhibition series and public programs, which I launched without a collector base and without capital to invest in the secondary market. Knowing my penchant at the time for working directly with artists rather than attending art fairs, I anticipated the need for multiple income streams and decided to structure Central Features as a hybrid nonprofit/for-profit entity: an LLC with a fiscal sponsor. As such, I could operate in either world as needed, focusing on sales (new territory for me) while also applying for project grants and raising money (drawing from my professional experiences in nonprofit arts organizations). This strategic decision afforded me expanded and self-directed curatorial, directorial, and financial experience.

The real saving grace was the fact that a few of my artists already had patrons who could afford to buy art and were proud to help grow the careers of local emerging artists, supporting me in the process. Additionally, a substantial purchase for a corporate collection as well as unexpected rental income from the film industry helped carry me through those first two years. Visibility on social media helped, too.

On the practical side of things, the accounting services provided by my fiscal sponsor were vital to responsibly maintaining this hybrid structure, especially because there were no other measures of accountability when it came to gallery finances (they also made grant reporting a breeze). My hands were in everything: transferring money between accounts, paying artists, filing taxes, and so on. They oversaw my grant expenses and made sure the money was spent appropriately; I could focus on executing the projects.

The main reason it was financially feasible for me to open Central Features was because I had a slightly-less-than-full-time job and steady freelance work that kept me engaged in the art world and covered my personal expenses, and I had no staff; the gallery only had to pay for itself. Plus, I had a partner and a community that helped tremendously. My strategy was simple: help a few local artists connect with outside markets and audiences, gain as much experience for myself as possible, and do not accumulate debt.

However, I had worked myself into exhaustion. And in order for Central Features to continue, I would need to bring in money to hire staff and/or focus on the gallery full-time, neither of which seemed feasible. So, with several of my artists on an upward career trajectory, successful grant-funded projects out in the world, a small business loan paid off early, and money in the bank, I closed my doors, went on vacation, and readied myself for the next adventure.

Nancy Zastudil is a curator, writer, editor, and administrator dedicated to making positive change through philanthropy and entrepreneurship in the arts. Nancy is currently gallery director at Tamarind Institute and was owner and director of Central Features Contemporary Art, a gallery that promoted the intrinsic value of art making in contemporary culture.

Return to the “Beyond Survival” project overview here.