One of the notable features of the newly renovated Kentucky International Convention Center is the diverse collection of regional art hanging throughout the building.
The center boasts two works by Sandra Charles, a painter who does large-scale portraits of African-American women dressed as African royalty; photographs by the Cuban-born Carlos Gamez de Francisco taken from a recent show at Moremen Gallery; and a vibrant 8-foot round painting done on plywood by Gibbs Rounsavall.
KICC is the most high-profile client yet for Zephyr Gallery’s successful Corporate Art Program, which helps businesses develop local art collections. Normally, Zephyr requires its clients to buy a portion of the art it has on display after a year, but the convention center has a special arrangement that allows it to purchase all of the work in its possession over a five-year period.
“It was originally going to be our typical contract where we would change it out next year. Once we all started talking about that, the logistics of it became nightmarish,” explained Patrick Donley, one of Zephyr’s seven artist co-owners. “First of all, because everything is above eight feet, so you have to have a scissor lift to even get to the piece.”
Donley is known for his colorful abstract mixed-media paintings as well as for his more recent wall-mounted, found object sculptures. He has 11 pieces on display at KICC — five paintings that are clustered on a wall in one of the public areas and six less expensive works done on computer discs that are mounted to panels hanging in one of the center’s meeting spaces.
Donley said he was not present when Linda Edwards, vice president/general manager of the Kentucky International Convention Center, and Mike Grisanti of the Kentucky State Fair Board visited Zephyr to preselect the work with Chris Radtke, another Zephyr co-owner, to pick out pieces for the center.
The other artists on display will be paid before the end of the center’s contract, but Donley said he and the gallery would wait the full five years before they are paid for their work.
Edwards declined to be interviewed for this article, referring all questions to Radtke. Neither Donley or Radtke would disclose just how much the center is spending for the art.
Radtke did say the center’s budget was smaller than many of the gallery’s other corporate clients.
Zephyr’s Corporate Art Program works almost like a rent-to-own agreement. The client signs a contract that allows them to display the art for one year before they are required to spend 25 percent of the total cost of the collections.
So, if a company gets $10,000 worth of art, it must spend at least $2,500 to purchase pieces in its possession at the end of the contract. The work that is not bought is put into storage. If the client signs a new contract, more art is brought in, and the process starts over again.
“People learn to love the art we leave them,” said Donley. “You might put a piece over somebody’s desk and initially they say they don’t like it, but at the end of the year, they don’t want you to take it away. They can’t believe the company didn’t buy it. I’ve had that happen about 10 times at least.”
The growing Corporate Art Program
Over the last two decades, Zephyr’s Corporate Art Program has grown from a side business to become Zephyr’s sole source of income. The gallery has not hosted a traditional art exhibition since December 2017 and has no current plans for future shows at this time.
Donley told Insider that Zephyr’s space at 610 E. Market St. is being used for storage and as a showroom for potential corporate clients.
“We felt we reached a point where we wanted to step back and re-evaluate our focus. The Project Series had run its course,” he said. “There were 20 exhibitions in that series (2014-2017), and for each show we invited a guest curator.There were some great exhibitions, but we realized that we needed to readdress the gallery’s mission. Our corporate art program was (and is) doing really well, so we are focusing on that for now.”
While taking pains not to disparage Zephyr, some local artists and gallery owners told Insider they were dismayed by the gallery’s focus on corporate sales, which they say Zephyr has a virtual monopoly on because of the connection of its owners.
Radtke told Insider that Zephyr was able to get the project at the convention center because she was contacted about it by a former director after the $207 million renovation was announced. The critic of Zephyr’s business model, which essentially allows companies to display art for free for a year, were concerned it might negatively affect their own corporate sales.
The artists invited to participate in Zephyr’s Corporate Art Program must allow the gallery to keep their work for up to two years, so the gallery can show it to potential clients.
Artist Britany Baker said this is a reason she has shied away from the program.
“From the perspective of the companies, I think it’s ideal — low level of commitment, potential for variety, flexibility with regards to redecorating/restructuring their space. But for the artists, it’s a mixed bag because your work is tied up for a year without the option to sell it elsewhere,” she said. “Most of the artists I know have a lot of work in storage and just want it out there with eyes on it. You can’t find it a home if no one can see it. But I’m curious as to how much of it turns into sales. That whole ‘Why buy the cow’ thing.”
Chuck Swanson, the owner of Swanson Contemporary, said he knows of several artists who have similar complaints about the exclusivity of Zephyr’s artist agreement and the 50 percent commission the gallery gets for sales. Swanson has sold art through Zephyr’s Corporate Art Program; Zephyr shares its commission if it sells a painting by an artist represented by another gallery.
Swanson believes the program is an innovative way to move local art in a trying financial climate.
“The 2008 economic crisis really did change art sales in second-tier cities like Louisville, probably forever,” he said. “Corporations use to pride themselves on their local art collections. Some of them would even print their own catalogs to show it off. But after the meltdown, buying art was viewed as being frivolous. I don’t think we’re ever going back.”
“I do hope Zephyr decides to have an opening three or four times a year,” Swanson continued. “There used to be eight galleries in NuLu, and now there is just me, Garner Narrative next door, and maybe one other. I don’t know if NuLu even qualifies as an art district anymore.”
The painter David Schuster, a co-founder of Kentucky Fine Art Gallery, said people are going to have to accept that independent art galleries must evolve to survive in modern times.
Not only is there competition from one another, but the internet is a challenge because art lovers can buy art from anywhere in the world.
“The traditional gallery model was based on getting people to the gallery to see the art,” explained Schuster. “It is my experience that getting a large number of people to attend an opening reception and immediately buy several pieces of artwork just doesn’t happen very much today, or at least not anywhere close to how it used to be.”
“For many artists, and even some galleries, it has required diversifying into multiple revenue streams,” he added. “There is still a place for brick-and-mortar galleries, but they simply cannot rely on the traditional model alone.”
The fact that Zephyr is so identified with corporate art sales is ironic considering the gallery began in 1987 as an artists’ cooperative dedicated to showing adventurous art that could not find a home anywhere else. Each member paid dues, did volunteer hours at shows and exhibited their work on a rotating basis.
“Being a cooperative gallery included having to move a lot,” said Donley, who joined the cooperative in 1992. “We’d get priced out of our location and have to leave. Luckily, after four location changes in less than 10 years, we ended up on East Market with a lease with Barbara Smith that gave us the right of first refusal if she wanted to sell the building.”
Zephyr landed on East Market Street at the time the former rundown community was being rebranded as NuLu. The area became the city’s art mecca thanks to the First Friday Gallery Hop, which, beginning in 2001, drew thousands of people downtown each month to attend simultaneous public openings with free transportation via TARC trolleys.
Zephyr’s Corporate Art Program started in the early days of NuLu after a member of the Commonwealth Bank board of directors approached Radtke about having Zephyr decorate the bank’s new headquarters. Commonwealth officials sat down with the cooperative members to come up with the rules that continue to govern the program, although early clients were only obligated to buy 15 percent of the art they had on display.
“The Corporate Art Program has basically funded the gallery for years,” he said. “When it was a cooperative, the dues really wouldn’t cover our rent and bills. We are always having to supplement it.”
Business for all of downtown dwindled after the economic crisis, and a 2012 decision by the state Alcohol and Beverage Control Board banned galleries from giving away wine at openings, Swanson said.
In 2014, Zephyr decided to become a for-profit company because it was having trouble attracting new members and was facing competition from newer alternative galleries. The co-op members had to buy shares in the Zephyr Gallery LLC, the company in which Donley is president, or be bought out.
There was some anger from members who could not afford to buy into the new company, but Donley said the gallery could not go on as a cooperative.
Zephyr is as prosperous as it has ever been, Donley said, because the Corporate Art Program continues to grow. The gallery currently has more than 20 clients under contract, and its next high-profile project is decorating the Novak Center for Children’s Health in downtown Louisville.
“We’ve actually had the busiest summer we’ve ever had this past summer,” said Donley. “Partly because of the convention center, but we’ve had four new clients this summer that all came due right at the same time. Companies are starting to realize they can tell a story with the art they have hanging on their walls.”