Billy Howard quit his job in August. "My schedule is more flexible now," the art dealer says with a big grin. For the 30-year-old Howard, this means more time to devote to showing art. He'd been working every day of the week, splitting time between his former job with Asian antiques specialist Glenn Richards and his Capitol Hill home, which for the past year has been doubling as an art gallery.
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Howard House, a two-story residence-cum-gallery on Capitol Hill, opened this past January with a show of works by University of Washington MFA graduate Yi-Chul Shin. Shin's compact ceramic sculptures of caged genitalia look like medieval weapons. The pieces are carefully wrought, detailed, and aesthetically pleasing. However, none of the pieces sold during the first month of the show.
Underneath its elegant veneer, the showing and selling of art is, as one downtown gallery owner grieved, a "hand-to-mouth" business. Overhead costs easily run into the thousands per month, and art-buying customers are few and far between. There are numerous other hidden costs—such as transporting work from an artist's studio to the gallery—which can, for a large piece, run close to $1,000. Factor in the difficulties of selling work by relatively unknown contemporary artists, and the risks multiply. Critical respect is no guarantee of success either; Linda Cannon and Donald Young, both highly esteemed Seattle galleries, recently closed shop.
Howard, who worked with glass art specialist William Traver for four years after graduating with an MFA in ceramics from the UW, was all too aware of these considerations—which is why he came up with such a novel way to cut expenses and compete in the business. He could have joined a large co-op, which would have been affordable, but Howard wanted to retain curatorial control. "[The co-op] would have been a case of too many cooks in the kitchen," he says.
Inside, walls are painted in clean, museum-standard white; names of exhibiting artists are prominently printed in black. The larger spaces of the house—the living room and upstairs—are devoted to art, leaving only the kitchen and bedroom for private use. In September, Howard opened up his bedroom as well, to make space for paintings by Cornish instructor Mark Takamichi Miller. Though it's a bit strange to see Howard's bed and personal belongings, this context makes the relationship between visitor and gallery owner less formal. The aura is professional, but the setting is warmly charming.
A recent show, "Graftings for the Thin-Skinned" by Wendy Hanson, played particularly well in this space. Many of Hanson's mixed-media assemblages consist of dried rose petals that have been stitched together like fabric. Hanson's deliberate use of traditionally feminine craft and material is heightened by the domestic setting.
Howard House is gathering momentum. June was a turning point: That month, Howard exhibited a series of abstract paintings made from rearranged signs and billboards by Robert Yoder, recipient of the 1996 Seattle Art Museum's Betty Bowen Award for young artists. The show sold out in weeks. Howard countered by increasing the gallery's hours to four days a week. Now, it's full-time. "Everything's falling into place," he says.
A case of beginner's luck? Maybe, maybe not. "It's really a test of tenacity and perseverance," observes Howard. "You have to have vision and believe in the work you're showing. And you have to have confidence in the market." It also helps that Howard maintains tight connections with his alma mater. Having befriended ceramist Patty Warashina and her husband, the late Professor Robert Sperry, Howard was chosen to represent Sperry's estate when he died last April. This summer, Howard exhibited Sperry's final works—a collection of fine Iris ink jet prints—at the Bellevue Art Museum.
Howard House's modest success is an encouraging sign. Seattle is often rightly criticized for favoring "safe" art—landscapes, portraits, Pilchuck glass. But this unconventional space is providing further proof that a market for art that's experimental—and more in tune with international trends—does in fact exist locally. "People [in Seattle] hungering for fresh, challenging, contemporary art," Billy Howard says, "come and find it here."