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A newbie's guide to galleries along the coast

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With the city at its heart nicknamed The Creative Capital, it’s no surprise Rhode Island has a world-class arts scene. In a survey commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts, our state ranks among the top 15 in number of working artists. Think you have to go to Providence to find them? Think again. In South County, a funky arts scene thrives with galleries that feature local and regional artists for every taste and budget. “Rhode Island is filled with artists,” enthuses Dave “Gilly” Gilstein, co-owner of Charlestown Art Gallery, “It’s almost an embarrassment of riches.”

With 3,000 square feet of wall space, Charlestown Art Gallery is one of the largest in Rhode Island and mainly exhibits artists from the state. While there are a few outliers who live elsewhere in New England or farther flung, the artists all have some connection to the region, including many RISD grads. “We don’t sell investment art,” Gilly says, referring to the pieces that sell at auction for millions of dollars. “Our artists are contemporary working artists. We love their work.”
The Artists Cooperative Gallery of Westerly’s board president Arlene Piacquadio points out that with their new digs at the Westerly Train Station, the Artists Cooperative has exploded as downtown Westerly undergoes a renaissance. “We now get a lot of first-time visitors, including lots of Manhattanites, who don’t expect to find art here.” With a monthly rotation of visiting and member artists, the gallery is hopping year-round.

YJ Contemporary Fine Art Gallery in East Greenwich opened its doors in 2018, but its roots in the art world go back over 20 years. Founded by Rhode Island photographer Alan Blazer and his son Josef, the creation of the gallery was a natural expansion of their existing business, Blazing Editions. Blazing creates archival, limited edition reproduction prints and represents a number of internationally renowned artists like painters Josef Kote and Anne Packard.

With that background, a number of the country’s top artists are represented with stunning oversized prints lining the walls of their annex gallery. But their main show room features New England-based artists that have a contemporary flair. This month’s exhibit, Art & Design: A Conversation that runs through April 23, pairs four regional abstract artists with four local furniture makers.

While South County’s galleries still boast a number of nautical works – not unusual for an area known for its beaches – many have added more abstract work to their walls in recent years. “Our work ranges from traditional to funky,” says Charlestown’s Gilly, adding that while he loves edgy, political work, he can’t carry it in the gallery. “Our mission is to help artists make a living, so I have to be conscious of the market and what appeals to a buyer.” For more provocative works, head to Hera Gallery in Wakefield. The Hera was originally founded in 1974 as one of the first women’s cooperative galleries in the nation. Its mission has always been one of inclusion.

“We’re really an incubator space. You won’t find censorship here,” says Alexandra Broches, a founding member. For example, the theme of April’s show, Shame, was inspired by the Kavanaugh hearings.

“We love supporting the work of emerging artists,” Alexandra adds. “Those artists are a great entry point for collectors just starting out because they are more affordable."

At OneWay Gallery in Narragansett, artist-owner Stephen Cook also puts the focus on emerging artists, many of whom are Rhode Island based. While OneWay is a commercial endeavor, he doesn’t shy away from more challenging work. “I’m a painter with a gallery,” says Stephen. “I want to champion the art that I love and that I’m drawn to.”

At The Glass Station in Wakefield, prices for glass art begin at a very affordable $10, going up to $6,000, making space for all collectors, from novice to experienced. “We try to keep our prices affordable because we want people to use our glass,” says Jennifer Nauck, who co-owns the gallery with fellow glass artist Eben Horton. “There’s something really special about drinking from a beautiful handmade goblet.”

In this spirit, every curator echoes the advice to “buy what you love.” But buying art can be intimidating, so start small and then scale up. “As artists ourselves, we always thought collecting was out of reach,” says Charlestown’s Gilly. “But my wife bought me a small $100 painting and it started from there.”

New collectors can score deals in gift shops, like the one at the Artists Cooperative Gallery of Westerly, which features one-of-a-kind handcrafted items by their member artists. Similarly, Charlestown Art Gallery sells small items such as jewelry – some crafted by the artists featured on their walls – for art lovers not quite ready to commit to something larger.

Even galleries without dedicated gift shops have options for newbies. OneWay has quirky items for sale, such as street art-inspired trucker hats by RI native A.Dolt for $20. The Wickford Art Association has an annual show in December called Small Works that features smaller works that come with with matching price tags.

Most galleries feature special events that enhance the work on the walls, often hosting talks or panel discussions with featured artists. The Wickford Art Association holds classes that are open to members and non-members alike. Hera hosts a monthly Food for Thought community conversation every first Saturday. At The Glass Station, a hands-on “create your own ornament” event happens on Saturday afternoons, while Heritage Gallery in East Greenwich offers a variety of glass fusing workshops for all levels.

These ancillary events are key, according to Hera’s Alexandra. “Art is about connection and galleries are a way to connect people.”

5 Tips for Seasoned Collectors  

1. Buy What You Love Not just a mantra for newbies, buying work that resonates gives a collection cohesion. “Everything in the collection is a reflection of you. That’s what holds it together,” explains The Glass Station’s Jennifer Nauck.

2. Mix original pieces with limited edition prints YJ Contemporary Fine Art Gallery has clients who mix prints with one or two original pieces by a favorite artist. “It’s an affordable way to expand your collection of a favorite artist,” advises YJ’s Alan Blazer. Because the prints are limited editions, they can go up in value, too.

3. Don’t get stuck in a rut “People get into ruts, and that applies to art too,” says Westerly’s Arlene Piacquadio. “If you collect landscapes, have you ever thought about an abstract?” Similarly, if your walls are filled with two dimensional paintings, consider trying a 3D medium, like the wooden sculptures and figures by Henry Gauthier of Studio 460.

4. Do your research “Ask questions about the background of the artist,” advises OneWay’s Stephen Cook. “Where else has this artist shown? Are they in private collections? Public ones? That’s important to future value.” Still, don’t get hung up on the money. “There’s value in enjoying the work you’ve purchased,” reminds Charlestown’s Gilly Gilstein.

5. Keep an eye on the “fine” print Art festivals can be a fantastic way to find new artists at competitive prices, but knowing what festival to attend can be daunting. “The term fine art is key,” explains Lorraine Hynes, board member at the Wickford Art Association, which hosts the annual Wickford Arts Festival every July, one of the largest outdoor art festivals in the country. “That ensures that the art is the caliber that it is supposed to be.”