Provincetown gallery owners cry foul

Say other venues selling art not held to same standards

Second in a series. To read the first installment, click here.

PROVINCETOWN ART GALLERY owners are rising up to protest what they consider unfair competition from bars, restaurants, inns, coffee shops, and even lawyer’s offices and yoga studios that are selling paintings and other pieces of art as a sideline to their main business.

The gallery owners are sympathetic to the desire of artists who want additional venues where they can sell their work, but they say it’s not fair that the galleries are subject to licensing rules that don’t apply to these other businesses. For example, gallery owners need to acquire an art sales license that restricts what they can charge, where they can be located, and any side businesses they operate.

“If my gallery’s art doesn’t sell, I can’t make extra income from selling food or teaching yoga in my gallery,” said Ray Wiggs, a gallery owner and artist. “Gallery license regulations don’t allow that.”

In exhaustion and frustration over what he and many gallery owners consider an unfair playing field, Wiggs, who has become the unofficial spokesman for the gallery community, went before the town’s licensing board in June to demand the board take a long overdue look at what many gallery owners consider an economic and cultural threat.

The Provincetown Licensing Board is holding a “workshop” Tuesday evening to hear opinions from all sides on whether these other establishments selling art need regulation.

Art is a big deal in Provincetown. About 60 percent of Provincetown’s 3,000 year-round residents are artists, writers, sculptors, playwrights, poets, and musicians. There are currently 20 upscale galleries on Commercial Street, Provincetown’s 3-mile-long main street. Approximately 50 lower-end galleries are in parts of town off the main thoroughfare.

The galleries attract loads of tourists and shoppers, and help make Provincetown the summertime mecca it is. “Art is what supports Ptown’s economy. It’s been that way since 1899 when the Cape Cod School of Art opened here,” Wiggs said.

But the gallery owners say their businesses are being hammered by a wide variety of establishments that are doing the same thing without any of the same rules applying.

Wiggs describes the art interlopers as “piggy-backing” on gallery success. “I’ve witnessed 16 galleries go down because the owners are worn-out by losing income to inns and restaurants and how jewelry stores and craft shops refer to themselves as galleries and hold ‘art openings,’” he said.

According to Wiggs, a pizza restaurant posted 200 signs marketing its art with the line: “We’re cheaper than the galleries.”

Wiggs contacted town officials to let them know about the illegal sign postings, but no action was taken. “However, the town won’t allow any food vending trucks to work the busy summer streets because they don’t want the sales to hurt the restaurant business. What we need is a level playing field,” said Wiggs.

Artists do face some restrictions on where and how they can sell their art. If selling on the street, only six art pieces can be for sale, with one work in progress. Nothing can be sold after 11 p.m.

By law, artists selling on the street or out of a home, an in-town studio, or in a retail establishment need a state seller’s permit and a federal identification number.  Retail establishments selling art must meet the same requirements.

“In the six years I’ve lived here, I haven’t found anyone who has either,” Wiggs said. “But galleries? We can’t open our door without all sorts of pre-paid permits.”

Wiggs said his gallery is not just a business that supports him. He said his gallery is also an economic lifeline for many local artists. “I have worked with and built the income and opportunities of about 1,500 artists,” he said.

Several gallery owners say they don’t want to shut down the other establishments selling art as a sideline. Instead, they want to serve as art curators, soliciting works by artists and placing them in the other establishments. Under the proposal, the establishment would receive 15 percent of any sale while the gallery and artist would split the remainder.

“That way artists can take advantage of lots of places to show their work and lessen the obvious greed that’s going on commercially. It insults and infringes what should remain a viable part of the economy — galleries!” said Wiggs.

Marla Rice, owner of the Rice Polak Gallery, sees no conflict and no need for placing regulations on non-galleries selling art.

Meet the Author

Nancy Ross

Freelance writer, CommonWealth magazine
“Artists need and deserve any chance they get to sell their work,” she said. “For an artist to make it into a gallery is often a rare eureka! moment. I think most of the non-gallery crowd selling art is doing so to advocate for the artists. Unlike galleries, which usually take about 50 percent of the sale, other businesses take a much lower cut and some, nothing at all.”

Chris Busa, founder and editor of Provincetown Arts, a magazine he launched 35 years ago, agrees with Rice. “You look for allies as an artist. You do what you gotta do. Bottom line, it’s a free capitalist country and gallery art or not, this town truly supports the arts. It’s become a national model rivaling art meccas like SoHo or Santa Fe.”