An institution transforms

Once upon a time you went to an art gallery to shop for art. Now, consumers can browse artworks online in the comfort of their own homes. They can also frequent art fairs—those periodic assemblages of art, both fine and kitsch, gathered into booths and at times accompanied by a raucous party.

For better or for worse, the gallery landscape has changed. Parallels exist in other industries, such as movies and music, where the internet has taken such a large market share that storefronts selling video rentals, DVD’s, and CD’s have quietly disappeared.

“I grew up going to every single gallery possible. My parents dragged me all over the place,” said Brian Raitman, who opened Art on A Whim in Breckenridge—since renamed Raitman Art Galleries—with his parents and brother a decade ago, followed by their Vail location in 2013. “It’s really changed. Galleries are no longer the only place to find art.”

Raitman, 34, describes the gallery’s collection as “really unique and uplifting artwork with a contemporary edge,” and takes pride in focusing on Colorado artists. At the same time, he explained, “wall space is precious,” so they are extremely careful about what artists they represent.

“We live in an age of so much ridiculous access to information,” Raitman said. “Art is not immune to that. We get 80 formal artist submissions a year. Our duty in selecting art to put on this kind of a platform is to filter out so much of what we see in the world, and present it in a way that is clear, concise, and exciting.”

If a customer doesn’t find what she seeks at Raitman Art Galleries, the owners send her to Gary and Janet Freese at Breckenridge Gallery, by far the town’s most long-lived gallery. It opened its doors in 1969, and the Freeses purchased it in 1976. It carries original works from Western subjects to contemporary abstract paintings.

“We like to find emerging artists and watch them grow,” Gary Freese said. “Several of the artists we have carried for years are now in permanent museum collections.” Breckenridge Gallery is working to increase its online presence to reach a broader audience, and relies on a strong base of second-home owners for clientele. 

Down the street at Blue River Fine Art Gallery, owner Jerry Georgeff relies heavily on repeat business—a great deal of which, too, is from customers who own homes in the area but don’t live in the high country full time.

“I’ve got clients who’ve been buying paintings from me for 14 years,” said Georgeff, a landscape artist who opened the gallery in 2013 after the gallery that represented him for more than a decade closed its doors. “My clients come for Christmas and bring the whole family in. Often, we go out to dinner,” he said. “I’ve flown to primary homes to deliver art, and to spend the weekend. You develop a real comradery with your clients.”

Much of the work featured at Blue River Fine Art Gallery is representational and has a local theme, but not all. “I sell a lot of water lily paintings, for example,” Georgeff said. His collection centers on paintings and sculpture, and includes works in ceramic, metal, glass, and wood. “You come in with a certain concept and see what people like and try to surround yourself with what you think people will want to buy,” he said. “It will surprise you sometimes.”

For Georgeff, word-of-mouth and walk-in business is part of the equation, although he admits it used to be easier to attract customers by displaying artworks outside the store, before he received a citation for doing so. “I feel sometimes like we’re swimming upstream with some of the politics of the city,” he said. “It’s nothing major—just sometimes it’s a little more difficult to operate than it used to be.”

Georgeff maintains a growing client list and follows up with his customers regularly. “Sometimes you work months or years before you get someone to buy something,” he said. To that end, Blue River Fine Art Gallery does a lot of commission work, producing paintings to a customer’s specifications for size, subject, or price.

Raitman, too, sees the customer-gallery relationship as a crucial component of what galleries offer the modern art buyer. Recently, he shipped a painting to a customer sight-unseen, and when she didn’t like the top edge of the piece, he offered to have the artist repaint that portion. “Quality—in terms of artwork and in terms of customer service—have become more important as the art world expands,” he said. “At the end of the day we are a relationship-based business. People are spending thousands of dollars with us. They have to be able to trust us—that we’ve got what they’re looking for, and that we are going to stand behind it.”

Taking pains to change with the changing times, Raitman was just back from representing the gallery—and thus the towns of Breckenridge and Vail—at Miami Art Week, one of the biggest gatherings of art fairs in the nation. The Raitmans participate in some of the local art fairs too, even though there’s a long-held sentiment that the fairs compete with shops for visitor business. “Literally every weekend in summer there’s an art fair in the mountains,” he said. “It’s a bummer we’re the one industry that faces that. They don’t have ski swaps every weekend of winter. It’s kind of become a necessary evil for us to put art in a tent.”

“It’s harder now,” Raitman added. “When we opened there were 15-20 traditional art galleries in town. We’re down to six.”

The newest gallery in Breckenridge is Exclusive Collections, which opened in 2015 in the space that once housed Breckenridge Fine Art. Owner Ruth-Ann Thorn—who also has galleries in San Diego, Beverly Hills, and Las Vegas—had worked with the previous owner, Jim Tyllich, as an artist agent, so when Tyllich decided to close the store, he asked her to take it on.

Exclusive Collections carries an eclectic mix of original pieces and limited edition prints, with prices ranging from $200 to $100,000. “We want everyone to have the ability to collect something if they want to,” Thorn said. The work is geared toward a younger demographic, between the ages of 35 and 60.

“I think as an art dealer it’s really important to remain relevant,” Thorn said, describing how she bounces ideas off young people to get a sense of what they like. “I put my ego aside and look at it through their eyes,” she said, even if a work doesn’t appeal to her own aesthetic. “You have to be willing to listen to other people’s opinions when you’re curating for a gallery.”

Thorn admits there’s been added competition from online sales and art fairs in recent years, but she also sees that as a way for her artists to stand out even more. “I’m pretty confident I’ve chosen some of the best artists of our time,” she said. She advises would-be art buyers not to be intimidated when they walk into a gallery. “Collectors should feel empowered; they should feel like their opinion matters,” she said. “I always want to let them know—just allow yourself to decide what you enjoy. I want to encourage people to have that experience of enjoying art and living with it. Ultimately it’s mind-blowing how a painting that someone created from their soul affects another person’s soul. That’s what great art is all about.”

The new gallery launched a series of Locals Nights, which take place on the first Thursday of each month. Over food, wine, music, and giveaways, Thorn’s goal is to provide a space for the community to meet up. “Most of the businesses here cater to the tourists,” she said. “I thought—there are so many people who are making this their actual home, why not send a flyer?”

Thorn applauded WAVE, the free festival launched last year by Breckenridge Creative Arts that features interactive, illuminated sculptures downtown in Blue River Plaza. “Anything that can be done to support the arts or focus on the arts is wonderful,” she said. And yet, others remain concerned that even sale-free events take attention away from their galleries.

“The gallery business can be very fragile, especially when there is an abundance of outside programming in our busiest seasons,” noted Freese, of Breckenridge Gallery. “We have lost countless galleries in Breckenridge over the years, so it is important for those of us who are still standing to come together and make sure that Breckenridge is a destination for art.”

For Freese, the outlook for the future is nonetheless good. “We are always optimistic that our gallery will continue to attract collectors,” he said. “We believe in our artists and the work that they produce—and strong art will always find a home.”

Raitman Art Galleries, formerly Art on a Whim // 100 N. Main St. #108 //
Breckenridge Art Gallery // 124 S. Main St. //
Blue River Fine Art Gallery // 411 S. Main St. //
Exclusive Collections // 421 S. Main St. //

Photos:  Liam Doran