A Way Forward For Rural Art Galleries

The following information may provoke discussion about the multitude of problems-opportunities facing rural artists and rural art galleries in the next few decades, including possible solutions through co-operative actions of artists and community. This discussion paper was prepared in recognition of the 17th anniversary of Peer Gallery of Lunenburg, a thriving contemporary artist co-op that has withstood the roller-coaster forces of the past 17 years while more than 30 rural galleries have closed in that time. The Peer Gallery show, “On & Off The Wall” runs Sept. 8-27 at Chase Gallery, Public Archives Bldg., Halifax.

By Bob Hainstock
Peer Gallery Member

As shrinking rural populations in North America continue a downward slide towards further economic and cultural disadvantage, visual artists in rural Nova Scotia have a growing list of reasons to worry about the razor-thin viability of an important element in the character of their creative worlds – the brick-n-mortar art gallery.

Whether seen as an important source of sales or early career stepping stones for professional artists, or perhaps as a necessary exhibition place and education centre for passionate amateurs, the traditional business models for arts or craft galleries will soon need a major rethink. This will include an upgrade in the concept of artist co-ops and non-profit enterprise, perhaps in sync with new thinking by municipal governments in their competitions to attract younger populations and fill empty commercial space with strong cultural characteristics for their community.

At the heart of the problem is a continuing loss of population in almost all areas of rural Nova Scotia. The Ivany Report a few years ago suggested an overall decline of 5% in Nova Scotia’s general population within 20 years. Other experts suggest that major urban centres like Halifax will hold steady or grow slightly, but that the rural populations will fall 8-10%, and coastal communities even more dramatically. The rural tax base is expected to be burdened with added service costs of assisting the largest and oldest sector of their populations. Can these increased costs be paid from a weaker industrial and commercial rural tax base?

The future problems of rural communities are clear in census numbers that compare the populations of towns, cities, and municipalities in 2011 and 2016. In that time, Halifax grew by 13,100 people, a upward trend established over recent decades. The only towns that grew in that same period were Berwick, Bridgewater, Kentville, Mahone Bay, Middleton, Oxford, Shelburne and Truro. And they grew by a total of only 775 people collectively. All other town populations continued to shrink.

If we step back to look at global patterns, we find that in 2014, a majority of the world (54%) lived in cities for the first time in human history. The UN says this will rise to 66% by 2050, with North America having 82% of its population living in cities.  Those kinds of numbers represent a runaway social freight train fueled by globalization and rural-to-urban migration. The scale of international policies needed to slow or stop that train over a long period of time are massive and costly, and tiny pieces of the puzzle like “rural artist”, “rural culture”, “rural gallery” will have to be left to local or individual actions. 

Another part of that puzzle will be the farm population and its effect on nearby towns/villages. Across North American, the “middle class” of farming is disappearing as small farms focus on local markets, and others either get very big to achieve international efficiency, or get out. 

The Internet is another major factor that will impact the rural artist in both a positive and a negative manner. Estimated international online art sales were $1.57 Billion in 2013, $3.5 Billion in 2016, and expected to hit $9.14 Billion by 2021. That’s good news for all visual artists who can now reach international art markets with their artwork – doesn’t matter where each artist lives or works.

But experts say the brick-n-mortar galleries, rural and urban, will not maintain traditional market share in that booming market even as they scramble to build internet sales into their business practice. The problem, they suggest, is the loss of future clientele as young art consumers gravitate towards online art sellers.  For example, 51% of art collectors age 25-34 years currently purchase art online, compared to only 33% of older collectors 35-54 years. But the younger collectors are the ones that brick-n-mortar galleries will need for future viability and getting in front of that accelerating online “curve” is difficult.

And will internet sales take a bite from tourist art purchases, another critical revenue plank for rural art galleries and their stables of visual and craft artists. Some suggest that internet sales will not harm craft arts because of the local contact required for authenticity and uniqueness of history or location.  

There are no hard statistical projections for the province’s creative communities of the future. There are 380-390 individual professional visual artists or craft artists said to be currently working in Nova Scotia, 94% of them file regular tax returns as self-employed artists.  About 49% of them work in Halifax, while 26% reside in the southern region, 14% in the Annapolis Valley, and 10% in northern regions or Cape Breton.  

Almost 70% of visual artists in rural Nova Scotia are 45 years of age or older, a potential issue in other industries but not in visual arts where most individuals work well past normal retirement age, often because they are self-employed and have no formal pension plans or company benefits. However, this awkward ratio of older-to-young artists is also reflected in the larger general population and will produce a difficult ratio of visual art producers-to-consumers in the next 10-20 years.

There is another set of ratio figures that do not favor rural artists. In recent Stats Canada figures, almost 30% of urban residents say they visited a public art gallery in the previous 12-month period, compared to only 19% of rural residents of visited a public art gallery. Perhaps a reflection of incomes, education or opportunity?

It has been suggested that for every professional artist in a rural region, there are at least another 30-50 amateur artists who sell an occasional piece of artwork or craft locally. This number fluctuates greatly through economic cycles and age distributions. The lack of long term success over the years by rural art and craft supply stores is a visual indicator of the wild swings in revenues by visual artists, but also a reflection of the impact of online supply competitors, a trend not expected to change.

In terms of sales venues such as rural galleries or craft shops, there is an estimated 50-75 brick-n-mortar businesses, most of them located in or near towns with strong tourist traffic from beyond the immediate region. The tourism department has recently listed 31 artisan/artist studios, as well as 125 galleries and craft shops in Nova Scotia, mostly in the rural area. Of the 59 visual art galleries listed with, Visual Arts Nova Scotia, more than 30 are outside major urban centres.

There is said to be a constant turnover of such retail operations because of extremely low profit margins, but also because many of the operations were originally created on the personal passions of one or two individuals who often accept starvation wages and long hours in order to keep art alive in their community.  Many of the retiring owners or co-ordinators  of rural art enterprises are of the same generation and overdue for retirement.

If one quickly scans the rural art gallery scene since the year 2000 through an informal survey of artist friends around the province, we find a minimum of 30 galleries having closed their doors. That does not include many areas of the province such as Cape Breton and northern Nova Scotia, nor does it include the multitude of small, one-artist galleries that spring up and disappear every year from our back roads and side streets.

But while that may seem like a big number of closures, there are almost as many new gallery enterprises opening their doors in the same period – almost.

The South Shore of Nova Scotia seems a good example of a gallery scene in constant flux. In the last 17 years we have lost The Moorings, Windy’s Gallery, Amber Inn Gallery, The Lost Gallery, Trees Gallery, Art Choices Gallery, Black Duck Gallery, Houston North Gallery, Dis.cord Gallery, Moxie Gallery, the Pentz studio/gallery, Above The Water Gallery, At The Sign of the Whale Gallery (now an online presence), and more galleries in Liverpool, Shelburne, and Chester.

In the Valley and eastern shore regions, we have lost Carriage House Gallery, ArtCan Gallery (since re-opened), Kempt Gallery, Edgemere Gallery, Neville Gallery, Denise Comeau’s gallery-frame shop near Church Point, David Lacey Gallery, Copper Fox Gallery, Harris & Co. Gallery, Ravens Gallery, Lyghtsome Gallery, Swoon Gallery, and Utata Gallery amongst others.

And while doors were closing, almost as many doors were opening.

In Lunenburg, for example, there are now 22 galleries listed, more than any other centre outside of metro Halifax. These include Peer Gallery, a contemporary  artist co-op founded in 2002, and based on the co-op model of Viewpoint Gallery in Halifax (originally known as Art Street Gallery Co-operative).  Some of the founding members or current members of Peer Gallery were part of the launching of Viewpoint 18 years ago.

During the Peer Gallery time, there have been many gallery closures in Lunenburg area, an average of almost one a year.  But there have been many new openings, coming in bursts of two or three new galleries some years. For example, The Swan, Skull Douggery, LaHave Weaving Studio, Cranston Gallery, Paul Secord’s Gallery, Lunenburg School of the Arts, and Carmen Jaeger Studio all opened in recent years.

Other artist co-ops or non-profit community enterprises to open in rural Nova Scotia in that period include; Waterfront Gallery in Yarmouth,  Jack’s Gallery in Wolfville, Studio Lab Gallery in New Glasgow, Visual Voice in Truro, Old School Art Gallery in Musquodoboit, Makers Gallery in Windsor, Craft Co-op at Le Have Bakery, Lucky Rabbit & Co. Artist House in Annapolis Royal, Elephant Grass Print Co-op in Parkers Cove, Hardware Gallery in Kentville, Oxford Riverside Gallery in Oxford,  Art2Sea Gallery in Pictou, The Art House in Pictou, or, Town Hall Cultural Space in Liverpool.  

The Main & Station Nonesuch multi-discipline cultural developments in Parrsboro is perhaps one of the most vivid examples anywhere of cultural enterprise having a major economic impact on a small, struggling community. The Hardware Gallery in Kentville offers an excellent example of non-profit community cultural enterprise working closely with town officials to help revitalize downtown space that has lay vacant in recent years.

In addition, there are numerous commercial galleries opened in rural Nova Scotia in that time, including:  Murray Manor Art & Culture House in Yarmouth, Galerie Beaucoup in Wedgeport, Red Sky Gallery in Antigonish,  Osprey Gallery on South Shore, or, Harvest Gallery in Wolfville.  Westcote Bell Pottery opened seven years ago next door to Le Have Bakery, and this year opened a second nearby gallery, Westcote Bell Arts.

The passions and energies needed to launch a creative enterprise are the same no matter the geographic location – urban or rural – but are particularly pronounced in areas or populations that would not otherwise be served by galleries, theatres, festivals, or community communications (radio stations, newspapers, etc). These creative enterprises often come in the form of co-ops and non-profits because of individual commitment to local or regional needs and values.

In 2015, there were almost 40 creative co-ops in Nova Scotia, a large majority in rural areas and many of them disguised in the co-operative statistics as “worker co-ops”.  The economic importance of art venues to a province like Nova Scotia can be readily seen in the fact that 37% of Americans consider “culture” as a vital factor in vacation planning. The list of cultural attractions can include the expected festivals, performance venues, museums, and heritage sites, but also the tourist appetite for well organized, clearly identified areas and destinations, along with transportation routes for visual art and craft galleries and studios. 

It leads one to wonder if it’s time to revive the idea of one or two major “Art Trails” in rural Nova Scotia; a concept of packaging and promoting cultural tourism through visual arts maps and seasonal trails that connect dozens and dozens of galleries and studios.  The difference this time might be the participation of towns and municipalities in promoting and encouraging art and craft destinations within their areas.

Rural cultural co-ops are expected to increase in numbers when shrinking populations threaten the viability of traditional business models, most often because many artist co-ops can neutralize two major problems facing traditional budgets  – labor costs and predictable cash flow.

Studies in several provinces suggest that the failure rate for co-op start-ups is significantly lower compared to commercial enterprise, partly because most co-ops are rural based and are often created to fill a community need. Researchers further suggest that the level of competition may be lower in those rural situations, thus leading to a higher survival rate, but also that “opportunity costs” of riding out a stretch of poor business performance are greater in major urban centres (i.e. more options to exit a bad urban business situation, into other opportunities, thus creating a higher exit rate).  

Another way of looking at “opportunity” versus “need” is to examine the population of credit unions in Nova Scotia almost 10 years ago. Of the 82 credit unions in the province, 30 were located in communities where no other financial institution was available. 

There have been many studies in Canada and the U.S. in recent years, attempting to gauge the importance of cultural development and creative industries in rural North America. These studies have been carried out not so much with the idea of establishing past values, but rather, defining the critical role of arts, culture and creative enterprise in stabilizing rural populations and strengthening future economies.  The researchers describe arts, heritage and culture not as amenities to improve the quality of life, but rather the essential foundation upon which the future of small rural communities rests.

One study identifies several factors that make cultural development in these communities significantly different and many times more difficult than larger urban areas. The first recognizes the limitations and strengths of small populations that usually produce small organizations with limited resources. It acknowledges that rural areas often have an arts and culture history that celebrates self-improvement or self-education, but that importing “outside” expertise is often seen as the most direct route to meeting that self-improvement.

The study also suggests potential problems of ruralism -- the predominantly negative rural self-image and historic external bias against small, rural communities. This is sometimes expressed in communities that raise large amounts of money to bring in “outside” cultural instruction or performance but the community can’t or won’t support local arts and cultural needs. It is also based on false assumptions that when it comes to arts and culture, rural communities are not capable of doing what needs to be done and have no confidence in their own talents or history.  

The co-operative model is regarded as perhaps the most effective community weapon with which to deal with most of these potential problems, and also turn local and regional arts/culture strengths into economic drivers.    

Recent studies suggest that art co-ops come together for one of three reasons: 1) marketing strength; 2) operating a venue; or, 3) purchasing strength or sharing the cost of expensive equipment or resources. But they do face funding issues from traditional lenders and some granting agencies that often prefer to support non-profit arts organizations. And because most art co-ops are built on the shoulders and shared resources of individual artists, there is rarely any accumulated capital for expansion, innovation or major equipment.

Art co-ops come in many shapes, sizes and names. Some craft co-ops operate as worker co-operatives, while some publishing or performance co-ops operate as production co-ops. There are many forms of real estate co-ops but in the art world, studio co-ops are crucial in large cities. Many private art galleries operate with 30-45 individual artists represented, while most artist co-op galleries limit their stable to 10-20 individuals.  Some art co-ops are controlled by artists only, while many art co-ops aggressively seek broader community representation on their board of directors, or board of advisors.

There are an estimated 128 co-op art galleries in Canada, according to provincial stats, although many consider this official figure to be a very low estimate because many co-op galleries do not formally join provincial associations.  

Perhaps there is need for our rural cultural co-ops and non-profit cultural enterprises to sit together annually or even more often, to discuss how we can play a real role in making rural communities stronger economically and culturally.  In that frightening thing called, “the future”, it’s an almost guaranteed bet, that provincial and national policy makers will have their attentions and resources taken up with so-called bigger problems and strategies. 

As is often the case in rural regions, we’ll have to once again Do-It-Ourselves, one co-operative project at a time.    


Researched and written for Peer Gallery by gallery member Bob Hainstock, a former daily newspaper journalist and award-winning author-illustrator of a book on rural architectural heritage in Western Canada. For many years he was editor-publisher of one of Western Canada’s largest rural newspapers. His studio/gallery is located in the Annapolis Valley.


Bob Hainstock is a writer and visual artist.

He uses abstracted landscapes and rust collagraph prints to celebrate the colors and textures of a natural world.

His studio/gallery is located high above the Annapolis Valley.