Photograph by Kelsey McNeill

Like artists across the community, Bloomington photographer Audim Culver must subsidize her creative energies with work that provides a living wage. The local art scene supports few artists, so Culver teaches at the IU fine arts school.

Third-year MFA photography student Audim Culver said she can display her work in just about any of Bloomington's local coffee shops. However, when it comes to finding a gallery space, she must to seek options out of town.

"You can always get a show at a coffee shop," the 28-year-old IU student said. "There are those more grassroots places. But as far as finding a more legitimate gallery space, that's when things get more difficult."

The economic recession of the late 2000s brought difficulties to artists and for-profit gallery owners in the Bloomington area.

Bloomington has a long history of supporting local artist through festivals like the 4th Street Festival held every Labor Day. The downtown area houses galleries for all forms of arts and theater.

Although non-profit galleries such as the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center and for-profit galleries such as Sublime Design Gallery and Gifts continue to exist, the number of galleries has decreased in recent years.

Indianapolis native Jaime Sweany, 53, closed the doors to her for-profit local art store, Wandering Turtle Art Gallery and Gifts, in January 2011. The stored operated for eight years on or near the Courthouse Square.

"I wanted that store to support local artists, both musical and visual, and make downtown Bloomington a hub for the arts," she said.

Sweany represented as many as 130 local artists at Wandering Turtle.

"I tried to help as many people in the arts community and the music community as I could," she said.


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This story is part of a series called Student Reports that features the work of students at the IU School of Journalism.


Despite the number of artists represented at Sweany's store, Wandering Turtle proved to not be financially viable enough to survive the recession.

"If you look at the number of businesses that have closed since then, it's pretty staggering," she said. "I really miss the store and the community connection I had through it."

Other for-profit galleries, such as Pictura Gallery at Sixth Street and College Avenue, have increased the caliber of the artists they represent to attract more viewers, Culver said.

Pictura's Exhibitions Director Mia Dalglish said the gallery, next to where Wandering Turtle was, recently showed 2010 Higashikawa New Photographer of the Year Award recipient Osamu James Nakagawa and Bill Guy from Chicago. "Their work is incredible," she said, "and we relish in the opportunity to display the art of photographers from all over the world."

Calls-for-entry bring attention to art

"There are a lot of artists here, but it hasn't become an arts destination. People appreciate art, but they don't come here to buy art, and that's always going to be really hard on art galleries unless something changes." - Jaime Sweany, Wandering Turtle Art Gallery and GiftsBloomington gallery closings forces Culver and others to rely on calls-for-entry galleries to display their work.

Call-for-entry means artists pay fees to submit portfolios of their work to galleries and hope to be chosen for shows. Call-for-entry galleries are located all over the nation, most notably in Fort Collins, Colo., New York City and Houston, Culver said.

"Right now, my only real realistic option is to just keep applying for these call-for-entries," Culver said.

Culver said she has been accepted into three or four call-for-entries.

"I'll enter my work into about 10 calls-for-entry and then be accepted into maybe one," she said.

Call-for-entries contribute to building resumes and displaying work, but for artists hoping to make a profit, Bloomington is a challenge.

Sweany said artists who previously sold work at Wandering Turtle now sell their works at other for-profit store such as Sublime Design Gallery and Gifts and the Venue Gallery. These stores were modeled off of Wandering Turtle, Sweany said.

Sweany tries to keep Wandering Turtle going through an online gallery.

"It's hard," she said. "[Art] isn't a booming business in Bloomington."

Alternative ways of making money through art

Culver, who teaches undergraduate photography courses at IU, continues creating work through the university. For the past two years, she has taught Photography for Non-Majors, Introduction to Photography and Intermediate Photography through the fine arts department.
"Right now, my only real realistic option is to just keep applying for these call-for-entries." - Audim Culver
"Teaching provides the environment that is nurturing for creation," she said. "Also, being in academia and having access to facilities is huge."

Through IU, Culver has access to darkrooms, chemicals for developing film and high quality printers. Teaching also provides a steady income, helping her have the financial security to create her own work.

Culver said there are areas of photography that would allow her to make a living just taking photos, but they do not appeal to her.

"I've shot weddings," she said. "I don't like it. It's stressful. It's not the environment for me."

Other areas of photography that produce profit are commercial, fashion and portraiture photography, Culver said. However, her work, like many local artists', does not fit into these categories.

Sweany said it's a shame that Bloomington can't support galleries to the extent they can be actually really successful.

"There are a lot of artists here, but it hasn't become an arts destination," she said. "People appreciate art, but they don't come here to buy art, and that's always going to be really hard on art galleries unless something changes."

While Sweany worries about the future of Bloomington's art scene, Culver looks at the opportunities still available with optimism.

"I really think that if there's a will there's a way," she said. "If you work hard enough you can figure it out."

Kelsey McNeil can be reached at kemcneil@indiana.edu.