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Carmel faces practical problem: too much art

In Carmel-by-the Sea, a California town famous for its art galleries, city officials are grappling with a practical problem: Galleries have crowded out other businesses, and don't generate much tax income.
In Carmel-By-The-Sea, art galleries dominate the commercial scene so dramatically that the city council banned the opening of any more on an "urgency basis."
In Carmel-By-The-Sea, art galleries dominate the commercial scene so dramatically that the city council banned the opening of any more on an "urgency basis."Eric Risberg / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The artists discovered this village in the early 1900s and put up wooden cottages where they could paint the shoreline and the coastal pines. Then the art dealers arrived, with their silky scarves, their flute-filled soundtracks and their airy galleries.

Now, some civic leaders say, Carmel-by-the-Sea has a problem many communities probably did not even know existed: too much art.

Galleries selling everything from Impressionist landscapes to butterfly-shaped baubles and cartoon dog portraits account for one of every three businesses along Carmel’s stone walkways. In all, 105 stores sell art in this town of about 4,100 residents. For a while, the city was approving a new gallery every week.

“People are upset. They can’t go to a movie theater. They can’t buy socks in this town,” said Ross Arnold, owner of the Carmel Drug Store, the only shop of its kind. “You walk down the street and it’s gallery, gallery, jewelry store, gallery, gallery.”

The art glut has also created problems for the city’s finances: Mayor Sue McCloud complained that the 35 galleries that have opened since 2000 have yielded just $5,000 in sales tax revenue for the town. That is because California law exempts tourists from paying sales tax on purchases they get shipped out of state.

Gallery 'threat'Late last year, city leaders labeled the proliferation of galleries a “real and impending threat” and virtually banned any new ones from opening in this community two hours south of San Francisco.

Local governments in tourist destinations such as Key West, Fla., and Aspen, Colo., have also found that it is hard to live on art alone. But these and other cities often enjoy revenue from hotel stays, outdoor sports, nightlife and other goods and services.

Carmel is a relative pauper in this regard. In part because it is near Pebble Beach, it is a major destination for golfers, but its tiny downtown all but closes down when night falls.

Similarly, in Santa Fe, N.M., art dealers have been on the defensive since politicians complained the city’s art industry was not a good engine for economic growth and did not produce enough tax revenue, said Michael Carroll, who heads the gallery association there.

“We’re still battling the image that all we do is sell pictures of howling coyotes,” Carroll said. “People don’t understand that we’re the good guys.”

Moratorium to support artistsIn Carmel-by-the-Sea, the near-moratorium approved in November was designed in part to support local artists.

New galleries can obtain business permits only if they dedicate 80 percent of their space to the work of one artist, or if the gallery has a working studio in use at least half the time its doors are open.

Gallery owner George Stern said the city would do better to limit the number of T-shirt shops and ice cream stores.

“I just don’t get it,” said Stern, a prominent Los Angeles dealer whose gallery was the last to squeeze in before the ban. “The restrictions have the possible tendency of developing a provincial aspect to the work.”

Along Ocean Avenue, tourists can chose from a seemingly endless supply of look-alike pastel landscapes selling for as much as $8,000 each.

Landscape painter Dick Crispo is nostalgic for the town he knew — a quiet artists’ colony filled with cheap hamburger joints and art supply stores. “You can’t even buy a paint brush here anymore,” he said.

Enid Sales, who has lived in Carmel on and off since 1933, said the ban could bring a welcome change: “Maybe now I’ll be able to walk downtown and buy something useful.”