Q&A: Fulton Street Gallery director seeks new, unheralded artists

Colleen Skiff encourages artists not to wait for opportunity. They must create opportunity as feveri
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Colleen Skiff encourages artists not to wait for opportunity. They must create opportunity as feverishly as they hone their craft.

It’s an attitude that has served her well, not only as an artist, but as founder and director of the Fulton Street Gallery.

When she arrived in this area in 1988 from Pennsylvania, she was unfamiliar with the Capital Region arts scene. Anxious to connect with fellow artists, she joined a coalition of women artists. When a bank offered to display her paintings, she agreed. But first she found five other banks who would show five other artists. Then, she devised a plan to rotate the art among the banks.

“I realized I was better working for other people than I was for myself,” said the 55-year-old from Bethlehem.

That prompted her to establish a nonprofit gallery in Albany in 1994. When that failed, she opened another in Troy.

That was 10 years ago. And the white-walled storefront, currently replete with sculpture, paintings, photographs and ceramics, is still going strong. That’s amazing, considering she is its only permanent staff member (paid only one year out of 10) and that the gallery runs on a budget of $15,000 a year.

For a fee of $35, less if you are a student or senior, anyone can become a member of the gallery. That guarantees a spot in the annual members show. It also ensures a built-in network of artists, many of them unknown, as well as a chance to submit work to an average of 10 annual shows at the gallery.

Skiff also teaches elementary art at Berne-Knox-Westerlo Elementary School. The graduate of Wilkes University and the University of Scranton continues to create her own work, mainly psychological portraits in paint. She also dabbles in sculpture, working in clay, glass and mixed media. She took time from her tight schedule to talk about her passion for the gallery, art and artists.

Q: Why has Troy been a good location for Fulton Street Gallery?

A: We have a very nice situation here. I purposely picked it because Troy was growing slowly. I knew we could grow with the city. I knew the Arts Center of the Capital Region was coming. I didn’t want to go right into the high-rent district. I would fail there. The other thing is, we have a phenomenal landlord who likes artists and is supportive of the arts.

Q: When you incorporated the gallery, what did you want to do that was different from other galleries?

A: Inclusion. I couldn’t work for a few elite. The gallery makes sure the members have an opportunity to show their best work.

Q: Members can pick what they want to put in for the members show?

A: Yes, but if we have too many members, I would edit.

Q: One of the things you did was try to entice more entries for the annual Photography Regional.

A: Yes, we were the first to accept jpeg entries on the computer. We did it to make it easier for digital artists, so they didn’t have to submit slides. That way, no one was excluded. Conversion from digital to slides is costly. That’s not right. And this year, we had the Photo Regional in two locations so we could include more people. We partnered with the PhotoCenter of the Capital District.

Q: So, you are the people’s gallery?

A: Yes. An artist who has a body of work can be a member and be in the members show. They can be in a Blink, that’s a two-week show. And we have juried and themed shows that they can enter. You don’t need a huge body of work to start and get some exposure here. We have international shows, too. We are not hampered like other galleries that have money and restrictions. We can show anybody from any part of the world.

Q: What’s next at the gallery?

A: “Little Engines,” which is in conjunction with “Take Notice.” It’s curated by Jason Martinez, who just finished his MFA at the University at Albany. He brings in a different perspective, because he has a different peer group than mine. I like to have jurors and curators who bring a different perspective.

Q: How do you balance teaching, running a gallery and creating for your own work?

A: Well, I always taught. I taught 12 years in Pennsylvania. Then I became an art therapist. But I always taught classes at home. I never stopped teaching. I can’t imagine not doing it. It’s an opportunity to show what you know. And being at the gallery, you get filled up, you get ideas. I like being with children. They are energy. I like being around my peers. They give me ideas.

Q: What is the secret to your longevity?

A: I let people do what they do best. We’ve had theater here, poetry readings, music, artist residency, a film was made here. I never say no to a great idea.

Categories: Life and Arts

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