Carmel Painting Out Galleries

Times Staff Writer

Swing a baguette anywhere in this European-flavored coastal resort and you're likely to whack a piece of art.

For many of the 4,000 residents in this chic Monterey Peninsula retreat, that's a big problem. Earlier this month, the council approved an "urgency ordinance" banning more art galleries.

It may seem extreme, but this is also the place that, a few years ago, banned for-profit walking tours. It once vigorously debated the sale of ice cream cones.

The urgency ordinance, would be lifted only when tough -- some say, virtually impossible -- restrictions on new galleries take permanent effect.

So how many art galleries are there in the one-square mile officially known as Carmel-By-The-Sea?

The city says about 120, with half coming to town in the last five years. One-third of the retail space here is devoted to painting, drawing, sculpture and the like. There's a gallery for every 34 residents of art-rich Carmel. By contrast, there's a bar for every 561 residents of liquor-rich Las Vegas.

Grumblings about a gallery glut have wafted through Carmel for several years. Gallery critics claim that some tourists shy away from the city because they might want to buy other things -- like, heaven forbid, a T-shirt. (Another ordinance bars stores from displaying those in their windows.)

They say the galleries don't channel much in the way of sales tax. Even worse, they say, local shops that provide the necessities of life have gone out of business, unable to afford the kind of monthly rent, sometimes as high as $25,000, that galleries can pay.

"We realized that we might not have a diverse enough business community," said Mayor Sue McCloud, a retired CIA agent. "You can't get your hair cut, your clothes cleaned or your shoes repaired here. We're down to one drugstore for a town where the average age is 55."

McCloud said the galleries have contributed to a worrisome drop in sales tax, which is not charged on items shipped outside of California. That's bad news for the city, which last year had to lay off more than 20 employees and dip into its reserves for $700,000 to meet expenses.

"When you're buying an expensive item, it's worth it to crate it up and send it to Aunt Minnie in Reno," McCloud said. "You don't see many tourists walking around here with a bronze sculpture or a large canvas under their arms."

So, with several applications for new galleries pending, the council drew a bold line.

After the ban expires, new galleries must feature the works of mainly one artist or must have a working artist on the premises. Part of a larger city plan, those provisions could take effect as soon as next month, when the California Coastal Commission is expected to sign off on them.

The move has not exactly prompted post-Impressionists to riot in the streets, but it left many gallery people fuming. "We're frustrated because the city doesn't have an understanding of our business and what it takes to succeed," said Jennifer Walker, who runs the Hanson Gallery, one of Carmel's largest.

Only the most commercial artists could afford galleries displaying their works alone, she said, pointing to Thomas Kinkade, the self-described "Painter of Light," who has some 200 outlets across the U.S., including two in Carmel.

"He publicly describes his business as home decor," Walker said. "Is that the definition of a proper art gallery?"

A number of gallery owners scoffed at the idea of working artists pursuing the muse in Carmel galleries.

"It's quaint and lovely but not super-realistic in this day and age," said Sylvia Savage, whose gallery has a joking sign that tells tourists: "No beach scenes, no landscapes, no florals!"

Carmel started a century ago as, of all things, an art colony. In 1910, The Times called it "a hotbed of soulful culture, a vortex of animated erudition."

"Of late," a writer observed, "it has become the magnetizing center for writers, near-writers, notsonear writers, distant writers, poets, poetesses, artists, daubers ... and those aspiring ladies who spend their days smearing up with paint what would otherwise be very serviceable pieces of canvas."

Today, as many as 20,000 tourists jam the city on summer afternoons, poking down leafy alleyways between Hansel-and-Gretel buildings covered in mossy shingles. There's no movie theater, no carwash. But the windows along Ocean Avenue showcase Chagall prints, a painting of half an orange resting on a juicing machine, a jade bonsai tree here, moonlight sparkling off crashing waves there.

While art collectors enjoy the variety, tourists undergo what Monta Potter, director of the chamber of commerce, called "art fatigue."

On the other hand, Carmel, where real estate agents post fliers for $2-million homes, has never tried to cast a wide net for tourists. For years it has been vigilant against creeping tackiness.

It wants tourists to eat at restaurants, not on the streets, but relented only after a year-and-a-half battle with a cafe owner who mounted an initiative in order to serve soup.

In 1986, Mayor Clint Eastwood successfully fended off the move to bar ice cream cones on the street. Last month, the city told the owner of a clock store to forget about selling watches: They're jewelry and only 32 jewelry stores are allowed to operate at any one time.

But some local business owners see a bit of hope in the new restrictions on galleries.

"We've got a very unhealthy balance right now and it's ruining the town," said Merv Sutton, owner of Nielsen Brothers, an upscale grocery that features Armagnac brandy and its own brand of lime marmalade.

At 67, Sutton doesn't expect his business to endure. His rent hasn't gone up in eight years but, inevitably, it will.

"I'm trying everything I can to cut corners so we can stay here," he said. "But I don't know."

For tourists like Dick Holm, Sutton's store is off the beaten track. A retired firefighter who lives in nearby Los Altos, he comes to Carmel with his wife for the golf and for the art.

After surprising her with a painting for the spot over their fireplace, Holm was amazed at the gallery crackdown.

"What a nice problem to have: Too many good things! In Los Altos, we really need some of what Carmel is trying to limit," he said.

City planner Brian Roseth has heard that before. "It's odd," he acknowledged. "But we're Carmel."

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