It’s not unusual for politics to become target and fodder for the art world. Politicians and policy frequently end up in sculptures, photography and in paintings, spawning controversy that can be lucrative for the artist.
Nick Baldridge, who owns Bakova Gallery with his wife, Anna Shcherbakova, has a different perspective on politics mixing with art, and he’s worried his feelings will likely been viewed as controversial.
“Our business model isn’t based on politics, so it’s frustrating when politics has such an effect on our business,” he said. “A lot of people are becoming accidentally political in these times and they really don’t want to be. I don’t want to be. But when I call it out like I see it, people put me in a pocket. And I’m like, ‘that’s not me.’”
He’s concerned that his business, which had opened in December, is suffering because of the policy regarding a key component of his business plan and the gallery’s brief success: a cocktail bar. The coronavirus came down and the state shuts down. Baldridge and Shcherbakova understood and were all in on the “we’re going to beat this together” spirit. But the shut down kept going. Suddenly, places were allowed to open that didn’t appear to make sense and seemed to indicate something other than the statistical nature of why it was shut down in the first place.
While other North Carolina businesses, including restaurants and retailers, have been green lighted through one phase or another, bars have repeatedly been stifled or greatly limited in their ability to operate. Even as bars are now able to open for limited outdoor-only seating, Bakova, which has nearly no outdoor space, has a shiny, smooth top bar that continues to sit unused.
“I’m not a fan of people playing politics with other people’s lives,” Baldridge continued. “Everyone’s so afraid to talk about it. People say things like ‘we can’t have our business open, but that similar business over there can and we don’t know why.’ We do know why.
“I wish more people, more businesses would publicly denounce these policies. Without synergy and without the support of other businesses denouncing the policies, no one feels like they can say anything. They feel like they’re being ostracized. And they know their neighbors feel the same way,” he said.
Baldridge is clearly conflicted by his feelings. He stresses his concern for people who are compromised with health issues. He’s not out to “kill grandma” as some might foolishly pass off his intentions. But he says he can’t hide the frustration that stares at him like like a gallery full of portraits.
“Unfortunately, everything is so politicized. If I mention anything at all about policy, or data, it determines which side of the fence you’re on,” Baldridge said. “Everybody seems to think that you’re a radical Republican if you want to open up, or you’re a radical Democrat if you want to keep businesses closed. So, I can’t really talk about it because I don’t want to be labeled. I don’t have a political agenda here. I have an agenda to be open, run our business, have a community.”
In late February, right after the Last Friday Art Walk, Bakova’s owners were feeling very good about how they were running their business, and feeling good about their decision to install a cocktail bar on the main floor of the gallery.
“In our only Last Friday Art Walk, the place was packed,” Baldridge recalled. “The music was pumping. We made rent that night. We covered our expenses. Usually with art walks, you don’t sell a lot of paintings or make a lot of revenue that night, but you do gain a lot of traction. You get residual sales. That’s how it usually works. To see us completely slammed at the bar and to sell several paintings off the wall and to see so many people having a good experience was amazing.
“We had the bar open about 12 days before we were forced to shut down. We originally opened in early December. We had January and most of February. Business started dying down that last week or so of February. We started seeing people kind of disappear. The virus was known at the end of January. In February, more was being talked about. We were coming down to our core supporters. People from around town. People who weren’t traveling much to be here. Right after that, we had the Last Friday Art Walk event here. Right after that, everyone disappeared. They announced the national emergency and that’s when everyone stopped. Our business was horribly affected by the virus. We had just started. We were just getting the ball rolling and starting to invest in our second quarter business traffic. The biggest time for a gallery is the spring leading into summer. We opened during the slow time. The business has been closed for the entire busy season of the gallery. All the exhibitions we had got taken away. We started trying to re-tool the business once we learned more about the coronavirus and we felt a little less scared. We felt like, ‘this isn’t something that’s just going to wipe you out when you walk outside. You’re not going to walk outside and just die.’ So, we started trying to open back up,” Baldridge said.
The gallery briefly tried doing business by appointment. “It’s really not that kind of business,” he said. “This business needs events. We started this business with almost 100 percent of our business model to host weddings, receptions, host private parties. That’s why we built the bar. Our in-house bar. Small events, corporate events. Stuff like that. Last Fridays was going to be a big thing. Let the people rent the space out for different uses and have it be a mixed-use gallery space with a full bar.”
Bakova’s owners have taken some time to improve the gallery’s website and have gained some traction through marketing campaigns. They’ve sold several pieces of art online and in the gallery. But the two were forced to return to their previous jobs full-time.
“Anna and I are working other jobs to help support the gallery for the time being. We love this gallery and this town, and we’ll do as much as we can to keep going.”
Even their efforts to keep the doors open at Bakova have caused consternation as the owners have been unable to get back to promoting the gallery because they’re having to devote so much time to their other jobs.
“Much of this town, including some of the restaurants I’ve talked to, as I go around and talk with other businesses and see what they’re up to, we’re all kind of struggling,” Baldridge said. “The data seems to point at the green light to open a lot of businesses with caution. With careful rules. But there’s no reason a small bar, like Yonder or my little cocktail bar, can’t obey by the same rules as a restaurant, a brewery, a winery or a distillery.”
Baldridge may lay much of his irritations at the feet of politicians, politics and policy, but he also believes the media shoulders much of the blame for the situation his and other businesses are in in Orange County.
“I don’t appreciate the fear that the media is trying to strike in your heart,” he said. “You know what I’m afraid of? I afraid of losing my whole business, my life savings and being without a job. Essentially in poverty. That’s what I’m afraid of.
“Fear is a powerful tool. Media fear, it’s just a powerful tool. And right now, I think the media is using fear for one reason or another. Businesses like mine are strongly affected by it.”
Baldridge uses a car analogy to explain the situation he believes North Carolina could find itself in: You could say you’re afraid to drive because you might die, and you don’t drive your car. Well eventually your car is not going to start. And then you’ve broken your car down and lost an ability to drive altogether. For businesses, it’s very much the same. If you don’t go to your business and you don’t generate synergy with other businesses, which is one of the most important things for a brick-and-mortar, then you can’t create an agenda to drive traffic. If you don’t have that, and you let your business sit, it then will start to break down and be really hard to start back up again. And it will need a lot more repairs. A lot more upkeep to get back on the road.”
Bakova has relied on local support, and is appreciative of what it has received. But the gallery had been open a short time before Covid hit, and was unable to develop the relationships it would have liked.
“Local business is our thing,” Baldridge said. “Our local community is what keeps this gallery alive. It’s what we count on. Anna and I are not from here. We were able to get in here and do all these things relatively quickly. I honestly feel like we didn’t get a chance to really develop a strong community of followers and people here. When we were open was the slowest season. We were waiting for Last Friday Art Walks to start up again and everything, to actually start meeting people. And that never happened.”
Baldridge said his biggest fear is Hillsborough may choose to not restart the in person Last Friday Art Walks.
“If the Last Friday Art Walks don’t return, it will be devastating to us. I would never invest or open a gallery in a town that does not have a monthly arts walk. That is kind of a necessity for a gallery, in my opinion. If the arts walk doesn’t return here for the foreseeable future, it really worries me about my decision to locate here. If it’s decided to not do one, then it’s a dooming factor to the whole city. This town thrives, and almost depends on, the bars that have been closed and the art walks that have been cancelled. That’s the nightlife and the monthly attraction that everyone built up to. The cool thing about art walks is that it gives every single downtown business something to build up to every single month. They get ready for this big event and that event makes rent. That event brings clientele and new faces and drives the economy and creates synergy and brings the town together.”