Apama Mackey takes a break from rolling a fresh coat of paint on her gallery’s floor. We sit down on the wood deck in the courtyard to talk. There aren’t any chairs — Mackey sold them, along with the refrigerator. She apologizes that she can’t offer anything to drink. After going to great lengths to keep Apama Mackey Gallery afloat, including taking on a job waiting tables, Mackey recently decided to close it and got rid of a lot of stuff. But she has since changed her mind.
The art market’s crash has caused galleries to close all over the country, and it’s pushing many that remain to the breaking point. For a barometer of just how bad things are in the art world, consider auction house Sotheby’s: After raking it in just a few short years ago, it suffered an 87 percent drop in earnings in the second quarter of this year.
In Houston, the economic trials of Mackey and her gallery aren’t unique, but the ways the gallerist has chosen to deal with them are. In her early forties, recently divorced and a mother of two sons, Iranian-American Mackey is attractive, savvy, refreshingly blunt and funny as hell. Her family came to this country in 1972 so her dad could attend graduate school. They never left, moving to Houston when Mackey was in the eighth grade. Her father worked for Enron for 28 years, until its collapse. Mackey studied sociology at Sam Houston State University, and after school, she put her outgoing personality to work and got a job as a restaurant manager. She met Jeff Mackey, owner of a recruiting firm, in Houston, and they married in 1995.
How did Mackey decide to open a gallery? “We were collectors,” she says. “That’s how it always happens. We fell in love with art; it took a place in our hearts; it would be like ripping a hole in us if we didn’t pursue it.” They opened Mackey Gallery in 1997, in a hip, modern building on Center Street with a spacious home upstairs and a sleek gallery space downstairs. They did incredibly well, representing local artists as well as internationally known artists like the Clayton Brothers, whose works sell for from $5,000 to $70,000. The gallery participated in prestigious juried art fairs, including Art Basel Miami, Pulse New York, Art Miami, Art Brussels and MACO: México Arte Contemporáneo.
The couple, who are still close friends, divorced two years ago and sold their house and gallery space. Mackey’s husband had his recruiting firm, and Mackey kept the gallery business. She didn’t want to rent a new space, so she just rented a lot on 11th Street in the Heights. With Numen Development, she built an inventive gallery building using three recycled shipping containers and Structural Insulated Panels, or SIPs. The whole thing is portable, and it has been touted as the “greenest gallery in Texas.”
The upheaval in Mackey’s life overlapped with the economic downturn. Sales, which had been monthly, if not weekly, occurrences, slowed to a trickle. At the beginning of this year, Mackey had to get an additional job to support the gallery, which meant she had to hire someone to work there. Taking a page from the starving-artist handbook, Mackey took a crappy job in order to support doing what she loved. She went back to work in a restaurant, waiting tables and bartending. It wasn’t exactly something she’d anticipated doing once she owned her own business. But Mackey is as pragmatic as she is unpretentious, and she doesn’t give a damn. She needed quick cash to keep the gallery afloat, and with her restaurant experience, she got a job easily.
Unfortunately, working to support the gallery — but not working in the gallery — halted sales. “The clients weren’t coming in,” Mackey explains. “They want the whole social aspect of it as well. You work to keep somebody there, but then you are defeating your purpose by not being there.”
It was in this economic environment that Mackey planned her “AMG Stimulus Package” show this June, inspired by a “pay what you want” membership day held at the MFAH. According to Mackey, “They had a line around the block, and I thought, ‘Why not do “pay what you want” for art?'”
“Things were tight, and I thought, ‘It’s not just me, it’s other galleries, it’s artists; if I need a boost, then everybody else probably does, too.'” Prices weren’t at the discretion of the buyer, but they were ridiculously cheap. Everything was $50 or $100, with work by well-known and unknown artists. Mackey had rounded up art using everything from e-mail to Facebook. Rachel Hecker, along with the likes of Bill Davenport, Aaron Parazette, Elaine Bradford and Soody Sharifi, had work in the show.
People previewed “Stimulus Package” during the day, but nothing could be sold until 6 p.m. “We had a line of people holding checkbooks and credit cards and art,” says Mackey. “Within an hour, I was out of liquor. The backyard of the gallery was full; the front was full. People who are artists and clients were buying beer across the street and bringing it over.” With work selling at $50 to $100 a pop, says Mackey, “It wasn’t like we were making money hand over fist, but it was fun, like it used to be. I thought, ‘Wow, this is what I missed.'” But no matter how much fun everyone had, it netted the artists just enough to pay gas bills or buy beer, and it wasn’t enough to sustain the gallery.
Late this summer, Mackey finally decided to close her gallery. She wanted to simplify things. She started selling off the gallery furnishings and donated tools to local artists and art centers. She put a for-rent sign up in front of the gallery. A twenty-something hostess she worked with at the restaurant said, “I’m sorry you’re closing your gallery, but, um, do you have a computer table I could buy?”
A realtor looking for an office came to see the space, as did some guy who wanted to open an amp shop. Then there was the guy who “wanted to open a wine bar — or,” says Mackey, chuckling, “an ad agency. Like it would be one or the other…” She was surprised by how possessive she felt about the space.
It was a difficult time for Mackey, and she wasn’t feeling exactly social. She was invited to a party with a lot of art people, but was just going to drop off some flowers and leave. When she arrived, fellow guest and gallerist Sonja Roesch said, “Oh, stay and have a tah-koh.” Mackey relates the story, perfectly mimicking the German gallerist’s accent. “And I thought well, why not.”
Sitting with Roesch and her daughter, artist Ariane Roesch, Mackey surveyed the scene. It was a lovely house, owned by a lovely couple, and Mackey thought to herself, “‘Wow, these people have worked really hard for this, and they really deserve it.’ But then I thought, ‘You know, I have worked really hard too and don’t want to lose what I’ve accomplished.’ I couldn’t believe I was throwing in the towel; that’s not me.” That’s when she decided to keep the gallery open and not give up. “It was so ridiculous,” says Mackey, laughing again. “I’m making this major life decision because Sonja says, “Oh, stay and have a tah-koh.”
She’d sold the fridge, moved close to a thousand art books to her house and gotten rid of most of the stuff she’d accumulated in the last 12 years, but it was cathartic. The formerly book-filled library is now additional exhibition space. When I met up with her at the gallery, she was cheerful, even about painting the floor. “I didn’t realize the attachment I had to the clients, to the artists, to the art,” she says. “It’s not a lifestyle, it’s a life.”
Mackey just lost her job at the restaurant. The owner recently backed a truck up in the middle of the night and cleared the place out. She says he might have something for her at another restaurant he owns, but she’s looking around. We discuss the virtues of temping. I ask her what she’s heard from other galleries about how they are doing.
“They all say it’s hard, but no one is really going to tell you,” says Mackey. “It’s such an image thing, you know. What should really matter is that people trust you, that artists and collectors trust you and trust your eye, not that the gallery is so beautiful and perfect and making money hand over fist. I mean, we all scrub our own toilets.”