It might sound counterintuitive, but art galleries cannot survive on art alone.
Even those galleries lucky enough to be located in art-centric NYC struggle to stay open. Many are taking notes from museums, incorporating established longer-term exhibits and trying other retail-inspired tricks to survive sky-high rents and low revenue returns.
So, it’s not surprising that small galleries in the Midwest, less instantly associated with the arts, are getting creative to keep the doors open. As with any business, galleries and the artists they showcase must attract customers through the door. In today’s volatile and fickle market, traditional approaches, such as holding opening receptions, isn’t enough. Successful gallery owners are now incorporating unique tactics and surprising solutions to create viable business models. These innovative strategies include hosting community-related events, pairing with non-art enterprises, and focusing on offering extensive art classes onsite. The bottom line is that the people running the galleries and the artists they represent are the secret sauce.
Look, for example, to two Ohio galleries serving diverse economic sectors, despite being just 13 miles apart. Each has found distinct methods of engagement with their communities and potential customer base. But they do share one important common denominator – the people at the core.
Diversifying the Gallery Business Model
Sunbear Studio & Gallery is located in Alexandria, Ohio, a “drive-through” village of 530 people. Inhabiting a renovated historic building at the only stop light, Sunbear is pastel artist/owner Meredith Martin’s home base for making art and displaying the work of 40 local artists. The community has embraced the gallery, which has been operational for over seven years.
Martin has had a gallery presence in various locations for 20 years. She cites that certain aspects of her gallery business model have resulted in her continued stability and success. “I believe the key to survival for galleries is diversification,” says Martin. At Sunbear, her business model includes hosting events, exhibits, gallery artists renting studio space, offering custom framing services, and even collecting passive income from renting out the basement to an unrelated business. Martin’s well-earned reputation in the regional art world combined, with her standing in Alexandria allows for both word-of-mouth and some advertising to attract these business opportunities.
A passion for teaching, which is Martin’s educational background (Martin has a degree in vocational education and Master’s in Adult Education), drives another component of her success: education. Martin offers 50 to 60 adult art classes a year, as do several of the gallery artists.
Special events are also a critical element of Martin’s gallery business model. Successful forays include the summer-long “Jammin’ at the Bear” on Friday nights featuring music, food, and artists’ demos. The event is free to the public and draws new and repeat art buyers. A destination event, it even brings art fans from nearby capital city Columbus, which has no shortage of esteemed art galleries. In addition to normal opening exhibits for gallery artists, Sunbear has hung shows at outside art spaces, including The Works in nearby Newark.
As a complement to diversifying her business, Martin uses social media and understands the value of digital marketing, having maintained an email list for 20 years (now at 3,000 names). She frequently sends out news or sales, and any upcoming events at the gallery. However, Martin believes that “Nothing replaces the tactile, visual appeal of printed materials.” Four-color postcards or bookmarks are added to the packaging of each purchase, particularly gifts.
Finding a good space, exhibiting excellent artists, and having display savvy are key components to successful gallery operation. But the most effective elements contributing to the gallery’s growth and recognition are often in the intangible category. “The biggest asset is people,” Martin says. “It’s the good energy and the willingness to be engaged and real.” This human touch is what motivates Martin and keeps her inspired. “I’m interested in customers and the artists feed me. I never know who will come in the front door, so it’s a daily adventure!”
Focus on Hosting Local Art Events
In nearby affluent New Albany, Ohio, Hayley Deeter is entering her 10th year as a gallery owner. Representing 60 local artists in her third retail space, you might describe Deeter’s driving principle as “You can’t be successful waiting for people to walk in the door.” Like Sunbear Studio & Gallery, Deeter’s gallery business model utilizes diversity, inventive outreach, and offers ancillary services to customers. Hosting local art events has proven to be a winner for Deeter.
Although infusing local events with wine is not a new concept, the gallery hosts a wine tasting once a month. What sets these events apart is the collaboration with a local winery, giving the event more veritas. Deeter’s outside-the-box events programming includes hosting a very popular regular talk with a local plastic surgeon, complete with Botox treatments. It’s not an art-related occasion, but a repeat event that gets an enthusiastic crowd in the gallery door. In a civic-minded gesture, Deeter holds a “Give the Gallery” option for nonprofits who wish to use the gallery space for two hours each month. Recently, the gallery donated space and time for a women’s political group to gather.
Deeter’s extensive corporate background informs many of her marketing decisions, including the decision to host unique local art events and offer nontraditional purchasing programs. Embracing outside retail opportunities, Deeter places paintings that are decidedly not the expected “corporate art” in a local real estate office and a popular restaurant next door. Deeter has extensive community contacts which allow for crafting these unique partnerships. In a creative arrangement with a new upscale retirement center, Deeter provides two pieces of art on loan for display for every piece the center buys. It’s been a very lucrative and popular program.
Like Sunbear Gallery, Deeter offers custom framing, which is a natural offshoot of running an art gallery. She has also recently started a home décor/design service based on the gallery’s art. In a linear progression from her practice of taking art to clients’ homes to assess fit, she now also does interior design and stages homes to sell. The latter was a result of guests in her home asking her who had “done” her art-filled décor.
Artists Conduct Their Own Outreach Efforts
The most successful gallery artists invest time in promoting themselves and their galleries, recognizing it’s part of the commitment to publicly selling art. If there were such a thing as an artist ambassador for a gallery, it would be mixed-media artist Vicki Moon Spiegel. Formerly a graphic artist at the Columbus Zoo, Spiegel is an active member of Sunbear Studio, regularly teaching classes and demoing her work. Spiegel also does outreach through volunteering and exhibiting at other venues.
Similarly, painter Todd Buschur has invested in his personal brand in an effort to sell more work. A high school art instructor by day, Buschur has had five successful solo shows at Hayley Gallery over the past 10 years. Buschur draws potential clients to the gallery via a well-executed website, which features an online gallery for customers to become familiar with him as an artist while previewing available paintings. Signing up for an email mail list informs subscribers of new work and special events.
Many artists shy away from the concept of creating their own brand. It tends to feed into the outdated belief that the artist’s only job is to create. Buschur, instead, embraces it.
“I strive to create a brand that evokes a particular ‘feel/look’ to my business and my product. A brand should accurately reflect you as an artist, which can be better told through a story,” Buschur notes. “Everyone has a story to tell; the ‘art’ is in how you convey your story. Again, that narrative should bring you and your work into a better light while creating an interest in what you do and what drives you as a creative person. I have found the branding of my business has been more effective through the avenue of social media and the internet.”
If you’re operating galleries in the Midwest or other nontraditional areas, use these examples to jump-start your ideas, finding unique and productive ways to monetize your promotional/marketing efforts and streamline your gallery business model approach.