The Gallery Business: Cultivating Collectors and Collecting Artists

The yellow pages have more than 40 listings for 'galleries' in Wilmington. But there's a lot of turnover on that roster. WHQR's Megan Williams looks at the tough business of selling art...

Wilmington, NC – Wilmington's Front Street presents an endlessly rotating exhibit on both the attraction, and the difficulty, of the art business. Galleries seem to come and go like seasonal flowers. Mia Tyson and Art, Etc close down, and a few months later Three Hounds, Corporate Canvas, and Bottega open up. From her location at the north end of that drag, Merrimon Kennedy, the owner of New Elements gallery, has the survivor's perspective. She's watched this cycle for nearly 20 years. And while more galleries seem to be surviving these days, Kennedy says this still isn't an easy business. To last, galleries need to know their business, and their buyers.

To keep afloat, local galleries new and old are experimenting with a raft of different business strategies to get potential collectors through their doors and in front of their art. It's a trend repeating around the country. Joe Jancsurak is an editor with the industry magazine, Art Business News. He says the traditional wine-and-cheese opening is evolving, incorporating everything from charity benefits, to art classes.

"Some of the galleries that we're aware of," Janscurak says, "will even go beyond the traditional and invite in musical groups from the community. Anything that will draw people into the gallery is very, very good."

To increase its chances, new gallery Bottega has made Happy Hour an integral part of the business plan. Co-owner Steven Gibbs describes the shop as an "art bar/wine gallery" and on a recent evening, the emphasis was definitely on the beverage side, as regulars gathered for the weekly wine tasting. So far, Gibbs says, alcohol sales are a big part of Bottega's bottom line, even though he still sees the business as primarily a gallery. His goal is to integrate the two, by creating an "atmosphere for the arts" where patrons spend longer looking at the works, because they're sipping a drink.

Gibbs isn't alone in trying a dual-business model. He's quick to rattle off others: "If you look at some of the other galleries that are opening around town, you'll see, there are a couple that are combining furniture into what they're doing. Another is combining a tattoo parlor in their business."

These new galleries often skirt other conventions as they work to survive, such as taking less than the usual 50% commission on the works they sell. They also rarely require exclusivity from their artists. Limiting the places an artist can show helps to identify them with a gallery, and makes maintaining the right stable of artists crucial for a gallery's long-term success.

Farin Greer opened T.A.G. at Lumina Station two years ago with a show of artists she picked up from a recently closed gallery. Greer says she still keeps an eye out when a local gallery goes under, to see who's becoming available. But to get on the walls, artistic value isn't the only consideration. Works also have to be able to sell.

"There are no rules, I have to go with this intuitive voice that tells me to give it a try or not give it a try. There's no black and white about what I select," she says.

Once Greer does decide to take on an artist, hanging their pieces is the least of her efforts. The real work happens through a detailed list of repeat buyers. Galleries keep track of everything from collectors' favorite colors, to their hobbies, anything to help match them with potential purchases. But it takes time to build contacts like that, and so for new owners, like Steven Gibbs at Bottega, the big struggle is to just start visitors to his gallery down the path to collecting.

"A lot of people will say Wilmington is a really thriving arts community, and I think it's true, for the artists. And getting the art buying public to recognize the local artists is what everybody's trying to put together and that's what we're trying to do here."

But on the buyers' side, sometimes it just comes down to a special kind of courage. Leaving the tasting at Bottega, Kim Spader confesses most of her art purchases are made with the help of a few glasses of wine. "When you're not tipsy," she says, "you're so focused on the money. It's all about the money. But I think when you are tipsy, you're more focused on the beauty, you know what I mean? Like, it's just a beautiful piece of work and something you'd imagine having in your home."

And this is where hard-headed gallery owners start to sound like their customers: when it really comes down to it, both sides get more than a little poetic about the business of selling beautiful things.

Megan Williams, WHQR news.

Art Business News has covered many of these issues extensively.

Support for local arts and cultural programming comes from WHQR members, and Landfall Foundation, an organization of residents who support projects enhancing health, education and the arts in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender Counties.