Five Tips for Building a Thriving Gallery Business

Openings at Gallery1988 have attracted more than 2,500 attendees

When it comes to running a successful art gallery, the formula isn’t as simple as “location, location, location.” Like the subjective nature of the art form itself, there is no one easy solution for building a business that thrives.

“We don’t believe that one single strategy is the silver bullet for success,” says Cristi Smith, president of Atlanta’s Ford Smith Fine Art (www.fordsmithfineart.com). “Rather, we see it as a symphony of marketing tactics expertly implemented [to] create a successful continuum. That, and we’re constantly aware of the need to rethink the business in some small way, every day. There are no dull mental moments in this business any longer. You can’t just have great art anymore, you’ve got to have great ideas.”

ABN chatted up a handful of forward-thinking gallerists about the unique ways in which they’re finding success. Here are five tips you can take to the bank.

1. Find your niche.
Metalworks. Animation. Sculpture. Contemporary. Pick a specialty and stick with it. One-size-fits-all may work for some industries, but in the art world it’s important to concentrate your efforts. “The secret to our gallery’s success was finding a niche that worked for us and really focusing all of our efforts there,” says Katie Cromwell, co-founder of Gallery1988 (www.nineteeneightyeight.com), a world-renowned destination for pop culture-themed art that boasts two locations in the Los Angeles area and has collaborated with such entertainment icons as Spider-Man creator Stan Lee and the Beastie Boys.

Gallery1988 openings have seen upwards of 2,500 people in attendance (with plenty of Hollywood A-listers in the crowd), and the gallery’s annual “Crazy 4 Cult” show—which is hosted by moviemakers Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier—inspired a recent hardcover art book from Titan Books. “Pop culture is definitely our niche,” says Cromwell, “and we seek out artists who truly love pop culture and are heavily influenced by it. That passion comes across in the work, rather than it seeming forced.”

At Santa Fe’s POP Gallery (www.popsantafe.com), the name says it all. “POP Gallery features new brow contemporary established and emerging artists from around the world,” says owner Sharla Throckmorton-McDowell. “Our vision is rooted in providing art lovers with a thought-provoking alternative. Rising from the underground world of tattooing and graffiti, comics, cartoons, pop art, illustration and surrealism, the work showcased feeds off the blend of influences and energies well cemented in today’s culture.”

2. Change or die.
Fact: The art industry is evolving. Which means that the rules for success are changing, too. Whether you’re an artist, publisher, curator or gallery owner, you need to be prepared to embrace these changes, even if it means re-thinking the way you’ve done business in the past. “Our gallery here in Atlanta continues to do very well,” says Smith. “In fact, our retail business is better than it’s been in years due to new marketing ideas, including themed gallery events/exhibits, charity partnering, increased magazine advertising, private e-auctions for collectors, creating new merchandise (our Ford Smith Art Glass) and more.”

Just as no two artists are the same, neither are any two art galleries. Don’t be afraid to partner up with other galleries in order to reach a wider potential client base. “We have enjoyed several highly successful collaborations with other galleries and upscale businesses to create events for our combined clientele, which exponentially raised both awareness and sales,” says Smith. “The most recent being our partnership with a Mercedes-Benz dealership… where we created a Ford Smith exhibit in their showroom and they hosted a catered event for their clients and our collectors.”

Think about the different businesses in your area—luxury car dealerships, high-end realtors, art museums, etc.—and the unique ways in which you might be able to work together in a mutually beneficial fashion. “Cross-promotions are among our favorite new methods of gaining new audiences,” says Smith, “and we spend a great deal of time and energy building relationships with like-minded businesses.”

3. Forget about the bottom line… but don’t forget you’re running a business.
You don’t open an art gallery with the expectation of not seeing a profit, but if your only concern is ringing up the cash register, your customers will sense it. Dollars are important at the end of the day, but the best gallerists know that it’s important to build a community first, then worry about the bottom line.

“It’s not about selling art,” says gallerist James Bacchi, who—alongside Annette Schutz—runs San Francisco’s contemporary gallery ArtHaus (www.arthaus-sf.com), recently named Best Gallery by SFGate. “It’s much more about bringing that connection together… Art couldn’t be any more subjective and, for some people, it is very much a need. It’s not like going out and buying a suit or a car or being sold before you’re even interested in something. It’s about establishing that connection.

Once the viewer so totally connects with what they’re looking at, the acquisition just evolves; there is no selling at that point.”

At the same time, even when you love what you do, it’s important to never forget that you are running a business. “I work harder than most gallery owners I know,” says Joe Sigel, owner of Austin’s ART on 5th (www.arton5th.com), which is celebrating its 14th year in business. “We constantly innovate, we promote and advertise and we have a huge selection. I think many gallery owners treat their gallery as a showcase of their taste. I love the art gallery business, but it is a business first and foremost.

And art happens to be the product. I’m not an artist, I’m a entrepreneur who loves art.”

4. Put on a show.
A little showmanship can go a long way. If you can entice people through your doors, you might just make regular buyers out of them. “One thing that helps our art gallery and frame shop is the significant use of ‘props,’” says Woody Slaymaker, owner of Slaymaker Gallery (www.slaymakerfineartltd.com) in Chicago. “To a degree, these are ‘gimmicks,’ but they work very well.” What sort of gimmicks? How about a 10-foot tall fiberglass replica of the Venus de Milo, a pair of 200-year-old ivory horses from India and three Coney Island carousel horses that have been mounted to the ceiling?

“None of these items are for sale, although some are quite valuable,” says Slaymaker. Many of these “props” come with storied histories—like a globe dating back to 1820, which was acquired from the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company, insurers of the Titanic.

“People come in all the time to see these items. Then, while they are here, we show them our art and framing works. Sometimes they will bring friends in to see these items, and the friend will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you did framing also. I have a map I have been meaning to frame up. Can I bring it in Sunday?’ In short, people come in constantly just to see the props, and then we sell them art and framing while they are here. Any art gallery sells art and framing, and we think we have some of the best art in the nation, but it is the props that set us apart.”

5. Be in it for the long haul.
Art is not a flash-in-the pan industry. Success is the result of a strong reputation, and reputations take time to build. “Longevity in a gallery is clearly based on reputation,” says Arnot Gallery (www.arnotart.com) vice president and partner Vicki Arnot, “especially in the art world, where one’s word is everything.” Arnot should know; founded in Vienna in 1863, the Arnot Gallery has been around for five generations, and in its current location on West 57th Street in Manhattan since 1946.

“We believe in bonding with our clients and working with each client on a one-on-one basis with personal attention from the owners of the gallery,” says Arnot. “It is this personal relationship with our clients that creates the loyal following we have. It is quite unusual for a client to be a one-time buyer. Most of our clientele are repeat buyers looking to add to their art collections and they come back to our gallery time and again.  The reason is always complete trust in our gallery [and] the owners and knowing that they will never be ‘sold’ on any piece of art that they are not ready to commit to. Our philosophy at Arnot Gallery is to always make sure that the painting and the collector are a perfect match for each other.”

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