In Part One of her interview with Artsy Shark, Suzanne Connors of SaxArt Gallery in North Carolina speaks frankly about challenges that art galleries face and what artists must know to work with galleries for mutual success.
AS: Your gallery was originally a co-op, but that didn’t work out. Why not?
SC: I think that there are a lot of people who have a romanticized image of working in an art gallery. They think of being surrounded by beautiful art, cool jazz in the background, meeting lots of new people and art just flying off the walls. Most do not realize that an art gallery is a business and that operating a business is a 24/7 commitment. Running an art gallery is hard work and it requires wearing many hats.
When we started the co-op, most were looking for a place to show their work without paying high commissions. They thought they would only have to “gallery sit” a few hours per month in order to do this, and that because their art was in a gallery in a destination it would sell immediately.
There were only a few people doing the behind the scenes work. After a while, there was a lot of resentment towards those who were not pulling their weight and even more towards the ones who were doing the work, especially when they felt it was not done in a timely manner. Nobody realized that as a destination gallery, it would require more marketing and customer service in order to create someplace unique.
Because our destination was receiving national press, everyone thought the art would fly off the walls. When sales were slow, people began to lose interest, especially if their work was not selling. They started not showing up to work gallery shifts. Then when the money got tight, the owners did not want to chip in.
In retrospect, I think we did not do a thorough enough job of evaluating each artist’s business skills before membership. Most were looking for what the gallery could do for them instead of what they could do for the gallery. The members did not commit to being co-owners of the business and in the end it was clear that they did not share the vision for the gallery.
AS: What are some of the ways you need artists to partner with your gallery for a successful result?
SC: While it is not possible to form personal relationships with all the artists, I encourage every gallery artist to spend as much time in the gallery as they can. In order to sell their work, I need to know as much about the artist as possible. They must tell me or provide me with enough information to step into their shoes when I am representing their artwork. I need to know their story. What were they thinking when they created each piece? What direction is their new work going in? A little bit about their background.
I need an artist statement and bio. I need professional images of the artist’s work. These images are used on our gallery management system, which includes inventory, invoicing website, e-commerce and social media. All images must be sent in the correct format for posting. Without these images, the work cannot be shown on the website, the invoices or posted to Facebook; it makes the entire gallery look bad.
Artists need to provide current contact information and keep the gallery updated. Artists must deliver work the week before a gallery rehang. When the work is delivered, we need a written inventory and as much information about the work as the artist can give us. (Preferably emailed before delivery so that contract documents can be prepared.) Size, Media, Price, Location, Materials Used and Use and Care Instructions . . . All work needs to be professionally framed and wired for hanging.
Artists must provide a link to the gallery on their website and social media. It is amazing that I have gone on a featured artist’s Facebook page the week of an exhibit and not even seen a word of their coming exhibit. Artists need to let the gallery know of upcoming shows and events and we will post the information to the artist’s individual page on our website.
For Featured Artists, the gallery provides email marketing, postcards, press releases, magazine marketing, social media, editorial calendars, an opening reception and artist talk. The opening receptions typically have music, food and wine bar.
Featured Artists must either send a mailing or email blast for the event. Artists can either mail the mailing (or email) or provide the gallery with their contact list and we will do the mailing. The gallery has a large contact list of its own, but we have no idea who the artist’s contacts or collectors are.
Featured Artists must provide images and all information about the work to be exhibited at least 45 days before the opening so we can begin promoting your exhibit and get the necessary press releases out. Some publications require three months notice in order to be included. Usually when an artist complains that the PR for an event was not enough, it is due to the fact that the information was not received in a timely manner to send out by the publication deadline.
We ask all gallery artists to please attend gallery events and support the other artists showing in the gallery. LIKE the artists on Facebook, and tag their images. If you are a Featured Artist, you must attend your opening and closing receptions. All artists must schedule a “Coffee with the Artist” event during the month they are featured, or if not featured, at least once a year.
It is also very important that the artists never sell work from gallery inventory directly to a collector. This has happened in the past and somehow, we always find out. With the internet availability, it is easy to contact artists directly, and some people do not even know that this is not the way it is done. Artists who do this will have all work removed from the gallery immediately. Because we try to make our visitors have a memorable experience, they usually return and being proud that they are now collectors – they tell us themselves!
Basically we ask that all necessary paperwork and images be sent in a timely, professional manner and that links to media are shared and updated. And we ask for respect and honesty. In return, we will do the best job we can to promote the artist’s work. We welcome calls and visits from all artists exhibiting in the gallery at any time!
AS: What are some challenges you face in running a destination gallery?
SC: Saxapahaw, North Carolina is in the middle of nowhere. Yet the New York Times and The Washington Post call it a destination. The SaxArt Gallery is a destination gallery. What do I mean by a destination gallery? I mean a gallery to which people will travel – rather than one they’ll use because it happens to be where they’re passing through.
I’m not limiting myself to the physical world – I’m talking online too. The old saying location, location, location – does not apply to a destination. We must provide something that people will travel (in real life, or online) to buy! Contemporary fine art! Unique art! Excellent customer service! Something that’s tailored to meet their needs. A friendly welcome when they enter. Follow ups that make them feel special. Community outreach, providing art to the community. Joint events with other businesses in the community that in turn make the entire Village of Saxapahaw into a destination.
As a gallery, we must use specific and strategic advertising Then, people will drive the extra distance to get to an art gallery that is “off the beaten path” for great contemporary art displayed in a dynamic “historic” atmosphere. They will travel to a village in the middle of nowhere where great food, music, art, history and nature all come together!
It is important that we not have the same thing as everyone else; we must change our exhibits monthly and continuously seek artists that have not saturated the market. If not, then how are our potential collectors going to remember us? We must provide an experience they hold in their mind whenever they think about purchasing a new work of art.
If our collectors can get the same art anywhere, why get it now and why get it from us? Today’s collectors seek out specialized, exclusive and hard-to-find items from people who know their stuff. Collectors will travel fifty, seventy-five, even hundreds of miles to find what they think they cannot find anywhere else.
It is important for us to not just be an average gallery, We must stand out! Our art must stand out! The real key to our success is becoming a destination in the mind of our customer.