by Lindsay Oesterritter
The first ceramic exhibition that I was fortunate enough to witness was a Byron Temple Retrospective at the Kentucky Museum of Craft and Design in Louisville Kentucky. I will never forget this exhibition, or the overwhelming sense of joy I felt as I slowly walked through the showcase of work focusing on each piece, wishing I could feel the weight of the pot or at least lift a lid. I noticed all the details from both up-close and across the room. I was a young ceramics student and smitten with pottery. I will also never forget the first ceramic object I purchased from the very same museum/gallery on a different day. Adjacent to the larger exhibition space, they have a retail space that hosts local and regional crafts. To say the least, I took my time kindly scrutinizing the work (finally able to pick them up) before finding ‘the one’, a Chris Baskin mug. It spoke to me.
Alternatively, I have already visited several exhibitions and galleries today from the comforts of my office chair. And while I recognize the awesomeness of being able see so much in one day from one place, not to mention linking these exhibitions to friends and students who I think would be interested, it is undoubtedly a different experience. Online exhibitions have more of a sense of a sale and the impression left is not as deep or affective. One has less interaction with the work, the gallery, or other visitors. And I wonder if in todays Internet patronage, are young ceramic students able to have the same kind of ‘first experience’ I had? Would that same Chris Baskin mug have been able to catch my attention if I only quickly flipped past it online? Secondly, I wonder about the gallery owner or director’s fulfillment. Working long hours, arranging the exhibition space thoughtfully and beautifully, only to have the majority of the ‘visitors’ never actually enter the space. However, the last pot I purchased was purchased online. And aren’t these additional Internet sales and exhibitions allowing the gallery’s business to grow and in general have a greater impact on the ceramics culture?
Nevertheless, I have always been fascinated by the gallery space. How an exhibition can contribute to the contemporary dialog of an issue, simply by arranging two artists side-by-side. Their ability to provide a space that visually connects, comments, and communicates. Honoring the ceramic pieces that are a result from hours if not years of hard work in the studio. And now, with the additional perspective that the Internet brings, the gallery can occupy our day in a completely new way.
So, for a change and out of curiosity of the gallery’s perspective of their role, I am taking an opportunity to exhibit the gallery. The following text is of an interview style conversation that I had via email with four prominent ceramic galleries in the United States. I specifically selected these galleries because of how respected they are in our field, the diverse physical locations within the US, and their variety of approaches to sales. The people and galleries interviewed are:
Jill Foote-Hutton, Curator of Exhibitions at Red Lodge Clay Center in Red Lodge Montana. http://www.redlodgeclaycenter.com/
Sandy Simon, owner of Trax Gallery in Berkeley California. http://traxgallery.com/
Jigna Jani, owner of AKAR Gallery in Iowa City Iowa. http://www.akardesign.com/
Benjamin Philips, the new owner of Crimson Laurel Gallery in Bakersville North Carolina. http://www.crimsonlaurelgallery.com/
What is your background in ceramics?
Jill Foote-Hutton, Red Lodge Clay Center-- MFA in Ceramics from the University of Mississippi, educator and department director for seven years, gallery director for three and half years, professional maker for ten years.
Sandy Simon, Trax Gallery-- I took ceramics my sophomore year at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis . I was introduced to throwing on a Leach Treadle wheel, as that's all they had in the studio. It took me a solid 3 weeks to learn how to center the clay. I didn't give up. When I finally got it, I was smitten. I took every ceramic course offered at the University; the studio was a happening place. It was a great time to be there; my fellow students included Michael Simon, Mark Pharis, Wayne Branum, Randy Johnston, and many others who aided and abetted the word "party". It was the late sixties during the Viet Nam War. College campuses were packed with young people avoiding the draft. Our teachers were just as eager as we were to be there. Warren MacKenzie and Curt Hoard, Karl Borgeson (my first teacher, then a graduate TA) were all part of our social life in the studio. We also gathered to attend art festivals, exhibits, and even took field trips to scavenge materials to build kilns at the University.
Jigna Jani, AKAR Gallery- Our love for ceramics comes from growing up in India and being surrounded with handmade folk objects. These incredibly beautiful, yet functional fabrics and pottery were part of our everyday life. While pursuing our education in architecture, we were exposed to the possibility of mud as dwellings. The builders, quite often, were potters. Later in life, when we moved to Iowa City, we finally had the time and opportunity to explore the process of making ceramics.
Benjamin Philips, Crimson Laurel Gallery-- Participating in clay sessions at Penland School of Crafts and exposure to Crimson Laurel for the past eight years.
When was your gallery established?
And what was the catalyst? What did you hope to contribute?
RL- May 2006, David Hiltner wanted to establish a residency program specifically targeting recently graduated BFA and MFA candidates, so they might have a place to evolve and grow into their next step. It was meant to be, and is, a work exchange residency. The purpose of the work exchange is to provide valuable practical, professional experience. The Gallery was a secondary consideration with the long-term goal of gallery sales helping to sustain the residency program and other community educational programs.
The Red Lodge mission statement reads that we are, "...a place for professionally minded ceramic artists to develop...and share with our resident artists and the general public the importance of art in everyday life."
As the gallery director and curator of exhibitions, I was interested in coming to Red Lodge because I wanted to be able to contribute to the ceramics community in a more impactful and immediate way than teaching as a generalist at a community college allowed. I was eager to be part of providing a platform for emerging makers, and emerging concepts alongside the traditional, proven makers and exhibitions.
TX- I started TRAX gallery in 1994 in an upstairs vacant corner in our big warehouse that we, (my husband sculptor, Robert Brady and I), had purchased from Peter Voulkos in 1986. We actually had to build the interior floor, but it was within our walls and therefore I didn't have to pay rent. We also lived there. It was right on the railroad tracks in West Berkeley...hence the name "TRAX". I wanted to hang a sign out front, to be somewhat official. So I had my first encounter with city "rules". The city wouldn't let me be open except by appointment due to the zoning laws. I had to get a business license, a "fictitious" name published 4 times in a newspaper, and approval for my signage, etc. Costly and very time consuming, but I persevered. My motivation, as a potter, was that I wanted to create a space for good pots to be seen and recognized; not just my own, but also the people I respected, those who had devoted their lives to making pots. I was so tired of galleries not paying the artist, not letting me know if the work arrived, not corresponding in a way that made me want to send them work; all of that. There were only a couple of galleries who cared about pots and most of them eventually gave in to selling sculpture and other 2-D work. They had bills to pay. Our warehouse was big, so I could offer a workshop along with an exhibition to introduce the visiting potter to the community. This paid for the potter to come and be present at his exhibition. It worked really well and the community loved it. Many people came to buy pots and learn different ways of working.
AK - Our gallery AKAR was born in 1998 alongside our architecture studio. Initially the gallery acted as a “bridge” and brought people with a love of visual arts into the studio. In addition to generating interest in our architectural work, we hoped that the gallery would spark a conversation about the connections among art, design and architecture. We started out with showing works in various mediums by local artists but soon transitioned to focusing solely on ceramics. Our vision worked as we had hoped--our architecture practice grew, and so did our ceramic community.
Why not just a retail space?
RL- Because the residency came first, we really strive to effectively communicate to the artists we represent that they are donating half of their work to support the residency and our educational mission. Sometimes I think this rings hollow to full-time studio artists who have their eyes trained on the bottom line, wary of the 50% commission; but we actually stand by our educational mission. Another thing Red Lodge Clay Center doesn't do- we don't ask our artists to curb their creative output in favor of commercial success. We gladly provide a venue for artists to try new bodies of work.
TX- There is a lot of pressure to "sell" when you have rent to pay and very high rent in key retail locations. There are galleries who sell all kinds of things, museum stores too, to be able to pay their rent. A Gallery space in San Francisco, even ten years ago would have to come up with 30k a month to pay rent, lights, staff etc. That's a lot of money. You can't sell enough pots to cover that. That's when I finally understood why a gallery wasn't interested in selling pots. It is unrealistic financially. In my position now, owning a gallery for 20 years, I understand the expenses and the time it takes to make it go smoothly. It's huge. Even after all of these years, I can only afford to hire an assistant for part time two days a week. I'm not getting rich; it was never my goal to make money at this. My goal was to spread the word, to help potter's make a living doing what they love.
AK- With the success of our gallery and the artists that we wanted to represent in mind, we realized that Iowa City was too small to support our long-term goals for the gallery. So, in 2001 we began work on our idea for a website that would serve as an additional venue for the gallery. Being that we were the very first ceramics gallery to launch online sales and had no previous IT education or experience, it was a huge undertaking. We designed, built and revised our website all on our own.
CL- The excitement and creativity generated with Crimson Laurel’s exhibition programing is a most productive and exciting way for the artist and collector to interact.
How much do exhibitions consider sales versus exploration of idea? (Not that they have to be opposites.)
RL- For us the first floor gallery focuses on sales and heavily on functional work. The second floor loft gallery is the place where we can explore concepts and showcase the breadth of possibilities within the field. I guess we do that in the commercial gallery too, because we don't focus on one particular style, rather we aim to show the many varieties of surface and form found within the functional world. We are better known for having an array of pots, and the downside is that some people may find it overwhelming, but we err on the side of education. As we build our reputation for thoughtful exhibitions in the loft we are working to build relationships with collectors who believe in our mission, another way to support the ambitions of artists who put their faith in us.
TX- Explorations of ideas are personal. They take place in a school or a studio. A gallery has to make money. That's the bottom line. A gallery cannot exist w/o money. I guess the question is, "would I show something I felt was worthy, but unsalable?" No, this is not the place for it. This isn't a museum, this isn't a sideshow, and this isn't a place for gawkers. My gallery exists to fulfill a need. The need for buyers to have something they love, to improve their view of the day, to aid them in their creativity with food or flowers, to allow them to feel the spirit of the potter and the work. Pots do this; good pots made with love and care can influence another's experience. Pots carry energy. I see people come into the gallery and handle a pot lovingly, not buy it, and the next person into the gallery goes right to it. It happens time and time again.
AK- The “Idea” is always the first priority. Sales do matter, as it does for all businesses, but our primary goal is to bring quality work to our patrons while exploring a variety of new themes and concepts. All ideas may not result in profitable sales, but we do consider each exhibition a long term investment. We have a firm belief that our gallery’s main mission is to expose and educate. We want to introduce people to the art of functional ceramics, and to make them fall in love with it as we have. We think of the gallery as our personal contribution towards making the “art of pottery” increasingly accessible.
CL- Both must be equally considered. We feel that an exhibition must respect exploration of idea while understanding the business side of the equation.
How much do Internet sales account for overall sales? Do you organize tapered openings so that the public coming to the physical shows is able to purchase before the cyber crowd?
RL- 75-80%. Yes, the first Friday of the month we open in our brick and mortar. The following Monday, we turn the show online and send out our newsletter showcasing any new work that has arrived for the commercial gallery.
TX- The openings at TRAX are always on a Saturday evening. When the work is up in the gallery it is for sale, the people who are aware of this come in ahead of the opening. We try to have this accomplished by the Wednesday before the Saturday event. The online sales are scheduled for the day after the public opening. I want our local customers to get first chance to buy - even though our Internet sales account for about 80 percent of sales. There are many online galleries now that are directly competing for the market. A few artists think it's a great idea to be represented in several places at once. It's a bad idea. The Internet is ONE place and it dilutes the ability of the gallery to sell the work.
AK- Typically our Internet purchases account for more sales than in-store, but over the years it is difficult to say. We do generate sales from many of our online customers who regularly visit the gallery. Our in-store shows start a half an hour before the online show goes live. This way, locals do not feel that they are at a disadvantage when competing with online customers. That said, we do have couple of large shows a year that are online only events, in these cases, everyone has an equal opportunity to purchase.
CL- Internet sales, at present, are a relatively small percentage of overall sales. We make sure our collectors are taken care of whether its in the gallery or e-commerce.
Do you work with collectors?
RL- Yes. We offer regular collector discounts to folks who might not get that offer at a more commercially driven gallery, and we are able to offer payment plans. Our goal there is to facilitate new, younger collectors who don't fit the typical collector model, or folks who don't see themselves as collectors.
TX- Anyone can walk into the gallery and call himself or herself a collector and "demand" a 20% discount. I deal with this occasionally. I honor customers who have a track record with my gallery. Returning customers get a discount sometimes. The good ones never ask for it as they realize pots are cheap (compared to other art). I never give a discount at the beginning of an exhibition - only sometimes at the end, when the show is about to come down. The funny thing about discounts is the people who ask for it, are usually the people who can afford to pay full price. It's a status thing, and it behooves a gallery to give any little amount (5%) to these types of customers, I’m told they then feel they have "won" something.
AK- Yes, we work with “collectors” and “users”! Our motto is to bring users to the gallery and convert them into collectors.
How do you select artists that you want to represent?
RL- We keep an eye out for emerging makers (and for us, unknown=emerging) and we maintain strong relationships with the blue-chip artists who have been behind Red Lodge Clay Center from the start in 2006. We do accept portfolios on a rolling basis. We also try to have a fair balance of group shows in the Loft Gallery; this allows us to showcase a wider array of makers. If we have a show with an established maker, then we will pair him or her with a lesser known or emerging maker.
TX- I have to like their work, someone tells me about them, or I see their work somewhere. Their work has to meet the standards already existing in the gallery. I am the sole decider here. My general rule of thumb is this; " is it work that I would want to own".
AK- We are in search of “good” work. Style, form, firing methods, techniques, function, education, experience, cost, and sales—these qualities are not greatly debated when we select work. A pot has to speak and defend itself for its quality. We are in search of “good” work.
CL- The prior owners did so on a case-by-case basis. We are in the process of forming a diverse jury committee to process incoming applications on a regular basis.
What suggestions do you have for someone trying to get gallery representation?
RL- Polite persistence. Don't cold call, it's just uncomfortable and it doesn't give a person the time to reflect about your work. However, it's okay to follow up with an email after a month. I would even say you could send more than one follow up email. Folks get busy and forget. Of course, there is research. Know the mission of the gallery you are sending your work in to review. Most importantly, I would direct someone to Julia Galloway's Field Guide. (http://juliagalloway.com/field-guide/) She has several answers from several people for this question.
TX- Visit a gallery often, buy something if you can, strike a conversation (not about yourself) know what's offered for sale and see if your work "fits" the gallery's focus. Then send an email with about 5 images, a link to your website, if you have one, and a compliment about what you see in the gallery, and ask for a reply.
AK- Send good images. Do not send URLs and links to other galleries to view your work. Even though we accept submissions by email, picking up the phone and talking to us always helps.
CL- Be persistent and don’t scrimp on the images of your work.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to open a gallery of his or her own?
RL-Understand your mission, have a mission. Be ready to evolve, but always use your mission as a touchstone to guide you. Also make sure you have a way to fill your personal reserves up after you give so much to your day job. I don't think anyone goes in to the arts without believing in a higher goal. That can be depleting if you don't have some activity in place that renews your resources.
TX- Be prepared to devote a lot of time to it. Keep a strong focus; don't bend to pressure from friends or other artist's wanting a show if you can't get behind the work. Never spend more than you might make.
AK- My first reaction would be to say “Don’t do it!” With that said, I treasure every moment of creating AKAR. Making a living via a ceramics gallery is a tough job. Be ready to work hard and make sacrifices. Represent only the work that you like. Have passion and quality in everything that represents your artists and your gallery. This includes your show cards, graphics, photographs, web site, social sites and blog. Be innovative, creative and consistent. Be polite and fair to other galleries. Be patient. It all pays off when someone who has never owned a handmade object walks into the gallery and leaves with their first Yunomi.
CL- One must be prepared to interconnect art world players by providing a liquid sales platform.
If the sky was the limit, how would your current set-up change?
RL- Oh, I think we would expand our staff so we could address all of our ambitions in a more timely manner. You know, enough time and resources to do anything, but not enough to do everything.
TX- I would like to be able to hire more help so I can have more time for my own work. I'd especially like a techie person at my disposal. As much as the Internet is a help, it is a hindrance – it takes most of my time.
AK- Redesign the website completely and have a larger gallery space.
Are there any surprises along the way that you want to share? (Positive or negative)
RL- Hmmm, the monotony of running a website. It's been great to add another person to staff, Andrea Moon, because it takes a lot of maintenance to keep the website current. Personally, I think it might be prudent to set term limits for curators and turn them back out to pasture after a period of 3-4 years so they can immerse themselves in the happenings of the world again. I didn't realize how much time my teaching position allowed for the absorption of ideas.
TX- There are some wonderful people to meet through the gallery and there are those who feel “entitled”. I have blacklisted a few; they aren't allowed to call here or buy. There is theft, there is burglary, there are crazy people, and at a retail spot, you are a sitting duck for all of it. I have thankfully met and made many friends, whom far out weigh the negative people who have come in the gallery. Sometimes it is the artist's who are the assholes. I've had artist's come and unload a truckload of work in the driveway without ever clearing it with me or introducing themselves. This is a big “No”. Some artist's are unprepared to send info in a timely fashion and they don't get their work here in time, making the job 3x harder. They resent galleries taking as much as 50% (which is the customary amount). I get it. I used to be like that, but not anymore. The gallery is hard work and extremely time consuming. No one likes to do paperwork, but it is necessary to put an exhibition together. With an active website visited by 100's of people, a gallery is way more time consuming then it used to be; taking pictures, sizing and uploading, sending to the press, sending newsletters, including FB, Twitter and LinkedIn. More and more of this arise daily. I've been invited to "LinkedIn, Facebook, Yelp, Instagram, Branch, Twitter, Google etc. I once put a notice on FB that I wasn't participating in every social media connection that came along. FB censored it! They censored it! I laughed out loud. There is packing, unpacking, managing mailing lists, spread sheets, storage, loaning, recycling, answering the phone, talking to customers, making Photoshop ads for newspapers (online and otherwise). Very costly; advertising is very costly. And since running a few contests on the TRAX Facebook page last spring to identify weird vegetables & get a prize to the first person to do it correctly, I realize how huge the outreach is. In the space of 1 hour my photo contest reached 360 people and within 24 hours reached over 1200 people. I was shocked, but now I am a believer and I use Facebook more than I ever did before. Younger people have told me that good reviews on Yelp have brought them many customers. I find Yelp harder to get an audience for than Facebook, but maybe that will change. You're not supposed to ask for reviews, but that's what customers look for and like...a positive review.
AK- Innovation is hard; Copying is easy- we had heard of that adage, but learnt it firsthand in the last few years. We worked very hard to make our website successful. The concept of selling ceramics online was uncharted territory. We experimented with ideas never tested before online to better enhance the experience of buying ceramics on the web- group shows, featured artists, new artists, red dots, optimization, photography, detail photographs to explain glazing, square images, graduated backgrounds, white backdrops, show opening cards, e-invitations…. It took, literally, 3-4 years to work out all the details of selling these works online. And look where we are now! Lot of galleries have used our website as a model to make their websites. Sometimes these other websites can be annoyingly similar, but mostly we’re very flattered!
CL- I don’t think you have enough room.
How has the role of the gallery changed through the years?
RL- I don't think I'm equipped to answer this question, but I'm going to try.
I think the old model of shared shipping, consignment, 50/50 commission has to evolve in some ways and I'm interested in brainstorming ways that can happen. I do think a gallery takes the time to put enormous resources behind branding and promoting and that may be something an individual artist just can't do or aren’t interested in doing. A change is on the horizon, but I'm not honestly sure how the change will manifest itself.
TX- The gallery, like many things affected by the Internet, will become a thing of the past - at least for inexpensive items. More and more, the consumer buys through Google, Amazon, Etsy, etc. I personally don't support these options because I don't want to see stores disappear. We've lost music stores, bookstores; lots of places that I enjoyed going too, are gone. What used to be considered "leisure time shopping" by Americans is now leisure time spent on the Internet. Recently I saw a poll taken where each person between the age of 18 and 35 spent an average of 4 hours or more a day on FACEBOOK or similar social media venues. Who has time to go to a store? But it stands to reason, if you don’t, they will all disappear. The consumer has power. TRAX, as a true brick and mortar gallery, can exhibit and introduce customers to new work. I think a certain number or people realize this and they do patronize the gallery for this reason. They like to come here.
AK- The art of selling pots online has been proven to be successful and is changing the dynamics of selling and competition. Many artists now sell their work through their individual professional websites. Alternatively, some are using platforms like Etsy, and some artists have opened online galleries in groups. There are new interesting questions to be asked. How do we all compete in this marketplace? How can my gallery continue to sell quality work and remain sustainable when a collector can buy work directly from the artist’s website? What are the new ethics in the relationship between the artist and gallery? What can a gallery do, what can an artist do? In this age of the Internet, do we need physical galleries? If one cannot touch and feel the work, how do we educate and create new artists and new patrons?
CL- I am unqualified to answer.
RL- Develop a broader collector base for our artists. Develop more interactive and didactic materials in the gallery exhibitions. Produce more writing (free advertising) for our center, our residents, and our artists.
TX- My future goal is to create more working studio time for myself. I feel I have given a lot of my energy to promoting the work of others. I'll never forget the flood of appreciation I felt when Akio sent me a thank you note for a check for his sales.
No artist had ever thanked me before. Akio is a gracious man and he was just here for another exhibition at TRAX. He is still the same; he practices gratitude. I have found this to be essential to success in all things.
AK- Our goal is simple- make people love pottery as much as we do! Keep on doing what we have done well already, while exploring new artists, ideas and technology.
CL- To serve Crimson Laurel Gallery’s stakeholders at the highest level possible.