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Owning Your Own Gallery

In Riverwest, the low price of overhead and high population of artists at close proximity has given birth to a number of galleries over the years. There are currently five galleries that I’m aware of in Riverwest. Ring of Fire on Center Street and Funky Art World on Locust Street are fairly new. Beginning Dreams Forever at 833 East Burleigh and the Riverwest Art Works (RAW) on Holton and Center are the only two that have lasted more than a few years. A new gallery, RT Design, on Bremen and Clarke, features Wire/Shadow Sculpting. The RAW is the gallery of the Riverwest Artists Association. It had to temporarily close its doors as a gallery in June because of a serious water leak into the gallery space from the building to the south. Unfortunately, as of this writing, this problem shows no sign of being resolved. Beginning Dreams Forever is operated by Marina Lee. Over the last few years, Marina has simplified her schedule of shows that include artists other than herself. Now her only show featuring the work of other artists occurs in October for Artwalk. Many other galleries have come and gone in Riverwest over the years. A partial list would include Wright Street Gallery, Saint Michael’s Waiting Room, Artistry, Marnie Pottery, Hermetic, ARC East, One Nation, F Gallery, Bliss, and Lucky Star. So why have these galleries failed or relocated? The reasons are as varied as the personalities and approaches of these very unique operations. But some of the challenges they faced are common to any attempt to operate a gallery in a neighborhood outside of a vibrant retail area such as East Town or the Historic Third Ward. I spoke with several of the folks that operated these galleries recently to get a sense of what their experiences were in operating an art gallery in Riverwest. Marnie Pottery was an island of calm for many years in what was a pretty run down business district near the corner of Center and Bremen. As the name implies, Marnie sold very high quality functional pottery of her own making as well as those of other well known potters from around Wisconsin. A potter by vocation, she was a novice at business when she began the gallery. Over time she learned the many complexities of running her own business, and the subtleties of running an art gallery. Her small shop had a carefully crafted atmosphere which made customers feel welcome and at ease. For Marnie, the major challenge of being in Riverwest was the fact that many potential customers would not come into this neighborhood. “I had to do everything two times better than anyone else to get people to come to my gallery,” recalls Marnie. Marnie Elbaum closed her doors in 1996 when her rent was raised by a new building owner, relocating her studio, but not her gallery business, to Waukesha. Artistry at Bremen and Center was another mainstay of Riverwest’s art scene for many years prior to its closing in 1999. Now the home of Ring of Fire, the founder of the gallery, Susan Alexander, actually built a wing on to the building to accommodate a kiln for firing ceramics. Many other extensive renovations were undertaken at Artistry’s expense before the gallery was opened, leaving it the beautiful space that it is today. Later on, Taffney Boggart became her business partner and the primary operator of the gallery when Susan moved to Lomira, Wisconsin. Like Marnie Pottery, the space was used for several purposes: studio, office, classroom as well as retail space. In a recent conversation with Taffney, she echoed many of the issues that Marnie brought up. She cited the difficulty of attracting customers to Riverwest, the challenges of retail sales in an economically depressed area, and the added challenge that many of her customers had their cars broken into while attending classes at the gallery. The gallery operation basically broke even, with any profits being made through outside activities such as art fairs, mail order sales, etc. When their landlord began hinting at selling the building or raising the rent, the slim break-even profit margin of the gallery seemed doomed and the gallery was closed. A more recent gallery in the Center Street area was One Nation. Operated by Brad Blaeser, the gallery served as his residence (there was an apartment in the back) as well as a studio. Again, Brad faced many of the same business challenges as Marnie Elbaum and Taffney Boggart. He also felt that having a better business plan and a sharper analysis of the situation would have made a big difference. “If I had more patience and a better plan, I’d still be in business,” said Brad in a recent interview. Brad feels very strongly that one important factor which could contribute to a gallery’s success is to own your own building. His attempts to buy the building he was located in lead to a great deal of frustration, which was a major factor in his decision to close. Brad is determined to eventually get back in the business again. We hope that he’ll reopen somewhere in Riverwest. As the rents in Riverwest continue to rise, the challenges to operating any business become more acute. We need to foster a business climate that is supportive of new galleries as well as other small start up businesses. This requires enlightened landlords as well as thoroughly prepared business entrepreneurs. The economic growth of our business districts has to proceed in a manner that is realistic to the neighborhoods surrounding them. As business costs increase, our neighborhood is in very real danger of losing its galleries. To prevent this, gallery landlords need to be part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Like many other new business ventures, the first few years of operation of a gallery requires good business practices of all parties concerned as well as the support of the community.
by Mark Lawson