Art meets business

Running an art gallery is as easy as hanging a few paintings and waiting for the Benjamins to roll in, right? Guess again.

Photo By Larry Dalton

To an outsider, running an art gallery might seem like the good life.

What is there to do? You sit around with works of art, waiting for people to come in and throw money at you. What could be better?

Often, people outside the art world are surprised when they hear the commission a gallery gets when an art piece sells, typically 50 percent. It seems outrageous because the perception is that the artist—who is popularly depicted as a working maniac who is always broke—does all the work.

But gallery owners work hard, too. To run a gallery, you need several things. The first is a space, and it has to be a good one—think large walls, good lighting and a location in a high-traffic urban center. Next, you need a client base, the addresses and phone numbers of people known to buy art. You also need artists. Yes, there are hundreds in any good-sized urban area, but most of those aren’t top-notch; the best ones are already hooked up with other galleries. Finally, you need a focus: What kinds of artists do you want to exhibit, and what kind of art do you want to show?

Then, add in some mundane details: office supplies, track lighting, white paint for the walls, storage space—the list goes on. A high-profile space costs premium bucks. Now, add in electric bills along with four-color printing charges for those promotional postcards. To cover the costs every month, you need income from art.

And here’s where the gamble comes in: Let’s say you went to art school. You learned a lot. You have a solid understanding of art history, and when you look at art, you get the references and influences. Basically, you know what’s good and what’s garbage. A gallery is a business, however, and the bulk of the people who walk through your doors don’t have your background; they’re more likely to have an “I just know what I like” mentality.

So, if you have a brilliant conceptual artist exhibiting an elaborate installation in your space, like the stuff you’ve seen in high-end galleries in New York or San Francisco, most people won’t get it. Even if they do, only a small percentage of high-end collectors will buy the pieces because, really, what can one do with them except impress highly educated friends? A gallery needs to find a balance between what’s good and what will sell. Even then, it’s a gamble. Certain times of the year are slow for art sales; the economy also is a factor.

Apparently, running an art gallery is not easy, nor is it lucrative.

Linda Welch and Jodi deVries had been working in one of the area’s well-established galleries for some time and understood all of the points made above. Still, in the summer of 2001, they decided to start their own gallery. They had a good idea of what all of the galleries in town had to offer, and they thought that they could fill a niche in the art community. The two shared a similar aesthetic, and felt they knew which artists to show and how to make a business work.

Gale Hart, “How Do I Look,” acrylic on canvas, 2002.Linda Welch, left, and Jodi deVries getting ready for this month’s Christmas inside their Exploding Head Gallery on 12th Street.

They decided to call the gallery Exploding Head because, as Welch put it, the name evoked feelings of excitement, fear and energy—everything she and deVries were experiencing at the time. The new gallery, located in a storefront on 12th Street just north of J Street, put them in the hub of the city with a fair amount of pedestrian traffic. Things were coming together nicely. In early September 2001, when Exploding Head opened, Welch and deVries were still running around trying to finish the details of their new business.

Then came 9/11. Upon hearing of the tragic events of that day, Welch and deVries responded similarly; they couldn’t let themselves think about the enormity of the situation and its effects, at least not for a while. Welch had been out buying paint for the walls, and felt that she needed to continue with her tasks because stopping and reflecting would be too much. When Welch returned to the gallery, she and deVries didn’t really talk about the tragedy for a long time. The Exploding Head Gallery’s doors were open for business. Its owners couldn’t stop; they would go down with the ship if necessary, but not without a good fight.

As it turned out, Welch and deVries were right about filling a niche. Or perhaps they were lucky, or a little of both. After two years—the most fragile for any new business—the gallery has survived a harsh economy for art commerce and has established itself as one of the stronger galleries in town.

Experience has certainly played a part; both Welch and deVries are educated in art. And having worked in the gallery business, they have seen a substantial amount of art and business. All of this has translated into success for Exploding Head, but there is another, more elusive aspect to running a functional gallery that has helped propel the work of these two: passion. The baseline for deVries and Welch is that they love art and love being around it; running a profitable business is secondary to that.

These two enjoy a certain excitement that comes from filling blank walls and empty floors with art created by talented people and from being able to share that with others. Like many other galleries in town, every second Saturday of the month, deVries and Welch have artist receptions, which prove to be a thrill for the pair. “It’s like Christmas, 12 times a year,” deVries enthused.

For the past two years, the Exploding Head Gallery has positioned itself as one of the area’s finer galleries, while separating itself from fellow art dealers. One might think Welch and deVries had devised a specific strategy to situate themselves, but that’s not really how it worked. “We just went with our gut feelings,” said Welch, adding that she and deVries sought out timeless art with a visceral quality that appealed to them.

Unlike many galleries, Exploding Head chose not to limit itself to local artists. From their experience in the business and their regional trips to other galleries, Welch and deVries had a batch of artists they wanted to bring into their gallery to help make it more unique. Many of those artists came from areas throughout California.

But the Sacramento art community is fickle and is strongly committed to supporting local artists. Welch noted that she and deVries sometimes are criticized for not showing enough local art. However, the gallery owners believe they are serving the art community well by not being similar to many spaces in town that show the same local landscape painters too frequently. Instead, they choose to mix it up with different styles and names. But the two are quick to point out that most of the artists they represent live in Sacramento. A good example of this is well-known local artist Gale Hart, whose work the gallery has on display this month.

If one wants to figure out Exploding Head’s particular slant, the gallery does have an affinity for high-quality ceramic art—a medium not widely shown in town. Last year, for one of its shows, the gallery put out a call to artists in a popular national ceramic magazine for a juried exhibit. Neither Welch nor deVries had ever done anything like this before; both were quite surprised by the response. Artists from around the country wanted to get into the show, and the selection process became quite a task. The two owners assembled well-qualified jurors, and suddenly the show shifted from “I hope we get a decent response” to “It’s too bad we have to turn so many people down,” they explained. The show turned out to be a success, which illustrated that Exploding Head can bring art in from outside Sacramento and make it work.

Another interesting detail to running an art gallery is how little attention is paid by the community at large. It’s not like a bookshop or some other business that sells a mass-produced product, where hard-core aficionados mix with the general population. Art lovers will seek out galleries, but many people are afraid to set foot in them for fear that they don’t know enough about art or that they’ll be coaxed into buying something they don’t want. But galleries such as Exploding Head are not like car dealerships. Welch and deVries would rather see someone who’s never visited their gallery come in for a peek, and they will go out of their way to create an environment where that person can learn about art. The duo is still surprised when someone—on one occasion, a schoolteacher—calls to ask how much admission costs. “It’s free; come on down!” deVries exclaimed, trying to get across the passion to share art with people.

And that’s really what makes this gallery a success: quality art, a good space and owners with the passion to share what they love. It’s also nice to know that in an age of overhomogeny that a small business can thrive selling something as ephemeral as art. Yes, there are easier ways to make a living than an art gallery. But if being around, learning about and sharing art is what you know and love, there are worse ways to make living.