The Artist's Room Gallery Celebrates a Milestone
The art world is often portrayed in the media as full of glitz and glam. Art galleries act as important spaces in our culture for artists to communicate with their audience. However, the reality for gallery owners does not quite live up to the hype. Running an art gallery is a notoriously difficult task. Rents and insurance can be crippling, artists can be a handful; while managing to sell enough art each month to keep above water is a constant battle. Many galleries throughout the country have closed in recent years after feeling the pressures of selling luxury items during a period of economic downturn. Despite these sorts of challenges, Dunedin gallery The Artist’s Room, run by dealer Michelle Chalklin-Sinclair, appears to only be going from strength to strength as the gallery celebrates its 10th birthday in August. We sat down with Michelle to talk about what she believes are the key elements necessary to make a successful commercial gallery.
The Artist’s Room Gallery is ocated on lower Dowling Street in the city’s Art Precinct overlooking Queen’s Gardens. The gallery is entered via a set on stairs that lead into the building from the street. Upon entering the gallery visitors are greeted by Michelle and often Cath Garrett from the Framer’s Room who does all the gallery’s framing upstairs. A number of amazing artworks hang on the walls and surround Michelle at her desk where she is hand writing and placing stamps on invites to be sent to clients advertising the Gallery’s upcoming 10th birthday show.
Michelle began the Artist’s Room Gallery ten years ago after she had spent a number of years as General Manager at a boutique hotel in Dunedin. Michelle tells me that she has always been interested in art, she was introduced to the art world at a young age by her parents and family who have collected art for a number of years. Michelle studied Art History and English at the University of Otago before beginning a career in marketing working at a local radio station to being in charge of marketing a hotel. After the hotel Michelle managed at the time changed hands the original owners wanted her to continue to work for them. However, she felt it was time to go out on her own. Eventually Michelle went to her original employers with a business and marketing plan to start an art gallery. Luckily they supported Michelle and gave her backing; allowing her to create the Artist’s Room Fine Art Gallery. The initial concept for the gallery was to be a showroom with an aim to get out into people’s homes and businesses and source their art needs. The showroom would be a place Michelle could help clients imagine the art in a similarly homely environment. When Michelle and her business partners found a space that had previously been set up as a gallery on the first floor of 2 Dowling Street they saw it as the perfect place to tidy up and use for a showroom. Very shortly after establishing the Artist’s Room they were asked to start holding exhibitions. Fortunately for the gallery the first show they held was by renowned artist Michel Tuffery, who Michelle had met while at school. After Tuffery the gallery began having shows once or sometimes twice a month. This move from showroom space and art consultancy to a dealer gallery that held regular exhibitions completely changed the whole direction of the Artist’s Room. The gallery continue to offer a consultancy service, however it now tends to be gallery contacts and clients who ask Michelle to go into their homes and businesses to meet their art needs. This ranges from finding works for private homes, business foyers, conference and meeting rooms etc. This personal side of the business is something that Michelle really enjoys.
Michelle believes her business is revolves around strong relationships. Friendships and trust are built from the initial rapport she has with her artists and clients. This rapport is shown by an example she gives us. Michelle has clients throughout the country who do not have internet or cellphones. She describes the artwork to them over the phone and they trust Michelle’s judgement enough to purchase the work. None of these paintings have ever been sent back so Michelle must be doing something right! Michelle adds even though there is Facebook, the internet and smart phones there is nothing that replaces seeing an art work in the flesh.
Michelle is of the opinion that running an art gallery should be treated much the same as running any other business. Systems need to be in place; such as marketing plans, business plans, budgets and a five year vision. Michelle chooses to market the gallery a little differently from other galleries because this has worked for her after a lot of testing over the years. Some galleries may believe they should run differently than other businesses because of the nature of what they are selling, however this may not be the most sustainable way to run a business in the art world.
When I think of a gallery I think of white walls, wooden floors and minimalism, however many people find this starkness to be intimidating. Michelle has realised this and opted to install a coffee machine, carpet the floor and choose a more homely and inviting decor because this is what will make her clients comfortable. People come to the gallery to sit and relax and because they enjoy being there. Michelle stresses that she wants people to feel at ease in the space and do not want people to feel embarrassed about asking questions about art. This approach to the gallery is a remnant from Michelle’s time working in the hospitality industry. The Artist Room sells an experience and is a place that people go to for enjoyment. The sort of people who go to the gallery are there for the same reasons; because they love art and want to learn about art and artists.
The Artist’s Room has had a solid group of artists over their ten years and have retained some of those people from the gallery’s infancy, such as Michel Tuffery, Jenny Dolezel and Tony Cribb. Michelle says she was lucky to have contacted some very good artists at the right time . From what we have seen today it was probably not luck but down to Michelle herself that they agreed to exhibit in the gallery. Over the years it has swung from Michelle approaching artists to now where would-be artists come in to the gallery almost daily asking to have their work on the Artist’s Room’s walls. The gallery has a strong relationship with the Dunedin School of Art and is constantly looking for something new and fresh that might appeal to their clients.
Michelle laughs that her customers are a diverse bunch ; ‘our customers are everybody and anybody who walks up those stairs’. This varies from first time art buyers, big time collectors, corporates, businesses or people who just want something they like on their wall.
Another big part of the Artist’s Room is Cath Garrett who manages the Framer’s Room ; a framing service that operates out of a space on the floor above the gallery. It allowed the Artist’s Room to remove the need to send their clients and artists to other framers in town. The Framer’s Room was opened around seven years ago after the realisation that offering such a service would make client’s and artist’s lives much easier if all framing could be done in house. The space upstairs became available and so the Framer’s Room was born to focus on both framing and conservation work. Cath frames for ‘everybody and anybody’; clients range from artists, people framing a $50 poster, family heirlooms or even tea towels.
In the upcoming years Michelle wants to focus on building a stronger relationship with the School of Art and to establish a scholarship or award for a graduating artist. She plans to consolidate the group of artists who she is representing in order to ensure the artists in the gallery are up to a certain standard and who will work well with the needs of the gallery’s clients. At the same time there is a need to continually look for new artists and add something different. Thus the gallery has begun to introduce some overseas artists and would like to aid local artists in exhibiting elsewhere.
The aspect Michelle most enjoys about her job is meeting so many people and getting to know the artists. Michelle describes notable highlights such as seeing a client buy their first piece of artwork or seeing an artist she represents take off.
Michelle thinks one of the reasons the gallery has been so successful is because it is based in Dunedin. The city is a very artistic place. Dunedin has the oldest Art School in the country, the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, and a number of high-profile artists who have attended or taught at the Art School. Michelle also thinks that because of the geographical isolation of Dunedin buyers from other parts of the country feel as though they are getting something special and something no one else has. All of these factors have been important in fostering the strong arts community in Dunedin.
For the 10th birthday show the gallery has asked each of their artists to provide at least one work for the show in what will be the Artist’s Room’s biggest show of the year. This show will be a celebration of Michelle and the Artist’s Room’s contribution to Otago and New Zealand art.
Mon - Fri: 10:00 am - 5:00 pm
Sat: 12:00 pm - 2:00 pm
Submitted by Joshua Jeffery