Inside Avenue Art. Photo courtesy of Karen Hertz-Sumnicht.
Living in Door County means having easy access to art, but behind the scenes, acquiring the art that goes on display is a very involved process. In a previous issue, we learned how Miller Art Museum curator Helen Del Guidis selects art to display, and in this issue, several local gallery owners explain their selection process.
Each Door County art gallery is distinctive and each gallery owner has a special way of selecting art to display and sell. Some reach out to artists after admiring their work on social media; others wait for artists to come to them with proposals; and others do a little of both.
But when it comes to selection criteria, there are many similarities.
Know your customers
To know which items will fit well in a gallery, owners need to know who their customers are, said Peter Ciesla of Bazyli Studio Wearable and Textile Art in Baileys Harbor. This means knowing what your specific customers are looking for and what their average price range is.
Client interests can also vary by location, according to Karen Hertz-Sumnicht. She has galleries in Sturgeon Bay (Avenue Art & Co. on Third) and Appleton (Avenue Art & Co.), and although the two cities aren’t too far apart, “they’re different enough that what works here , it might not necessarily work there,” Hertz-Sumnicht said.
Knowing your customers also means knowing what is most likely to sell – but that’s not necessarily the most important consideration for gallery owners.
“I don’t pick things that I don’t really care about, but I think might sell,” Ciesla said. “That’s something that doesn’t agree with me.”
Stay true to your mood
Sophia Parr of Ellison Bay’s Northern Arts Collective treats filling a gallery like decorating a living room: you want everything to work together, but you also want some individual pieces to pop.
Her selection process “evolved into more of a reflective process,” she said. “I curate more for the look of the space rather than having lots of different types of artwork.”
JR Jarosh of Fish Creek’s Edgewood Orchard Galleries has a similar process.
“It’s an interesting combination of finding things that fit the mood, kind of following what your customers want, but also leading your customers to what you think they’re going to like,” Jarosz said.
Go to the Uncommon
Consistency matters, but gallery owners don’t want to fill their rooms with the same work over and over again. Jarosch spends about four weeks straight each year reviewing the 75-125 artist submissions that Edgewood receives. After looking at so much art, he needs pieces that stand out to him.
When they do, he can use his position as a gallery owner to introduce his clients to media and styles that may be unfamiliar to them.
“Abstract work is an interesting example of that,” Jarosz said. “A lot of people like the idea of abstract work, but it’s a big departure from a beautiful farm or coastline.”
Gallery owners do not always choose artists’ works when they are first approached. But if they continue to submit — sometimes over a period of several years — the gallery owner can choose the work later, Hertz-Sumnicht said. This is because the owner’s vision for the gallery may change, or at some point the gallery may have additional space to fill.
Jarosz’s vetting process often involves giving artists feedback on how they can improve and encouraging them to resubmit later—and he’s seen many do just that.
“A number of artists we’re showing now haven’t made it the second, third or fourth time,” Jarosz said.
Get feedback from others
Most gallery owners don’t make their decisions alone. Instead, they bounce ideas from co-owners, spouses or partners, or fellow artists. For Parr, her sister’s opinion is often the most valuable.
“If she likes it, I know there will be a wide range of people who will like it,” Parr said.
Cultivate an emotional connection
Often, buying art creates an emotional response in the customer, according to Hertz-Sumnicht, who has seen buyers cry or seethe with excitement after making a purchase. Therefore, it makes sense that gallery owners also feel a level of connection to the art.
“It’s not like buying a sweater,” she said. “It just means more.”
That’s why Ciesla only shows pieces she feels a connection to. While galleries may look like “art shops” to outsiders, that’s not what they feel like to those who buy and sell.
“It’s got to be something that grabs me,” Sisla said. “Basically, people who come to the gallery know that I have some kind of emotional connection to what I’m wearing.”
Trust your intuition
Each gallery owner interviewed for this piece mentioned that there is a certain “feel” they look for when showing art—a feeling that develops over time, according to Hertz-Sumnicht. When she opened her first gallery in 1988, “it was terrible,” she said. “I was so worried I was going to hurt someone’s feelings.” But over the years, the selection process has gotten easier.
Art is subjective, so no matter how many objective considerations a gallery owner may make while reviewing submissions, the selection process always involves intuition.
“I’m an artist myself,” Ciesla said, “and I tend to make decisions in my work as an artist very often in an intuitive, undefined way.”