Experienced gallery owners discuss what they’ve learned over the years about the art business

Roundtable: the ins and outs of selling art: experienced gallery owners discuss what they’ve learned over the years about the art business

Joe Jancsurak

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series, in which five gallery owners from New York, North Carolina, Florida, Missouri and California, share what they consider to be important factors to consider before entering the art gallery business, including reasons why for entering the art market; important character traits to have; the best legal structure for an art gallery; and the pros and cons of the business. Part 2 will discuss business plans, market research and means for securing capital. Roundtable participants are Betty Cuningham, Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York (Chelsea); Jonathan Kodner, Kodner Gallery, St. Louis; Richard Roberts, R. Roberts Gallery, Jacksonville, FL; Melanie Smith, Seaside Art Gallery, Nags Head, NC; and Mike Woolsey, Marina Fine Arts, Marina del Rey, CA.

What does it take to be a successful gallery owner in terms of art knowledge, business background and personality traits?

Smith: This is the information age, and it is important to have as much knowledge about art and business as possible. Learning is an ongoing process; there is no end to it. A draw back about the information gathering process is that you soon learn how many things can go wrong, but you still have to find the courage to take the risk in order to accomplish anything. A gallery owner needs to love art and have an outgoing personality, good communication skills, optimism, energy and the ability to understand business principles.

Kodner: Gallery owners should be well-rounded in the arts. In addition to education in specific areas of interest, one should also have a strong innate passion and interest for the profession. Specialists in our field tend to be well-read in most aspects of art, and should have some prior hands-on experience in the field. Gallery owners also must have good business sense and marketing skills–they need to be go-getters.

Cuningham: It takes a great deal of knowledge of art. Some is instinctive, and may come from being an artist yourself, or having looked at a lot of art. Some of the knowledge is learned at the university level by attaining a degree in art history or fine arts. Personality is important, especially when it comes to having patience and a sense of humor. The dealer also needs to have a strong sense of order and responsibility to the artists, as well as clients. It pays off to simply be direct and accommodating.

Roberts: A passion for art is, obviously, essential to run a successful gallery. But that’s just the beginning. A basic business background is critical, just as with any business. It’s important to develop and work a realistic business plan that puts you on a profitable path. You should have sufficient capital to survive at least two to five years, and knowledge of accounting, insurance, marketing and finance is necessary to make it all work. And you must be a people person, and even a little bit of a psychologist because customers connect with different pieces and artists for different reasons. It’s important to be able to “read” people in order to be effective for them and profitable for you.

Woolsey: You have to be a people person who enjoys constant contact with customers. If you’re not an outgoing person, you’re not going to succeed. You can learn the mechanics of operating a business and you can develop knowledge of the art market, but it’s difficult to learn how to be a people person.

What made you want to enter the art business?

Kodner: I grew up in the art business. My father was an avid collector and started our family gallery in the early 1970s. His knowledge and passion for the field was inspiring. As an artist and history buff, I knew from an early age that I was destined to work in art. After graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute, I spent several years working with the Missouri Historical Society. Entering the family business seemed to be the natural progression for my career.

Smith: I also was fortunate enough to grow up in the family business and have a passion for art. My parents opened Seaside more than 40 years ago. So I grew up working in the gallery during the summer and on weekends–doing everything from dusting, changing light bulbs and framing, to eventually working with customers and artists.

Woolsey: I didn’t grow up in the business and I don’t have an art background. But when I was in college during the late 1970s, I purchased some [Salvador] Dali and Leroy Neiman pieces at the Bowles Hopkins Gallery in San Francisco. Jerry Harpin was the sales associate and his knowledge and enthusiasm, coupled with my love for the works I had purchased, helped to fuel my interest in the business. Then, when I graduated from the University of California, Riverside, with a degree in European history, I took a job at the D’Genero Gallery in Marina Del Rey, where I worked from 1981-84, before taking a job at Cuningham, which I’ve owned and managed for the last 15 years.

Roberts: After 25 years in the petroleum industry, it was time for me to explore new opportunities. I was looking for a business venture that I could enjoy on a daily basis. And with the gallery, I had the opportunity to merge a personal interest with a business.

Cuningham: There’s so much about the business that I love. I love the art. I love the dialogue about the art. And I enjoy being around the artists.

Please discuss the pros and cons of the business that one must consider before forging ahead with an art gallery business plan.

Cuningham: First, do not expect to make a lot of money. Do, however, expect to have some fun. Know that artists need support emotionally and financially, and be able to provide both. Having good mental health and deep pockets helps in this business.

Smith: The big advantage of having an art gallery is that it has given me the ability to make a living doing something that I love. The disadvantage is that the odds against having a successful gallery are huge. Furthermore, it requires a tremendous amount of personal time necessary to run the business.

Kodner: From an outsider’s point of view, the gallery business appears easy. The truth is that while operating a gallery is interesting and enjoyable, it is also a complicated business. As a gallery owner you must be familiar with the market, artists and artworks, and have excellent sales and marketing skills. As with any business, the survival of the company depends on you.

Roberts: You have to love to work with people of all different tastes. Learning the preferences of your customers is very important for building customer confidence and recognition for your business. Building a strong inventory of artists and their works takes time, and you gain experience every time you take a chance with a new artist. You have to be–or become-a good manager and hire a knowledgeable sales-oriented, friendly staff. Your enthusiasm for art must be contagious–for your staff and your customers.

Woolsey: Our clientele is a wonderful group of people to be able to call friends and customers. It’s an extremely interesting business with opportunities to travel and search the world for art. It’s also a difficult business to be away from because there’s always something to do. And finding strong sales people and finding ways to keep them is a constant challenge. It takes a lot of skill and confidence to be able to sell expensive works.

How has your perception of the fine art marketplace changed since you entered the business?

Smith: The fine art marketplace has changed considerably since our gallery opened in 1961. The market has expanded from being regional to global. More people are aware that art can be very valuable or become valuable over time. The news media now reports when a work of art breaks records at auction whereas, in the 60s, only specialized art magazines would report the information. Technology has changed the way the art market functions, just like it has changed everything else in our lives today.

Kodner: The fine art market has become much more conservative over the years. Buyers are more knowledgeable and are less apt to spend without confidence in both the artist and the gallery. Fresh artwork of high quality and competitive value is becoming more difficult to find. Also, art law has become very relevant for both buyers and sellers.

Roberts: I love the business and the people with whom we work–the publishers, the artists, other gallery owners and the vast array of suppliers. However, at the end of the day, it is still a business and a very competitive and complicated one at that.

Woolsey: I used to think that when it comes to fine art, I could influence my clients. We used to carry stone lithographs, etchings and fine-quality prints. The reality is that our clients like pretty pictures–seascapes, landscapes, Disney, etc. We don’t sell limited editions as investments because art comes and goes. Instead, we’re all about providing good quality works that are good values.

Cuningham: I guess that I feel that some of the best art is not in the marketplace. I used to think that the best art was always only the work we see in galleries. Now I find that there are so many good artists without representation and without any way of getting representation, that I feel there is a whole untapped market still on the fringe.

What do you think is the best legal structure for the art gallery business? Sole proprietorship, corporation, LLC? How did you choose your legal structure?

Kodner: Structure depends on how you want to position yourself and the gallery in the event of transaction disputes, general business dealings and other unexpected problems. We’re set up as a C corporation. Another factor is taxes–percentages, credits, burdens, etc. A reputable attorney and accountant are two of the best and most important assets when starting a business.

Smith: We opened up as a partnership. We changed to a corporation in the 80s because of the tax laws and liabilities.

Roberts: We are an S corporation. Today, either an LLC or S corporation is probably preferable. We chose ours after consultation with our CPA and attorney.

Woolsey: We’re a sole proprietorship. I really don’t have a strong opinion about what’s the best legal structure.

Cuningham: Sole proprietorship would be ideal; however, our structure is an LLC. Whatever the structure, the primary dealer should have control of the artistic decisions and the partners should be limited.

Editor’s note: For more on legal structures, see this month’s Legal Lowdown on page 54.

Which aspects of the art business do you find the most rewarding? Which aspects are the least rewarding?

Roberts: Most rewarding are the relationships that develop with customers and suppliers alike. They truly become a second family. The art community is very giving and generous to those in need. Being involved in various fundraisers and charitable events is especially rewarding because you have a hand in seeing dreams come true and making a difference for your community. By far, without exception, the least rewarding is the mountain of paperwork involved to keep the business running smoothly and moving forward.

Kodner: The most rewarding aspect of this business is locating fine and rare works of art-it is almost like treasure hunting. Also, having clients who are passionate about artwork is very rewarding. Difficult aspects of this business include slow sales months, difficulty in locating and securing prime artwork, and the possibility of a client complaint.

Smith: The most rewarding aspect of the art business for me is that it has given me the opportunity to meet and talk with people from all over the world and from all walks of life. Some of our customers are second and third generations of families that have visited with us through the years. I feel that my life has been enriched with this experience. The least rewarding aspect is paying bills.

Woolsey: The most rewarding aspect is the relationships with customers and the least rewarding is the need to constantly press because the art isn’t going to just sell itself.

Cuningham: Most rewarding aspects include being able to create a market for an artist and his work. It is so stimulating and rewarding because you know the work so well and you want to make it understood and appreciated. And when it works, it’s the best. The least rewarding aspect is when you put out a lot of energy as well as money, and the artist calls you at 6 p.m., and still wants more.

Meet the Participants

Betty Cuningham is owner and director of the Betty Cuningham Gallery in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. She is living proof that for many, owning and operating a gallery is something that becomes a part of you that is difficult to leave behind. Cuningham once had a gallery in SoHo from 1972-1982. She went on to be a director at Hirshl & Adler and Robert Miller. Last September, she once again became an owner/director of the Betty Cuningham Gallery in Chelsea on 25th Street. Cuningham has a BA from Finch College in New York and a MFA from Hunter College in New York.

Jonathan Kodner, an internationally recognized consultant and dealer in the field of fine and rare art, is president and director of Kodner Gallery, St. Louis, which has one of the largest and most eclectic inventories in the Midwest. Known for his expertise on French and American Impressionists; masters of the Old West; regionalists; 17th- to 20th-century American and European landscape, still life and genre; and modern and contemporary masters. Kodner began his career in 1986 as the assistant curator of art collections and exhibition technician at the Missouri Historical Society after graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute. After several years with the Historical Society, he was led to the gallery that was originally opened by his father, Martin, in 1971. He became a member of the United States Appraisers Association; The New England Appraisers Association; and the Appraisers Association of America, while he worked alongside his father. Today, he and his brother David continue the family tradition, offering their expertise in the appraising, buying and selling of paintings, sculpture and fine art.

Richard Roberts has owned the R. Roberts Gallery for 10 years, after purchasing an existing gallery in 1994. Representing local, regional, national and international artists, the gallery is considered to be one of the region’s most prominent purveyor’s of fine art. Located in the historic Avondale area of Jacksonville, FL, the gallery offers an extensive selection, custom framing, restoration, personal on-site art and framing consultation and portraiture services. In a New York Times article, the gallery was referred to as the “center of the Avondale art universe.” Prior to entering the gallery business, Roberts had a 26-year career in the petroleum industry, holding a variety of positions with Exxon, Grand Bahamas Petroleum, New England Petroleum and Charter Oil Company. In 1993, he co-founded Ortega Automotive, and sold his interest in that business in the late 90’s. A native of Key West, FL, and an engineering graduate of the University of Florida, Roberts has lived in Jacksonville for the last 20 years, where he supports many community organizations and has served on the boards of several nonprofits.

If you ask Melanie Smith when her management of the family gallery began, she hesitates. “It’s been more of a growing-into process,” says Smith, whose parents, Barbara and Chester, opened Seaside Art Gallery in Nags Head, NC, more than 40 years ago. She grew up working at this barrier island gallery during the summer and on weekends, doing everything from dusting, changing light bulbs and framing, to eventually working with customers and artists. Today, Smith–who is accredited with the International Society of Appraisers and has written and taught a course for the ISA on animation art–oversees the gallery. Seaside shows the original work of more than 80 artists, and features more than 2,000 original works of art by masters and contemporary artists. Since its opening in 1961, the gallery has expanded from a one-room venue featuring mostly marine art to a diverse 13-room establishment. It offers a wide variety of paintings and fine art prints, original production animation art and cels, pre-Columbian pottery, antique porcelain, art glass, bronze and marble sculpture and estate jewelry. Seaside schedules art demonstrations, school tours and changing exhibitions, including the International Miniature Art Show in May. Appraisals are offered with authenticity, fully guaranteed.

Mike Woolsey is owner of Marina Fine Arts in Marina Del Rey, CA. A native of Southern California, he attended the University of California, Riverside, where he graduated with a bachelors degree in European history. Upon graduating, he started working in the gallery business while his wife finished school. Today, 24 years later, Woolsey and his wife of 22 years have two children and he’s still enjoying the art business, though he admits that he’d like for it to be less demanding at times. Woolsey’s gallery has been at its present location for 20 years. Designed by world-renowned architect, John Lautner, the gallery’s 1,200-square-foot, award-winning space is a one-of-a-kind, with custom-built display areas, skylights and an eye-catching facade featuring large, colorful (orange and yellow) and curved metal pieces.


* Betty Cuningham Gallery, 212-242-2772, www.bett cuninhamgallery.com

* Kodner Gallery, 314-993-4471, www.kodnergallery.com

* Marina Fine Arts, 310-305-7678, www.marinafinearts.com

* R. Roberts Gallery, 904-388-1188, www.rrobertsgallery.com

* Seaside Gallery, 252-441-5418, www.seasideart.com

For reprints of this article, contact LaTonya Brumitt at 314-824-5504, or e-mail labrumitt@pfpublish.com.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Pfingsten Publishing, LLC

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group