Friday, February 1, 2008

Migration: A Gallery – Charlottesville’s Art Venue Continues to Grow

Last month we wrote about a husband and wife artistic team from Martinsburg, West Virginia who are defining what it is to live and work together. We now turn our attention to Charlottesville, Virginia where husband and wife art gallerists, Rob and Laura Jones, share some perspectives on their young enterprise.

Migration: A Gallery is a name and concept originally derived by Laura Jones to honor the gallerists’ belief in the natural connotations of the word “migration.” The couple places credence in the truism that art can literally transform and move people. Migration: A Gallery originated from ideas of works which explore the natural world and the personal journey required when one embarks on a brainchild of expression and communication.

The Jones’ are exploring their own personal arts journey in the celebration of their gallery’s two year anniversary. Their business is improving and the gallerists hope for great things in the future. The first year of gallery ownership was terrific and the couple received tons of press. They enjoyed representing their artists. Within that year, and despite their other successes, the gallerists found themselves challenged when they needed to break into the arts fair world.

artDC was the first fair where they exhibited. They received a great reception and realized good sales. However, when they applied to SOFA with six divergent artists, it was confusing at first for show organizers and patrons alike to see a variety of media represented in three dimensional works. Patrons there were used to seeing single media galleries whereas the Jones’ saw their collection as encompassing a curatorial focus. For their booth, they had taken a subset of artists that merged and worked with a lot of layers. In the end, the idea worked to everyone’s advantage even though the exhibiting approach took some testing and convincing.

Last year was also highlighted with making joyful sales matched only by meeting great people. Although the gallerists faced common challenges in meeting expenses, they felt it was most important to be able to write checks to support their artists with sales, to stay true to their own vision, and to be of service to the community.

For this reason, the Jones’ chose to bring national works to an area of local focus. They select artists from across the country whose work touches them greatly and who are additionally terrific people to work with. Some artists are emerging; others are established (indeed even prominent). The gallerists believe a vibrant arts community in a small, rural town is achieved by exhibiting high quality work from outside the region. This encourages all to thrive and grow and helps work “migrate” to the gallery from afar.

While Charlottesville sales growth is steady, the Jones’ need to continue to look beyond the immediate local vicinity to ensure their gallery's long term success. Charlottesville enjoys an arts corridor resembling a long, skinny European public square. It includes a pedestrian mall, restaurants, cafés, several other galleries, and a series of small coffee houses. There are two other commercial galleries and a well known non-profit space that does a great job of bringing in new shows. Within four blocks of Migration: A Gallery, there are a dozen non-traditional places for rotating art shows. This interest in the arts has helped to make Charlottesville a quickly emerging premier tourist destination.

Operating a gallery in small, rural America means lower rents, nicer gallery spaces, a slower pace of life, and for the Jones’, it also means being centrally located on the east coast. Still, the couple worries if they have the right recipe. The gallerists had selected Charlottesville as a home town following a move from Atlanta. They lived in the area for five years before opening their exhibition space. They knew they wanted to stay on the east coast and Charlottesville was attractive due to its proximity to the
University of Virginia.

During the University’s winter break, gallery business is slower. There is a significant increase in traffic when school is in session. To date, the Jones’ have found that University parents mostly look for alumni related art (such as photographs of the school's rotunda). To compensate for these business trends, the gallerists are specifically trying to foster a good relationship with students and the community at large. Memberships in the
American Craft Council and in Piedmont Council for the Arts help to lend credibility, calendar support, and a network of arts liaisons. A trial membership in the Society for Arts in Healthcare was an academic enterprise – one the gallerists may not renew. They found the organization catered to a more scientific audience and membership brought forth no discernable art patron interest.

Surprisingly, in light of the gallery’s great location, the bulk of Migration: A Gallery's business is not pedestrian traffic. Rather, aggressive marketing is a huge part of the Jones’ daily business. Charlottesville sponsors monthly First Friday Nights (public art openings). On a good First Friday, more than three hundred people may traffic in and out of the gallery spaces depending on weather. The gallerists focus a lot on walk in exposure, but there is even more background work in terms of follow up and behind the scenes art patron cultivation. The Jones’ call it "shoe leather marketing."

Shoe leather marketing is one of the reasons the Jones’ gallery partnership works like a dream. Laura Jones spent the first part of her working life as a lawyer, but grew up in the galleries, museums, and artists studios of her native North Carolina. Her father was an avid collector of emerging artists, and also did legal work for several local artists (for which he was usually paid in trade). She says she couldn’t image a home or a life devoid of art and books.

Rob Jones brings a background in art history with a tremendous amount of time previously focused on museums. It is very important for him to be arts-physical, to have the art work on hand, to be able to see it and touch it, versus relying only on new trends in on-line marketing or in trying to make a determination whether works are good (or relatable) based on an image.

The gallerists aren’t entirely sure where e-galleries are going in the marketplace and they won't stand by on the sidelines waiting to see. Over the last six months, they've put more effort into the electronic process through their updated website and blog. The Jones’ are interested in collecting opinions and reviews and they want to get their artists’ names out in the mainstream.
However, Migration: A Gallery is not set up as an Internet shop. While the gallerists do publish on-line images and lists of their artists’ works, and people do contact the gallery after seeing an image online, this type of art presentation feels incongruent with what the Jones’ want to do in term of bringing works forth. They acknowledge that the electronic arts age may be the wave of arts’ future.

Recently, the Jones’ have been happily surprised to see the amount of site hits and ensuing discussions around one of Migration: A Gallery's featured artists;
Randy Stoltzfus. The gallerists believe his work will continue to take off, but it has been interesting to them to see how many people are talking about Stoltzfus, not just through the website, but also through the gallery's blog.

The world of small, rural galleries is a leap of faith and for Migration: A Gallery, it seems that over the last ten years, art fairs seem to be the major venue for other galleries’ vitality. Whether that trend will continue is also very debatable. Are the only people purchasing affordable art re-buying pieces in the secondary market, or are they purchasing easily transportable art sold in coffee shops? Are people simply searching for something to place above the sofa or are they looking to make long term investments? The gallerists consider these questions and find in the end, art is fluid. Work pricing at times seems undeterminable, inconsistent, and illogical – much like the world of any two-year old toddler.

This is one of the reasons Migration: A Gallery is trying to educate, train, and “parent” by offering a large display and assortment of various artisans. The gallerists see a unifying theme, regardless of media, as expressing a relationship to the natural world. They actively look for works expressing a conceptual unification. Presently, there's not a whole lot of work they show in clay – even though that is an example of work that is very organic and naturally suited for the gallerists’ artistic vision. The Jones’ personal taste runs the entire field. Not only are they gallerists, business people, and art lovers, but they also collect pieces and enjoy the high end crafts.

A gallerist or a business person has to find his or her edge. Rob and Laura Jones are walking on the new edge of all the changes inherent in today's vibrant art environment. If they had a magic wand, Laura would work to change how art is segregated. Rob would edit and display clean designs in hopes of making a dent in the level of engagement the public has with galleries. When asked what other new themes they're currently considering, the gallerists look at their little gallery mascot dog, Piper, and answer in the form of a question much asked in art circles. Is art a luxury or a necessity? For the owners of Migration: A Gallery, it's a whole reason to be human and a whole reason to look forward to turning three.