On a sunny Sunday morning, brunchgoers in shorts and sandals dine outdoors at bistro tables, some perusing tablet computers, others with dogs sprawled at their feet. Inside, workers set up for an afternoon concert.
It’s a typical scene at San Luis Obispo’s Steynberg Gallery, but it’s not your typical gallery scene.
After years of slow sales and closings, San Luis Obispo County galleries are coming back to life.
“I like the fact that we’re seeing new galleries open and older, established galleries turning over more product,” said Jenna Hartzell, executive director of ARTS Obispo, a nonprofit organization promoting the arts in San Luis Obispo County.
The improving economy is partly behind the revitalization of the local art scene, but it’s not the only thing driving it. Local galleries are reinventing themselves, delving into new markets and accessing art buyers in ways that old-school galleries never imagined.
Much more than art
Fifteen years ago, Peter Steynberg opened his first gallery in San Luis Obispo. It was traditional, selling strictly fine art.
“I was a little stubborn. I wanted to be a purist,” he said. “You start out idealistic, but then money weights you down.”
Steynberg said he made “very little money” for the first several years and watched other San Luis Obispo galleries succumb to the difficult combination of high rent and sluggish sales. Then, while visiting San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, he had a brainstorm. “I looked around and saw the coffee shop, the gift shop and thought, this is obviously what I’ve got to do,” he said.
He added a coffee shop to his gallery seven years ago. Over time, he added a bar, expanded food offerings, and increased the frequency of special events. He also rents out the gallery for meetings, weddings and even baby showers.
He said that since he changed his business model, “the business has been growing and doing a bigger turnover every year; 2014 has been busier than all the past years.”
Today, Steynberg Gallery features the work of one artist at a time, with the occasional group show. About 25 percent of sales are from art. “If we dropped even one thing, it all starts going downhill,” he said. “All the other things allow us to carry on as an art gallery.”
Jenna Hartzell views Steynberg’s move as part of a greater trend.
“You rarely see the kind of traditional gallery anymore, where there’s a painting every five feet,” she said.
In addition to Steynberg’s café-gallery business model, Hartzell sees galleries carrying everything from artisan-crafted furniture to handmade jewelry. She attributes this “resurgence of fine crafts” to the popularity of such websites as Pinterest and Etsy.
“People see all these great handmade items and like that they can buy them from someone local,” she said.
Madeline Vale opened Vale Fine Art in downtown Paso Robles three years ago. She sells art created by her husband, Edward Walton Wilcox, and other contemporary artists. Recently, Vale added handmade apparel and “art jewelry.”
“I was really hesitant to do it,” she said, “but it’s nice for people to be able to spend less than $100 and walk out with something.”
Vale believes her business is profitable partly because she offers a variety of price points. Most of her original paintings and sculpture are priced at less than $5,000 with nothing more than $10,000.
Purists may balk at this move away from the traditional gallery model. But Steynberg believes it can benefit galleries in ways that might not be immediately apparent. For instance, it encourages patrons to linger.
“People used to walk in and walk out. Now they get a cup of coffee and stay awhile. I had someone sit down for breakfast and end up buying a $6,000 painting,” he said.
The new mix of goods also may appeal to those who are intimidated by the typical white-walled, formal gallery.
“It’s a soft introduction to galleries,” Steynberg said. “We have high school kids coming in for coffee who might never have otherwise stepped into a gallery. It’s exposing more people to art.”
Public access, involvement
Steynberg is not the only gallery owner reaching out to a broader audience. Many of today’s gallery owners use special events, social media and interactive experiences to broaden their customer base.
Anne Laddon founded Paso Robles’ Studios on the Park with daughter Sasha Irving on the premise of “bringing arts to Paso Robles by engaging the public in the artistic process,” Laddon said.
According to Studios’ website, when Laddon moved to Paso Robles in 1984, it “lacked venues to show and sell, forcing (local artists) to send their artwork out of the area.”
Studios on the Park opened in May 2009 with 20 of Laddon’s artist friends who rented spaces in a renovated 1930s auto parts store across from the city park. It was modeled after the Torpedo Factory Art Center near Washington, D.C., of which Laddon was a founding artist when it opened in 1974.
Today, Studios on the Park has 25 resident artists who work onsite, stopping to talk to guests and answer questions about their work. The front atrium is the venue for group shows. At the rear of the building is a classroom where the artists host workshops for adults and children. Irving, who is the programs director, estimates that the gallery averages 6,000 visitors per month, and that number is rising.
Although Studios on the Park is a nonprofit organization, it is occupied by for-profit artists who, instead of commission, pay $2 per square foot to rent space. According to Laddon, “most artists are earning more than they’re paying in rent.” She said the organization has been in the black for two years, though part of their income is derived from fundraising.
Irving offers several reasons for their success. First is the interactive gallery model itself.
“The power of that personal connection is huge,” she said. “Developing a relationship with an artist can be just as important to making a sale as the art itself.”
Studios on the Park also positions itself as a source of affordable art. Irving noted that original art sells for as little as $40, and no piece is priced over $4,000.
“Art tends to be the last thing on people’s discretionary spending list,” she said. “Most buyers are buying pieces under $100.”
Another factor is Irving’s proficiency with social media. Studios’ Facebook page has nearly 1,300 followers. Irving uses Instagram, Twitter, and an online blog to which all artists contribute. She also sends e-mail newsletters to more than 7,000 subscribers through MailChimp. She noted that social media are both economical, and uniquely suited to conveying the “many layers to the story” of Studios’ dynamic and multi-faceted gallery.
At the front of Studios on the Park is a sunny, park-facing space shared by artists Jeff Claassen and Neal Breton. Both previously ran businesses in San Luis Obispo. Claassen owned Claassen Gallery for about eight years, closing it in 2011 to focus more time on family. Breton owned San Luis Art Supply, a hybrid supply store and gallery, for three years until 2012 when, “basically, I was forced out of the spot because they tripled the rent,” he said.
After opening their space in August last year, business for Breton was initially slow. But a breakthrough happened in late December, and now he is turning a profit. He attributes this to the improving economy, as well as to “working hard, working social media outlets, and hustling all over the state.”
Breton believes the interactive studio setting is especially helpful in selling his work, which is what he categorizes as “lowbrow folk art” and not what people are accustomed to seeing.
“I spend a lot of time almost defending the work or trying to educate or explain,” he said.
Breton initiated the Young Savages art show at Studios on the Park in March 2013, featuring the work of 30 artists younger than 40. The second show this March brought in about 400 guests. For Neal, it is an opportunity to expose the public to the work of young artists, and is also good for business.
“We bring new people in and hopefully, they’ll find something pretty enough to buy,” he said.
Another thriving event is Art After Dark, founded in 1994 by Gail Johnson. Five years later, it was handed over to ARTS Obispo, which also produces the highly successful Open Studios Art Tour. Currently, about 30 downtown San Luis Obispo businesses and organizations stay open late to display art on the first Friday of each month. About five galleries regularly participate, along with retail stores, gourmet food shops and other establishments.
“People are finding out that the arts are a great way to draw people into a business,” said Hartzell.
Hartzell said that, even during the recession, the popularity of Art After Dark continued to rise. She noted that some venues have been reporting 1,000 or more visitors during the event. She attributes this success to establishing a brand with local residents over time.
A similar Art After Dark program was started in Paso Robles just over three years ago by downtown tasting rooms, then taken over a year later by ARTS Obispo. Hartzell said this event is not yet drawing the crowds of its San Luis Obispo counterpart. “It just takes a while for an event like this to catch on,” she said.
But does event traffic equal sales? Steynberg, who was an original Art After Dark participant, believes so. He said the event attracts a mix of fun-seekers and serious buyers. “I sell more art on those nights than I do any other night,” he said.
Finding their niche
The Ramos Gallery was a fixture in San Luis Obispo for 10 years, until late 2003, when its building was damaged by the San Simeon earthquake. John Ramos and his wife, Donna, took the opportunity to fulfill a longtime dream by moving to Baja, where they sold art from their restored century-old adobe home.
They returned to the Central Coast in 2010, selling art by appointment from John’s studio in their Los Osos home. When they found an old, retrofitted post office in Morro Bay available for rent, they decided to take the leap. This past November, with little fanfare or advertising, they reopened Ramos Gallery, not knowing what to expect.
“We’ve been so slamming busy,” said Donna, who has operated galleries selling John’s work for 25 years.
Like many galleries in the county, Ramos has found success by accessing the tourist population most compatible with its style of art. For Ramos Gallery, it is the international traveler. “This time we wanted to be on Highway 1 where there are European, Canadian and Asian tourists,” she said. “Off 101, the tourists are all American.”
According to Donna, in Mexico they discovered that European travelers are especially drawn to Ramos’ “feel good” style of art, which is a sunny, nostalgic and often whimsical portrayal of California landscapes, local landmarks, classic cars and surf culture.
“Europeans love his work, because they’re in love with California,” she said.
She estimates that their current customer base is split 50/50 between tourists and those residing between Santa Barbara and Monterey.
“In San Luis Obispo, it was 75 percent locals,” she said. “If you compare the first year in SLO to our first year in Morro Bay, it’s been amazingly better here.”
Also in Morro Bay, Fiona Bleu has offered a mix of vibrant modern art, crafts and furniture for 14 years. Owner Rowan Chase says 2013 was “our best year ever, and this year, we’re on track to do better.”
Gifts and jewelry aren’t big sellers at Fiona Bleu. He believes those looking for low-priced mementos will head to one of the many gift shops that line the Embarcadero.
Chase’s own work dominates the space, and he noted that, even during the recession when sales were down overall, his paintings still sold. But it wasn’t the Europeans doing the buying.
“It’s tourists from the Silicon Valley, L.A. or the East Coast who buy,” he said.
Chase believes he has found success by establishing a niche among modern art aficionados. He estimates that tourists account for 65 percent to 70 percent of his sales, and most of them are urbanites who appreciate his style of contemporary art.
In Cambria, long known as an artists’ enclave, galleries have stayed “pretty steady through the recession,” according to Cambria Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Ann Carson.
The Vault has been a mainstay among Cambria galleries for 23 years. Aside from a few select craft items, owner Lynda Laylon runs a traditional gallery. It is also high-end, offering only original art by full-time artists, including many local residents. According to Laylon, their average sale is $3,000 and during their best months, they have around $100,000 in sales. Last year, they were one of about 180 galleries in the nation selected to sell pieces on Amazon Fine Art.
“We keep quality up, because we’ve never missed a beat (financially),” she said.
Laylon attributes her success to Hearst Castle, which draws affluent and art-savvy travelers. She estimates that Hearst Castle visitors account for at least half of her walk-in traffic.
Having learned the business in the upscale galleries of San Francisco and Carmel, she maintains that “the key to a successful fine art gallery is to be in a tourist town where traffic is constant and there are people who have never been here before.”
Irving believes this could be the key to Paso Robles’ future success as an art destination. She already sees many visitors from around California, along with “a fair number of international travelers.”
“They’re coming up and down the coast, stopping in wine country,” she said, adding that Paso Robles being named the 2013 Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine will be “huge” for area tourism.
Vale estimates that half the customers at Vale Gallery are tourists, and among her local patrons are many urban transplants who are drawn to the gallery’s selection of modern art. When she opened, she worried that their edgy style would not appeal to local tastes.
“I was surprised that we got a great reaction,” she said. Her patrons tend to be 24 to 55 years old — a demographic that is “used to the gallery scene not being so traditional.”
Tourism is more of a mixed bag in San Luis Obispo. Greg Wilkins opened A Muse Gallery in downtown San Luis Obispo in November 2012. The gallery emphasizes whimsical art, showcasing local artists as well as lithographs by famous artists such as Theodore Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss). Wilkins also sells jewelry, glass, ceramics and sculpture.
Wilkins previously owned a gallery in Sedona, Ariz., a popular tourist destination.
“We thought there’d be more of a tourist clientele here, so we were surprised that we only see the occasional tourist,” he said, noting that his customers are primarily young local professionals buying art for their homes.
Stacie Jacob, executive director of Visit San Luis Obispo County, believes tourism in San Luis Obispo will begin to rise as the economy improves.
“To me, SLO has always been the epicenter of the community,” she said. “As the economy gets better, people will want to get out and explore again.”
Dotty Hawthorne, one of three partners at San Luis Obispo’s Gallery at the Network, already sees an improvement. After experiencing a “rather significant drop in sales during the recession,” she reports slow improvement in all categories — fine art, crafts and gifts.
She noted that about half their customers are tourists, and that tourism seemed “slower during the recession but is picking up.”
Steynberg believes people tend to buy art when on vacation — and San Luis Obispo County residents are no exception. He relies heavily on tourists who stay nearby at hotels on Monterey Street. He, too, sees both tourism and art sales increasing post-recession.
Still, he doesn’t envision going back to the traditional gallery model. Like Irving and Laddon, he sees himself as a trendsetter, changing the way galleries function in the community.
“We have lectures here, poetry, political talks,” he said. “I see our gallery becoming more of a cultural center.”