Tuesday, 05 September 2017 13:21

First Connect, Then Collect: How Grand Rapids is trying to correct its art collector problem

Written by  Samara Napolitan
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For Linda LaFontsee, co-owner of LaFontsee Galleries, the value in art worth collecting distills down to a very personal moment. 

“When you first look at a piece of art, your gut reaction is something you should hold onto, because it’s not going to go away,” she said. “If that feeling is something that you want to experience again and again, it will only grow deeper the longer you have that art in your life.”

Sparking that personal connection is critical to the success of local artists, as well as the vibrancy of an entire community. But artists cannot achieve success without the support of other key players. 

Creative Many, a statewide nonprofit, publishes reports every year to affirm the role arts and cultural sectors play in building healthy economies. In its 2016 Creative State Michigan Creative Industries Report, the organization describes the important function of galleries in Michigan’s economy: “Dealers represent an important component of the arts ecosystem, assisting artists, both emerging and established, to build audiences and access the market.”

A healthy sense of community among artists, dealers and collectors increases the perceived value of art, which in turn contributes to the wellbeing of an entire city. According to thought leaders interviewed for the 2016 report, cities are better equipped to attract and retain highly skilled workers and financial investment wherever artists and arts nonprofits flourish.

As such, members of the visual art community in Grand Rapids are exploring avenues to grow the collector’s scene through various business models and perspectives. For instance, LaFontsee Galleries has refined its model to sustain a successful business for more than 30 years. 

The gallery works with private clients, collectors and designers to fill homes, hospitals, corporate offices and restaurants with the work of artists local to West Michigan. Frequent clients include Herman Miller and Steelcase. On the flipside, the galleries represent artists who willingly reciprocate the commitment by producing enough work to keep pace with the market’s demand. More importantly, the artists need to create a sensory experience that can attract a potential buyer. 

“In 30 years of business, we’ve built up a lot of great relationships with the people that come in here,” LaFontsee said. “Many of them come in just to see what’s new, get inspired and have the experience of walking through, feeling uplifted by the work and drawn into various pieces.” 


Cultivating a Culture

Insights from the 2016 Creative State Michigan Report reveal that a region creating an effective arts and cultural sector requires a complex web of components, beginning with a pipeline of educated local talent and opportunities that provide early experience in the field. The area also must support a full spectrum of businesses, from emerging ventures to well-established commercial operations, and communities must be willing to provide input. Finally, an audience or market must actively seek out the offerings being presented. 

Steven Vinson, a local artist and the sole proprietor of Spiral Gallery, feels that one part of that web — local talent — is abundant in West Michigan. Vinson lives in his gallery space at 44 S. Division Ave. and leverages both the local network and his connections from graduate school to keep compelling art in rotation. 

“I would say the biggest strength of the collector’s scene here is the amount of work available, as well as the diversity of that work,” Vinson said. 

Hannah Berry is another local artist and the owner of Lions & Rabbits gallery in the Creston neighborhood. The multi-purpose space is not only adorned with the work of local artists, but also functions as a wedding venue and community retail space for makers — a model Berry said is key to keeping the business running. 

Berry said she finds it easy to partner with local artists who not only fit her aesthetic vision, but also possess a good mind for business. 

“Cultivating a diversity of art is pretty easy here,” Berry said. “In my experience, local colleges like Kendall do a good job of teaching college students necessary business skills before they graduate.”

Meanwhile, LaFontsee has initiated a serious search for new artists. 

“We get a lot of submissions, but they are not the right fit for what we do,” LaFontsee said. 

“It’s tricky to find work that isn’t too similar to something we already have,” added Vicki Bradley, a member of the frame design and art sales team at LaFontsee Galleries. “It has to be something we really resonate with and we know our clients will resonate with. We’re a little particular,” she said with a laugh.   

What resonates with clients varies from gallery to gallery, which is clear just from stepping foot into LaFontsee, Spiral or Lions & Rabbits, not to mention the myriad other galleries in the region. At the same time, forums for input and discussion around these selections are also frequent. 

As the exhibitions manager at ArtPrize, Katie Moore helps to facilitate and promote artist development programs throughout the calendar year. One of many such events is “Break it Down | Make it Better,” a collaboration between ArtPrize, the Avenue for the Arts and Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA), intended to engage speakers, artists and curators in an ongoing dialogue. The 2017 event was hosted at Dwelling Place and offered educational programming, discussions and professional development opportunities for local artists. 

“If an artist doesn’t have gallery representation, how do they sell their work? That’s what we try to answer with these workshops,” Moore said.


Does Grand Rapids Value Art? 

Although Moore believes that ArtPrize has encouraged interest in visual art locally, she thinks that the Grand Rapids community needs to do more to support artists. 

“Someone made the point to me recently that in Grand Rapids you get the house, you get the car, and you invest in all these nice things. But for some reason buying art doesn’t factor into the lifestyle here,” Moore said. 

All participating ArtPrize artists can list their work for sale on their page on the ArtPrize website. Responding to a recent ArtPrize survey, 77 percent of participating artists said they listed their work for sale on the ArtPrize website — 22.9 percent of those artists sold their work.  

On the whole, that ratio is fairly high compared to the number of works some local galleries sell per month. According to Moore, Vinson and Berry, Grand Rapids needs to work on growing the final element of a healthy arts sector: a market that values locally produced visual art enough to invest in it regularly. Without a robust local collectors market, many emerging artists are struggling to find their financial footing and make a reasonable livelihood from their work.

“We see a lot of people coming here, but it’s artists supporting artists,” Vinson said. “It’s incestuous in a way, because the people that go to gallery openings and events aren’t necessarily people with disposable income. We trade art, but that’s not the same as growing an economy.”

Participants in the 2016 Creative State Michigan report expressed similar concerns. According to the report, “Long-term and patient investment in art and design is required for deep roots to take hold. . . . Art markets in particular are not yet robust enough to provide living wages for many artists – most require supplemental jobs or funding to get by.”

Vinson and Berry believe that ArtPrize contributes to the struggle of conveying the value of collecting art. 

“I think ArtPrize teaches people to go look at art and to be interested in it, but it also trains them to think that art is free,” Vinson said. “Unfortunately, many of the people who attend ArtPrize don’t view art as a valuable artifact to have.” 

“People here need to buy art, instead of just appreciating it,” Berry said. “We need to raise awareness that there is a business of selling art that happens all year, not only for (19 days out of the year).” 

On the other hand, LaFontsee argues that ArtPrize has a role to play, because she has seen it catalyze a community-wide interest in art — a baby step that can lead to sales. 

“The more people look at art, the more they gain a critical eye of what they deem to be art,” she said, “Giving people the confidence to trust their own taste in turn gives people the confidence to invest in a piece of art they react to in a positive way.” 


Connection is Key

Amid the chorus of opinions on whether ArtPrize helps or hinders the local visual arts sector, a key factor for expanding the number of local art collectors bubbles to the surface: more opportunities for potential buyers to interact and connect with artists directly. Vinson mentioned one couple who has stopped by Spiral every First Friday (a series of gallery openings, pop-up shops and special events that occur on the first Friday of the month along the South Division Corridor) since he participated as an ArtPrize venue two years ago. 

“We need more of that, helping people understand that it’s fun to come out and see art. We need to harness the energy, the enjoyment, of ArtPrize for something that is a little more scaled down,” he said.

Kelli Jo Peltier and her sister Kara Peltier both live and work in Grand Rapids and are avid collectors of local art. Kelli Jo said that having an experience where she is able to establish a meaningful connection with an artist often leads her to purchase their work. 

“Every piece of art you have creates a story,” she said. “When you talk to an artist about why they created a piece, that story comes through.” 

Kara identified Live Coverage — UICA’s annual fundraiser that features local and regional artists creating work live onsite — as a typical source for her growing collection. 

“It’s very affordable for regular people to attend,” she said. 

Berry and Moore also point to the UICA as a leader in educating the community of the value of art; the organization even hosts a list of tips for jumpstarting one’s own art collection on its website. 

Data from ArtPrize also support the notion that cultivating personal connections can boost sales. Responding to the recent ArtPrize survey, 53 percent of artists who sold their work during the event said they did so after meeting the buyer in person. 

LaFontsee said that events at the gallery make a big difference in sales. The opportunity to view the textures and layers of the painting, along with talking to the artist, make for a more personal way to purchase art. 

“A lot of people like that connection with the artist,” she said. “It opens up a window into the piece.” 


Exploring New Angles

While acknowledging that artists, dealers and collectors must actively contribute to keep an arts scene thriving, Moore of ArtPrize also points to philanthropy and the private sector as critical players. 

In February 2017, the Frey Foundation and the Efroymson Family Fund contributed funding to ArtPrize Featured Public Projects. The grant program will bring large-scale public art to outdoor locations downtown during the ninth annual event. Moore said a greater quantity of similar investments is needed to support up-and-coming artists. 

“We really need someone who can connect money to artists,” Moore said. “The Grand Rapids Art Museum, UICA and Kendall College of Art and Design all have at least one person working to convince people to fund their organizations, why there’s value in that and why their donation matters. But we don’t do enough to invest in individual artists.”

Spiral’s Vinson also sees an opportunity for partnerships with apartment and condominium complexes as affordable housing develops downtown. 

“Housing is going up all over. As more young, professional people are moving downtown, the influx of younger, energized, more hip and professional people could start to increase,” he said. “Tapping into that is our goal.” 

At the same time, Vinson recognizes the need to educate the market and make the buying process easy for potential buyers from start to finish. 

“The cost of art can scare people away, because art needs to be handled in a certain way,” he said. “It’s better if it’s framed. Storing it is an issue. If you buy a piece, even if it’s only $50, and you don’t know quite how to take care of it, then it can be lost or become ruined. It’s a little bit of a tough sell.”

Others are wielding their curation skills to bridge connections between artists and commerce as well. ArtXchangeGR is West Michigan’s newest business committed to energizing the city’s local art scene. Founder and CEO Adrianne Houser said the company is aiming to champion what ArtXchangeGR calls “the art everywhere movement” by linking artists, commerce and education opportunities. 

“We can feel the energy and excitement around art,” Houser said during a First Fridays pop-up exhibit last August. “So many people experience the mindset where they believe they don’t have the potential to be creative. We want to work with artists to help show the community that anyone can be creative, and with that comes all kinds of possibilities.” 

Through a membership-based model, ArtXchangeGR works with businesses first to profile their tastes, then to engage customers and inspire their workforce with work created by West Michigan artists. Memberships for artists are free and include professional assistance, as well as opportunities to gain exposure and share income generated from rentals, sales and commissioned projects.

Through Lions & Rabbits, Berry curates the art selection for local businesses, including The Winchester, a law office in East Grand Rapids and multiple Third Coast Development properties. She recently partnered with Valentino Designs to feature art in remodeled homes. 

“Some artists feel that the business gets more benefit than they do, but I think it’s a good conversation starter,” Berry said. “I can see both sides.” 

A one-size-fits-all fix to grow the art collection scene remains elusive, but creating cookie-cutter solutions can frustrate just as much as they can serve. For the time being, it seems ambitions will be met only when the community generates ideas that both reflect and increase the diversity of the art created by Grand Rapids artists — and vice versa — while cultivating and strengthening ties that increase the perceived value of art. 

“It’s a challenge to get people who see artwork as only a hobby or decoration to see that it can be much more than that. You just have to find the right object,” Vinson said. “The same way we connect with certain people more than others, we can connect with a photo or drawing or whatever the art piece is in a deep way.” 

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