Door County Art Feature: The Art Supply Store as Meeting Place – Artists Guild LLC

When I first visited the Artists Guild in Sturgeon Bay, I instantly made two observations. The first was that it was hard not to want to be an artist of some sort after seeing the beautifully organized rows of paint tubes, drawing pencils, and paper varieties. The other was that for the first time, I was able to walk into an art supply store without feeling an overwhelming sense of being completely out of my element. The employees, many of them artists themselves, were kind and encouraging to both professional and novice artists alike. Patrons would linger in the store, chatting with each other like they were at the Pudgy Seagull next door and not an art supply/framing store. It was a retail experience that I simply hadn’t seen before.

In talking with Sarah and Jeff Bradley, the husband-and-wife team behind the Artists Guild, this is exactly what they had hoped the shop would become. After all, they did choose the name Artists Guild with a bit of thought. The word “guild” typically relates to an organization of persons with related interests and goals, and this is exactly what they hoped to create with the store from the very beginning.

Sarah and Jeff Bradley, owners of Artists Guild on Third Avenue in Sturgeon Bay.

“Artists began to hang out here almost immediately,” Sarah says. “People have joked with us about setting up a coffee machine in the corner!”

Jeff agrees, adding, “it’s kind of like an old country store – people come in to chat and get the latest news about art or the community in general.”

Sarah and Jeff moved to Sturgeon Bay from the Chicago area nine years ago. Both are originally from the East Coast (Jeff from the New York/New Jersey area, Sarah from New Hampshire), and say that Door County most resembled the rural, less suburban life they both had been searching for. Sarah threw herself into home schooling her two young boys, and continued to do so for the next five years. They also purchased a storefront building on Sturgeon Bay’s historic Third Avenue and rented it out to a tenant.

When the boys decided that they wanted to go back into public school, Sarah and Jeff found themselves with a lot of time on their hands. At the same time, the tenants that had inhabited the Bradleys’ building decided to move out. Faced with a familial shift and an empty storefront, the couple started thinking. Sarah had attended college for art, receiving a Fine Arts degree in Printmaking and Drawing, and after college had worked at an art supply store.

“I was very interested in some sort of art venture and realized that there was a real void in Sturgeon Bay in terms of a complete art store,” Sarah says. The Artists Guild opened in May 2005 in the lower level of their building. With Sarah’s art knowledge and Jeff’s business savvy, everything just seemed to fall into place.

“It was the perfect storm,” Jeff laughs.

Shortly after the store opened, Sarah and Jeff decided to take it a step further and open up a framery.

“It just seemed like a natural progression,” Jeff says. The community aspect of the shop also expanded up to the second floor, where the couple created a small studio space. Sarah began a Live Model Drawing Group in the space that still meets four years later.

After only two short years, the Artists Guild outgrew its initial space. Sarah and Jeff purchased the former Columbine Originals Gallery just down the block on Third Avenue and relocated the Artists Guild to the larger space. Having always been interested in fair-trade and environmentally friendly products, Sarah began another shop, Small World Market, in the empty first floor of the original building.

Both Sarah and Jeff pride themselves on the fact that the Artists Guild caters to every kind of artist. “We have the professional know-how to help a working artist meet their needs, but we also are able to help the novice artist who is just starting out,” Sarah says. “So many people will come into the store and say, ‘I’m not an artist,’ but they are. We need to make sure that they feel comfortable and taken care of.”

And taken care of they are – the Artists Guild’s art supply collection is so expansive that they are one of only seven Winsor & Newton Premier Art Centres in the state of Wisconsin. Winsor & Newton Art Centres are independent art shops that are committed to offering customers a comprehensive range of the world’s finest art materials and products – and it is a huge honor to be named one of these Centres.

“We’ve been told by artists who live in major Midwest cities that we are the best independent art supply store north of Milwaukee and east of the Twin Cities,” Sarah says. “It’s important that we carry a variety of different products, because artists are very brand loyal – when they find something that works, they stick with it. We have to make sure that we are able to supply what they need. Art is a tangible thing – artists don’t want to have to order something out of a catalog. They want to be able to test it out on a canvas.”

Jeff says that they take the same approach with novice artists as well. “We are very conscious of the craft culture in Door County,” he says. “There are many people that want to try something, but don’t want to invest a whole lot of cash, so we have many student and crafter-grade supplies as well.”

This theory of being “everything to everyone” is something that also works on the framing end as well. Jeff and Sarah find that having artists as employees at the shop goes hand-in-hand with the framing end of the business.

“Because we’re artists, other artists feel comfortable getting their work framed here, and non-artist customers know that we’ll be able to give them a good color recommendations and point out things they hadn’t thought of,” Sarah says. And if someone would rather frame a piece himself or herself, the shop has several kinds of do-it-yourself framing kits available for purchase. In fact, the employees at the shop are so nice that even if you want to frame it yourself, they will cut the mats for you – a task that is considered to be the most difficult of the framing process.

The passion the Bradleys feel – for their store, for art – is tangible just in speaking with them for a short while. Jeff readily admits that one of the reasons the Guild is so successful is because of Sarah’s unwavering positive attitude.

“People will come in just so they can show things to Sarah, and she’ll give them hints on other things they can do,” Jeff says. “Her attitude makes customers more willing to come in and share in the experience with us.”

Sarah smiles and says, “So many people create art for so many different reasons. Why would you discourage something someone worked so hard to create? We know how instrumental art can be in people’s lives – that’s why we’re here.”

The Artists Guild LLC is located on 117 N. 3rd Avenue in Sturgeon Bay. Hours are 9 am – 6 pm Monday through Saturday; 11 am – 4 pm on Sundays. The Live Model Drawing Group is open to the community and meets in the Artists Guild studio space (above Small World Market on Third Avenue) every Wednesday evening from 6 – 8 pm. For more information, please call the Artists Guild at 920.743.9900.