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How Do Gallery Owners Choose Art to Feature?

Living in Door County means having easy access to art, but behind the scenes, acquiring the art that goes on display is a very involved process. In a previous issue, we learned how Miller Art Museum curator Helen del Guidice selects art to display, and in this issue, several local gallery owners explain their selection process.

Every art gallery in Door County is distinctive, and every gallery owner has a special way of selecting art to display and sell. Some approach artists after admiring their work on social media; others wait for artists to come to them with submissions; and still others do a bit of both. 

But when it comes to selection criteria, many similarities exist.

Know Your Customers

To know which pieces will fit well in a gallery, owners must know who their customers are, said Peter Ciesla of Bazyli Studio Wearable and Textile Art in Baileys Harbor. That means knowing what your particular customers are looking for and what their average price range is. 

Customers’ interests can vary by location as well, according to Karen Hertz-Sumnicht. She has galleries in Sturgeon Bay (Avenue Art & Co. on Third) and Appleton (Avenue Art & Co.), and though the two cities aren’t too far apart, “they’re different enough that what works here might not necessarily work there,” Hertz-Sumnicht said.

Knowing your customers also means knowing what’s most likely to sell – but that’s not necessarily the biggest consideration for gallery owners.

“I don’t choose things that I don’t really care for but I think it might sell,” Ciesla said. “That’s something that doesn’t agree with me.” 

Inside Northern Arts Collective. Photo courtesy of Sophia Parr.

Stay True to Your Vibe

Sophia Parr of Ellison Bay’s Northern Arts Collective treats filling a gallery like decorating a living room: You want everything to work together cohesively, but you also want certain individual pieces to pop.

Her selection process has “evolved into more of a reflective process,” she said. “I’m curating more for the look of the space as opposed to having a ton of different types of artwork.” 

J.R. Jarosh of Fish Creek’s Edgewood Orchard Galleries has a similar process.

“It’s an interesting combination of finding things that fit the vibe, kind of following what your customers want, but also leading your customers to what you think they’ll love,” Jarosh said. 

Go for the Unusual

Consistency matters, but gallery owners don’t want to fill their rooms with the same sort of piece over and over. Jarosh spends about four weeks straight every year looking through 75-125 artist submissions that Edgewood receives. After looking at so much art, he needs pieces to stand out to him. 

When they do, he can use his position as a gallery owner to introduce his customers to media and styles that may be unfamiliar to them.

“Abstract work is kind of an interesting example of that,” Jarosh said. “A lot of people like the idea of abstract work, but it’s a big departure from a beautiful farm scene or a shoreline.”

Inside Edgewood Orchard Galleries. Photo courtesy of J.R. Jarosh.

Honor Persistence

Gallery owners don’t always choose artists’ work the first time those artists approach them. But if they keep submitting – sometimes over a period of several years – the gallery owner might choose the work later, Hertz-Sumnicht said. That’s because the owner’s vision for the gallery could change, or the gallery might have extra room to fill at some point.

Jarosh’s screening process often involves giving artists feedback about how they can improve and encouraging them to submit again later – and he’s seen many do just that.

“A number of artists that we show now didn’t make it the second, third or fourth time they submitted,” Jarosh said. 

Get Feedback from Others

Most gallery owners don’t make their decisions alone. Instead, they bounce ideas off of co-owners, spouses or partners, or fellow artists. For Parr, it’s her sister’s opinion that often proves to be the most valuable. 

“If she likes it, I know that there’s going to be a wide breadth of people who will like it,” Parr said.

Inside Bazyli Studio. Photo courtesy of Peter Ciesla.

Cultivate an Emotional Connection

Often, buying art elicits an emotional reaction in the customer, according to Hertz-Sumnicht, who has seen buyers cry or bubble up with excitement after making a purchase. It makes sense, therefore, that gallery owners should feel a level of connection with the art as well.

“It’s not like you’re buying a sweater,” she said. “It just means more.” 

That’s why Ciesla shows only pieces to which he feels a connection. Though galleries may seem like “art stores” to outsiders, that’s not what it feels like to those who are doing the buying and selling.

“It has to be something that grabs me,” Ciesla said. “Generally, people who come to the gallery know that I do have some kind of emotional relationship with what I carry.” 

Trust Your Intuition

Every gallery owner interviewed for this piece mentioned having a certain “feel” that they look for when screening art – a sense that develops over time, according to Hertz-Sumnicht. When she opened her first gallery in 1988, “it was horrible,” she said. “I was so worried I was going to hurt somebody’s feelings.” But over the years, the selection process has become easier. 

Art is subjective, so no matter how many objective considerations a gallery owner might make while looking through submissions, the selection process always involves intuition as well. 

“I’m an artist myself,” Ciesla said, “and I tend to make decisions in my work as an artist very often in kind of an intuitive, undefined way.” 

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