Gallery owner Lara Bowen on the business of art
Last week, I spent a really enjoyable morning interviewing artist and Four-Walls gallery owner, Lara Bowen in her Brighton home. Italian coffee and homemade banana muffins were served – ‘honestly they’re just thrown together’ Lara protests through giggles. Home baking on a Monday morning – I’m impressed, both by my delicious mouthful and her modesty. By the end of our meeting, it’s clear that Lara operates on a pretty high frequency in general – she’s a hard working Mum, very positive and warm, highly creative and business savvy enough to know when to ask for help.
Four-Walls was established in 2000 by Lara as a vehicle for promoting the work of emerging artists. Many of these artists remain at the core of Four-Walls and are complemented by a regular injection of new talent. The Four-Walls strap line is No House style. Simply Beautiful Art.
(Nb: The Four-Walls gallery website is having a make-over at the time of this post so I’ve only included links to Lara’s artist website)
EdP: What’s a typical working day for you?
LB: There is no typical day as my work is very project based. I also have a young family so their needs take priority. Between projects (art fairs) I try to check my emails each morning. I keep a pen and paper list of things to get done that week. Part is Lara Bowen (my own artwork sales) part is for Four-Walls.
I have purposefully not tried to grow the gallery too much as I don’t want to overload myself, or make promises I cant keep. But with regards to my own work, I am always getting inspiration for new work and making contacts with galleries. Existing galleries need new work and it’s important to keep in touch with them on a regular basis. As a gallery owner myself, I am very aware of the value of good communication between artists and galleries. The better the relationship, the more the gallery is enabled to promote your work.
In the run up to a fair it’s a lot more full on. There’s so much to be done, and a lot of it is very ‘bitty’ so I’ve been managing the to do list (below) by myself as the days tick down:
- Liaising with each of the 12 artists I work about their new collections, and the details of piece including getting images for publicity, delivery etc.
- Contacting existing customers, sending tickets for fairs.
- Liaising with the art fair organisers and our courier, insurance etc.
- Updating the website with the full new collection.
- Promotion via social media and through our database.
- Finishing my own paintings and prints, getting work framed, photographed, packed.
- Sorting out any kit that is needed, painting plinths, finding the perfect stand furniture and collating price lists and printed material.
Once it’s all on site, we spend two days hanging the show then there’s usually four days of ‘schmoozing’ and selling the work, getting contact details for potential buyers and rehanging when things sell.
This is also a great time to make contacts with new galleries and catch up with existing friends. There’s a generally good camaraderie between galleries and its a great time to get the lowdown on new fairs and opportunities. Much wine gets drunk.
Then it’s over and we pack it all up and get it home.
The weeks after the fair there’s the debrief: Getting any unsold work back into store along with the stand furniture. Going through the contacts book for after fair sales. Collating sales sheets for the artists and making payments. And then there’s the laundry pile and the freezer restocking to be done.
I often find myself in chats with my partner or my Father about how to move forward and adapt. How best to spend my time and resources for the best possible outcome.
These early years of my family are not going to last forever and soon enough the boys will both be at school and I’ll have so much more time to develop and run it all. When that time comes I plan to be like a greyhound out of a trap, not a donkey in a derby!
EdP: What do you love about your work / business?
LB: The variety. Its very creative and I get to work with some wonderful artists. I also meet people who are inspired by the work and it’s wonderful to experience that feedback. I enjoy building relationships with artists, galleries and customers alike. You meet some fascinating people in this business. It’s those relationships that are crucial to my business.
As a one woman band, I can change direction easily and find new markets. Its a very flexible way of working. Markets are changing all over, and the Art world isn’t exempt from that. So one has had to adapt and consider how to grow using the resources now available.
EdP: What do you dislike / find arduous about your work / business?
LB: As much as I enjoy the variety of my work, the basic organisation and system side of things doesn’t get the attention it needs. I’m not the tidiest or most organised person. I try, but I’d always rather be in the studio or a gallery or finding new avenues than sorting invoices or inputting data. In addition the developments in technology and systems means you have to keep up to date. There’s such a lot to keep on top of.
EdP: Which business tasks are you most willing to outsource and why?
LB: Accounts! Once the sale is made I like to move on. Luckily my father is a great help and manages to make sense of my dealings and randomness.
I am very aware that I like being the captain of my ship but that i’d rather outsource the skills of navigation and the necessities such as deck scrubbing!
My dream is to work with a crack team of web master, designer, accounts angel, social media guru, wordsmith and a general wonder-person/nanny. Or alternatively get myself cloned a few times.
EdP: How do you juggle the demands of business with your creative output? and how do you maintain this?
Necessity breeds invention! I am often painting way into the night and emailing over breakfast or updating social media whilst at the swings! At present I have three to four big events a year, so there’s a crazy few weeks of juggling then a wave of calm after each one.
EdP: Whilst we haven’t been working with you long – please describe how MSPA is supporting your business and where you can see us adding the most value going forward?
LB: What has struck me most about working with MSPA is the way they have seen what needs to be done and managed it so smoothly. The last six years I’ve been raising two boys, renovated two houses and run the business whilst also still working on my own creative career. In many ways I’ve let important business management slip and when I met MSPA I was unsure what needed to be seen to first. In meeting with Emma she recognised my need for a thorough Customer database overhaul. So Emma assigned Rachel Goldberg from her team and in a two hour meeting Rachel managed to completely understand my ‘system’ and what needed to be recorded and why. It was as if she had a sixth and seventh sense! Rachel then took all the paper sales receipts, deciphered my handwriting, and turned them into a thorough, up to date cloud based CRM of all my customers from the last 5 years, what they bought, from where and for how much. She also showed me how to use it and add to it and I know I can meet with her to expand on this information as and when I need. I love the fact I can dip in and draw on their knowledge and skills in as small or large bites as necessary. Their flexibility fits so well with the way I run my own business.
EdP: What are your key business goals for this new year?
LB: My primary business focus is developing and nurturing all my professional relationships – from taking care of the people that work for me, the artists I represent and making the whole customer experience as positive as it possibly can be for my buyers. I have always passionately believed that giving a customer the best level of service and a unique experience will keep them coming back time and time again. This goes right back to my days working in bars and shops as a student and I am still surprised when I experience poor service now. There’s no excuse for it. Loyalty and trust are crucial to the success of my business, so keeping my buyers happy and investing in these relationships comes first and foremost.
Client spotlight interview by Emma de Polnay
Photographs by Jo Thorne