Monday, September 19, 2011

American Craft Interview with CLG !

From a Tiny Town, Crimson Laurel Reaches the World

[1/7] Crimson Laurel Gallery: Photo by Jarett Frazier

John Lara and David Trophia's Crimson Laurel Gallery, founded in 2002 in a small North Carolina town, has developed a national reputation among both buyers and artists. The gallery owners have not arrived at this good place by chance. They cite their approach to customers, their collection, the Internet, and their community as keys to their success. We set out to understand how they've grown and flourished in a tough economic climate.
American Craft: How did you and John join forces?
David Trophia: We had worked together in Key West for my brother at a butterfly sanctuary. John was an entomologist and biologist, and I ran the business. We were both jewelers, and we decided to move to North Carolina and open up a little jewelry studio. So in 2000, we moved to Bakersville and in 2002 set up a little jewelry studio, doing our own work and selling the work of other artists on the side.
AC: Almost a decade later, studio jewelry remains a focus of your gallery, though you've since added ceramics. Do you and John still make jewelry?
DT: We do. We have a working jewelry studio in the gallery, and we supply jewelry for our own gallery and several others across the country. But probably 90 percent of our time now goes to running the gallery.
AC: That makes sense. The gallery seems to be thriving.
DT: We are doing very, very well, despite the economy. We have had an increase in sales every year since we opened in 2002.
AC: To what do you attribute your success?
DT: Persistence and quality. John and I are really diligent in handpicking the work in the gallery. We are a consignment gallery, and some consignment galleries allow artists to drop off work. But we don't. Our approach is the opposite. We usually go out to artists' studios and pick the very best work we can find. The result is that we have a really great, unique, cohesive collection. People always comment on how everything works together in the space. Because we specialize in ceramics and studio jewelry, when you walk in, you're not being hit with glass and fiber and wood. People are able to focus.
AC: But how have you gotten people in the door? You are off the beaten path, to say the least, in Bakersville.
DT: Our priority is developing relationships - really, friendships - with customers. We treat our customers like gold. Now we have a family of customers who come back year after year. They tell people, and we grow. If it comes down to selling a mug in the right colors, I will call an artist and have a mug made, even if it takes a couple of months. I treat every sale with equal importance, whether it's $18 or $10,000. It really makes a difference. Word of mouth has made us successful.
AC: So good relationships with customers have shaped your success. What about relationships with artists?
DT: We go to different shows, like the ACC shows or the Rosen show in Philadelphia. And if I see an artist I like, I'll approach them and ask them about consignment. Artists usually don't want to do consignment, especially with someone they don't know. But we have come to the point now where anybody I mention the gallery to in the ceramics world has heard of us. Lately we've been getting two or three applications a week from artists who want to show here. We're really proud of that.
AC: You've made a big effort online recently. What made that a priority?
DT: We had a visit from a woman from a museum one day. She wanted to come see the gallery. But she told us she almost didn't come because she had looked at our website and didn't think it was worth coming. That was a big eye opener for us. We had done our own website. She was blown away by the gallery, but the website was a problem. The very next day we decided to hire somebody to build a better website. We knew we had to get our selection out to a national audience. This year we added the shopping cart feature. We wanted to be able to offer the collection to a larger audience. We know it will take as much time to build that audience as it has to build our local audience, those who come into the physical gallery.
AC: Do you worry about selling online when your products are so tactile?
DT: Not really. We're doing a small Dan Anderson exhibition now, and we sold half the show in one day online. Most comments we get from buyers indicate they are people who have some Anderson pieces already and are adding to their collections.
AC: So do your online exhibitions focus on artists with national reputations?
DT: We've tried to pick artists who are nationally known. But we generally have three exhibitions at a time. Our strategy is to mix nationally known artists with up-and-coming artists, to give them more national exposure.
AC: No wonder artists want to be in the gallery. So your website has been an important business tool. What about social media?
DT: This year we won a social media award from Niche magazine, based on the work we've done on Facebook and videos I've made and posted on YouTube. These are things I can do inexpensively on my own, and they've been very successful.
AC: How do you know they've been successful?
DT: We know from feedback on Facebook, which has been amazing. So many people have seen the shows and picked out their favorite pieces before they walk in the door. I'm always shocked by how many people are looking before they come here. We have a Facebook audience of 2,000 and have sold several pieces just by posting them on Facebook. There is a huge ceramics community on Facebook.
AC: So would you say most of your customers are discerning collectors?
DT: No, not really. We try to have a mixture in our collection to appeal not only to established collectors but also to newcomers. We not only carry pieces by Cristina Cordova - which may sell for $10,000 - but also by Hamilton Williams, who is a production potter who makes strictly utilitarian pottery. He makes mugs for $18-20, cereal bowls, things like that. We want to introduce collectors into the market and grab the younger buyers. Collectors are getting older, and some say they have no more space in their homes. So our approach is to educate everyone who comes into the gallery, show them how these pieces are made. We try to get them to buy a mug or small bowl, something they can use every day, and get them to discover the joy of using a handmade object. I can't tell you how many times this has happened, where somebody comes in and says, "I love this mug, I use it every day. I can't tell you how different it feels. I want to get another piece by this artist."
AC: Bringing in younger buyers is an issue that gets a lot of discussion in the craft field, of course.
DT: A lot of times we in the craft field get too focused on the high end: ceramists or jewelers who make five or six pieces a year for major exhibitions. But the production potters and jewelers who are making all of this work for the marketplace that is not very expensive, that is entry-level, are hugely important. We really feel that the industry is neglecting its support of these people. Production artists represent an opportunity to build a collector and an enthusiast.
AC: Your current gallery space is wonderful, and that's no accident. You invested significantly in the building.
DT: Yes, our building, known as the Blevins building, dates back to the turn of the 20th century. It's had many incarnations. Right before we bought it, it was a food co-op. It was a silent movie theater in the 1920s, a bowling alley in the '30s, a billiards hall, other things. It started as a barn, a storage annex, for a jail across the street.
AC: Wow. If you have ghosts, they must be an interesting group.
DT: No ghosts. I don't have any ghost stories. Not yet anyway.
AC: So you and John bought this building and extensively remodeled it to be the space that it is. What made you comfortable making that investment? According to the Census bureau, Bakersville's population is 343, and it's not growing.
DT: We had a space next door, small at about 700 square feet, since 2002. What gave us confidence was the steady increase in sales. We were quickly outgrowing that space. Year after year we were amazed at how much pottery we were selling. People were traveling to Bakersville, really out of the way, to see this small collection of ceramics. Some people said we should move to Asheville or Charlotte. But we really like where we live, we like the geography, the area, the small town. And most people thought our building should be torn down. We bought inexpensively, did the work ourselves. It took about 15 months. We felt we didn't have much to lose. We invested a good bit of money, yes, but mostly our time. We felt that, even if the gallery didn't work, we could sell the building. But we never thought it wouldn't work. We knew we could double or triple our space and be successful. This area has so many artists, and Penland School of Crafts nearby is huge in its influence.
AC: What advice would you offer a new gallery owner?
DT: Go with your passion. You always hear that in advice from successful business owners. In our first two years, we were not a ceramics gallery. But I completely fell in love with ceramics. It just became a passion, an addiction. It just made sense to go in that direction. Every successful business model says you need to be passionate about what you are doing. Secondly, invest in your community. We feel really strongly about what we've done in the community. We started a festival called Bakersville Creek Walk Arts Festival, started a scholarship fund for a local high school student who wants to pursue art, and are working on three public art projects for the creek walk. The renovation we did here has helped to spark a rejuvenation of Bakersville. Our historic courthouse was going to be torn down, but now city officials have decided to raise $2 million to renovate it.

Crimson Laurel Gallery
23 Crimson Laurel Way
Bakersville, NC 28705
(828) 688-3599