The Artists Emporium in Winnipeg, Canada, holds a two day event every year that is inspiring to say the least. Founded in 1977, Artists Emporium has 12,000 square feet of retail space and offers over 100,000 items. The Open House has been going on for over twenty years; every May they have a different theme, they decorate, dress up and go all out! The event includes food, drink, live entertainment, art demos and lots of sales. We got in touch to learn more from General Manager Bart Jose, as well as Janeen Junson, the owner.
Bart has been with the company for 26 years. “Artists Emporium started as wholesale craft distribution to mom and pop stores,” he notes. “With a background in business and art supplies, I was in the right place at the right time; it was the perfect fit for me and a good time for the former owner to turn the business into an art store. There have been challenges, but as long as we are true to our mission statement we do fine. We provide excellent customer service; we are knowledgeable and eclectic and crazy and fun. Not to mention our huge selection of art supplies; we serve everyone from day cares to universities, professionals to beginners.”
Eclectic and crazy and fun indeed! What exactly is the Open House?
“We invite twenty or so suppliers from around North America to come and set up tables so they can talk directly to our customers. It’s part mini-convention, part open house, part party—the event goes until 10pm. It’s after hours and by invitation only: we have a database that we’ve been building over the years, so we invite our customers to RSVP. We have beverages, free food, musicians, everything in the store is on sale that night. We increase our number of POS, doubling them to seven or eight. It’s the year’s biggest sale. We also do Spin to Win; when you spend a certain about of money, you spin the wheel and you are guaranteed to win a prize.”
“The event also gives Jackie Hangebrauck, our rep from MacPherson’s, the opportunity to speak directly to end-users.”
What’s the story with the theme?
“We’ve had every theme imaginable,” Bart says. “Vegas, Rock & Roll, Medieval. Costumes are a thing too. This year was Pop Goes The 60s, so we focused on pop art and all the (positive) things that happened in the 60s.”
Their decorations were incredible:
“People look forward to the theme, asking about it months beforehand,” Owner Janeen Junson explains. “In the past we’ve done a DaVinci Mystery Party with puzzles, a Party with Picasso where everyone contributed to a huge painting. We’ve done Cinco de Mayo, we’ve done Circus with a tent and everything.”
Bart points out the impact of signage. “We usually redo the signs in our aisle in the style of the theme, made with product by the supplier who is attending. For instance, the marker aisle goes to POSCA, the paint aisle goes to a pop art version of Abstract, Reeves or whoever is attending that year. We used POSCA for literally all of our Open House signage this year. It was so great and worked on many different surfaces, foamcore, illustration board.”
Their team’s enthusiasm and commitment to the theme is apparent even in the invitation. “It’s a Righteous Event that’s gonna be Outta Sight! Drop in for Free Food and Beverages, Far Out product Demos, Fab Music and really Cool Door Prizes and Spin to Win Gifts. And it’s the Ginchiest time to Save Big Bread on all the Primo Art Supplies you’ve always wanted to score. So get Decked out in your Flip Flops and Pedal Pushers, Ivy Leaguers or Peggers and Shades, call Shotgun and Book It on down for a real Gnarly time.”
Artists Emporium does a great job of selecting quality entertainment that fits with the theme as well—an extra touch that really adds a party vibe to the event. Janeen and Bart both stay involved with the local music scene so this task is relatively easy.
There is party feel to this event while still centering product and sales. How do you set up the entertainment?
“I’m on the Manitoba Arts Council, and we’re in charge of giving out grant money to musicians, artists of any kind. I also frequently go out to music events. The musicians are always local, and who we choose depends on the theme. This year we had a single musician, Curtis Newton, who is very versatile. He sang some Bob Dylan. People loved it.”
How has Open House changed over the years?
“Attendance has grown and grown and grown,” Bart explains. “We have to completely restructure it for this event. We always debrief afterwards. What we did right, what we did wrong, what we improved, what needs improvement. It could be a simple as updating our computer system. We talk about how we did in each area: food, traffic, POS. We don’t want lines, we want flow, so that people can put their product in their car and come back in and party! The con list has diminished over the years; I have great staff that makes it all happen.”
Janeen speaks to the growth as well. “It probably started with maybe 100-200 people, maybe 5 or 6 suppliers. We used to have a separate night for teachers, a separate night for artists, then we had to combine them and spread it across two nights instead of one. It got too big for one night! We’ve consistently have had about 25 suppliers from North America. We can’t have too many more than that—we have 12,000 sq. ft. but it fills up pretty quickly between the suppliers and this year having 1,000 people attend over the two nights.”
How early do you start preparing and what is the extra workload like the day of?
Janeen outlines the preparation, which starts in December, about five months beforehand (they choose the theme for next year right after the Open House ends). “We start doing the decorations just after Christmas. We send out the invitations about two months in advance.
A lot of our employees are artists. We had 4 or 5 focus on decorations. Some people sign up to do food, it’s a full spread and we do the food to match the theme. In terms of extra staff on the day of, we have people to bag alongside the cashiers, helping to carry product to customers’ cars, gathering baskets and carts, directing people into different lines, running the Spin to Win wheel. Our families come in handy, too! My two sons and their wives work the event and we pay extra staff as well, people who are usually former staff or friends of current employees.”
It sounds like a lot of work goes into this, for months beforehand. What makes this event worth it year after year?
“It’s our biggest sales day of the year, that helps,” Janeen says, laughing. “Really, it’s two fold— we move a lot of inventory, and it is very engaging for all of the staff and the customers because everyone really gets involved. It’s exciting to see that.”
Bart agrees. “This event is very lucrative for us. People are looking forward to the theme and the entertainment, the whole ambiance. Another benefit is how it builds our relationships with our suppliers. Janeen has a private dinner at her home a few days beforehand, just for the suppliers and management. We always look forward to it. Although some of us are competitors in the field, we aren’t when we are at the dinner table. Hand in hand, breaking bread, discussing the good times and the bad, having a good time before the chaos of the Open House!
Afterwards, in my Thank You letter to everyone, I write that it’s so great to build relationships with our suppliers to the point where we are actually friends. The ones who don’t understand who we are and what we are trying to accomplish, they move on elsewhere. The ones who know who we are and what we strive to be, they are like-minded. They stay. And as an independent Brick & Mortar, we not only survive, we thrive with each year.”
Artists Emporium’s enthusiasm for their Open House event is contagious. Their flexibility over the years— as their staff, volunteers, friends and family members who pitch in every year—has resulted in a fun, successful event. They already have us wondering what the theme will be for 2020! Here’s to all the authentic, creative weirdos who keep this industry thriving and jiving.
Do you have a unique event you’d like to share with Art Dog? We are always looking to share stories within our community and make connections. Get in touch with us at artdogbog (@) macphersonart.com.