We are road-tripping again! Last month we visited Arlene’s in Albany, New York to learn about the impact classes have on their in-store gallery. This month we are edging west to Bloomington, Indiana where the shop cats at Pygmalion’s are adjusting to a rhythm of sleep-inducing August sun and whisker-trembling summer thunderstorms. Not the most direct route, but we don’t mind long distance drives.
Pygmalion’s strategy will appeal to small business owners who think, A gallery, in my store? With what space? Every April, Pygmalion’s transforms their store into a pop-up gallery, organized year after year by John Wilson, the owner of Pygmalion’s. Sadly John passed away in June after a long illness; he had a powerful impact on the art community and the Bloomington community in general. As for the show, in addition to an evening of art and refreshments, there are cash prizes and gift certificates awarded by a juror. Any proceeds from art sales are donated to a local non-profit. We chatted with co-manager Ben Pines to better understand what goes into a successful annual pop-up, how they manage with limited space and what makes the show extra special: collaborative spirit, an informal DIY feel and a reputation that speaks for itself.
Grassroots Collaboration: Custom Colors
At NAMTA in 2009, a casual chat between John Wilson and Robert Gamblin evolved into a decade-long collaboration. Every year, a local artist (sometimes a staff member) mixes a custom color, meticulously records the recipe and sends it off to Gamblin. The Gamblin paintmakers then produce tubes of the color in February and ship it off to the store. Not only is the color a special item for customers to enjoy, it is also the theme for the annual show in the spring. Customers spend months working on paintings that incorporate the color in anticipation of the show.
The spirit of collaboration is strong at Pygmalion’s. They have now coordinated with another art supply store, Wet Paint, in Saint. Paul, Minnesota. In 2020, Wet Paint will create a custom color for Gamblin to mix and both stores will utilize it for promotions and events.
Specific Yet Inclusive
Having the theme be a specific color (and a specific product) is a great way to set parameters. While this brings focus to what people submit, the exhibit itself is extremely inclusive when it comes to who can submit. Teachers, professional artists, students, children—all are welcome. And for those who feel too boxed in by the theme, Pygmalion’s provides an alternative. “It can be a limitation for some, since the theme is specifically an oil color,” Ben points out. “But this year we prepared some sheets of watercolor paper with a very thin wash of it. If you keep it thin enough, you can do watercolor over it. You can also do a line drawing with pen or another medium. It always works out. People bring in all kinds of different things and it’s nice to see what they will do.”
Timing With Community in Mind
When it comes to annual events, the timing needs to be just right. A weekly or monthly event affords the luxury of a turnout that ebbs and flows; with a yearly tradition, you’ve got one shot. And to know when to schedule something, it helps to be in touch with the community you are hoping will show up. Ben explains the rationale behind the April date. “Indiana University is a big customer of ours and April is thesis season here. We started doing the show on Wednesdays because on Fridays, we realized our turnout was a little lower than expected. None of the professors in the art department have their masters student artists critique on Wednesdays, and it’s also not a big going out night. Over the years, that change has worked pretty well.” Pygmalion’s has a strong relationship with Indiana University, not just in terms of attendees but also as participants. “This year, a couple of retired professors who always wanted to try making art participated. Then BFA and graduate students who are submitting work, especially if it is large, we’ll arrange to pick it up the day of the show and return it the day after.”
One Big Puzzle
Pygmalion’s is a 2400 sq. ft. space with essentially no wall space. They are in touch with local artists, students and creatives, but where do they put all the artwork? “We convert the space into the gallery: it’s makeshift. We do our best,” Ben explains. “We hang 2D work all over the store, sometimes right in front of paint racks. We sell easels, so we’ll put out as many easels as we can. In the past we’ve gotten big sheets of foam core to tape with smaller pieces or kids’ art. We always hope for younger artists; we put their work in the kids’ art supply section that we have.”
Promotion Thanks To Staff Engagement
“We don’t spend a lot on promotion,” Ben explains. “We have a couple employees here focused on social media, we have an email list and we put up posters announcing the custom color as well as the show. One of our employees, Chase, is a graphic designer and he did the flyer this year.”
Is It Worth It?
Each year, the show itself is not necessarily a money maker. In fact, there is a cost associated with the event, what with installation, staff time, prizes and donating any profit from selling the art, but the benefits are real. “The show was a real priority for John,” Ben says. He considered it very helpful for the long-term health of the business, establishing a good name in the community, encouraging artists to create. We get some really nice entries; he really enjoyed seeing the store promote that. Bloomington is growing pretty rapidly, the city is investing in new business infrastructure. It is so important to have the store be a strong local art presence in a growing art community.”
Key Benefits of Pygmalion’s Annual Show
- An informal DIY feel. “The informality of our situation here is actually pretty good… people feel comfortable going through our funky little store and looking at work in that context.”
- Collaboration. A collaborative mindset is the best way to employ business practices that are creative, innovative and beneficial to everyone.
- A reputation that speaks for itself. In the short term the show costs a fair amount, but the long-term benefit makes for business that will last. “That local connection, the community-giving aspect of the show, makes people want to do business with us.”
Next stop on our Gallery Walk? Visiting our neighbors to the north, in a bustling city that will be enjoying the last few weeks of summer. Check the glove compartment for our passports and get ready to learn from ARTiculations, a store that offers workshops, hosts events and curates contemporary exhibitions throughout the year.