When you’ve been in the art materials industry for over four decades, a thirty minute interview is not an option—two hours might suffice. I had the opportunity to sit down with George Bethurem in June, just after his 40th anniversary with MacPherson’s. Our conversation spanned major changes in the industry, innovative approaches, new challenges and even a little art history. Read on for forty years of wisdom “in a nutshell” (a very large, spacious nutshell).
The Long & Winding Road to MacPherson’s
What brought you to the art supply industry?
“I was a sculpture major in college and I used to make all kinds of crazy stuff out of stone, wood and papier mache. When I got out of college, I was living in Chicago. I worked at a frame shop, made electric signs, did wood relief stuff on buildings, painted sets in a theater. Eventually my freelance jobs dwindled, so I got a job at a “drive-away” company that used to chauffeur cars around the country. I was hired to go out and retrieve cars for various reasons.
In 1975 I decided it was time to go. I made a trip to California, with a job waiting for me at the same company in their downtown San Francisco office. When my first daughter was born in 1978, I needed to get some more money coming in. I was familiar with the MacPherson Brothers on Polk Street in San Francisco because I had been in there to buy art supplies. All of a sudden in the newspaper (that’s the way I used to look for jobs—in newspapers) I saw this ad to help run the order desk. Phone experience and this and that. Well I had all that experience, plus I had the art background.
May 21st, 1979 was my first day on the job. And it was to run the art order desk. In those days, people would call in and give you an order on the phone. There were no item numbers. They would say, ‘I need six of those India Ink bottles. You know the one with the yellow label?’ You had to know what they were talking about. My job also was to handle complaints, returns, whatever it was, over the phone. But we were also going up on the computer for the first time. All of a sudden there were item numbers that we had to have: a vendor code, a number with dashes, slashes, all that. We had to be accurate.
A year later when I when I was offered a job on the road I had to adjust again. My first day on the job for outside sales, I went to a small office product store on Union Street in San Francisco. The STABILO BOSS highlighter was brand new, so we had a little display and I sold it to the owner. It was the beginning of an era and I never looked back!”
An Ever-Changing Industry
What major changes have you noticed—in your position but also in the industry?
“The biggest change out of my whole career? The Internet. Shoppers realized they can get on their phone and buy anything they want by pressing a button. Consumers are so savvy that they don’t hesitate to go in, see something on a store shelf and immediately search where they can get it cheaper. Secondly, we work remotely; so much is done by computer. We used to go in stores and hand write orders. That’s all gone now. The number of independent art supply stores has shrunk as well; in those days we serviced office supply stores, independent art supply stores, kids stores, teachers stores, crafty stores, all kinds of different stores. Many of those venues went away because they’re so specialized.
But the popularity of art supplies has not changed. It’s as popular as ever. I think just the geographics have changed. Where you buy them from.”
How are you seeing like retailers react to that in a way that they can still be successful?
“It’s all about shopper-tainment, and/or customer service. What are we going to do to make a store a viable place to have someone visit and experience something they can’t get on the internet. We need to incorporate classes, demos and events that make the store irreplaceable. Art supplies are touchy feely: you can go into a store, see things, try them out. There’s a whole interaction. It’s not like going into an office supply store and buying paperclips.”
How has the industry evolved for the better?
“The children’s category has gotten much better; when I was first starting I would go into toy stores and sell them art supplies. We didn’t have very much in the way of kid-friendly products. I had to cherry pick from our various vendors in those days to come up with anything. Eventually manufacturers looked at what was going on and they jumped on board. Now it’s a huge part of our business, that’s why we’re expanding those categories. And it’s something every art supply store looks at right now.”
So, expanding categories is crucial.
“Yes. Fine art supply retailers changed their way of thinking, rethinking the idea of an art supply store. What else can we sell? Greeting cards. Gifts. Any item a creative person might like. This change is good for everybody. It was good for our manufacturers, having to be creative and come up with new products. And there was crossover: product that is kind of crafty, kind of kids-focused but also intersecting with fine art materials.”
It’s interesting that the industry is shrinking in some ways yet these changes are forcing people to expand and re-invent themselves in creative ways.
“It’s a whole different world now than it used to be, but in a way it is for the better. Retailers had to adapt. And it’s not that easy. I mean everybody has to do that in their lives. There were challenges for me as we got more and more automated. I just had to fight my way through it and figure it out. And I’m really glad I got that experience.”
Creative Industry, Creative Solutions
What do you love about our industry?
“The good thing about our industry is that a lot of people have worked in it a long time. If they do leave, they might be gone for a couple years and before you know it they’re back again. It’s almost like a family. Everybody knows each other and even though your competitor may be sitting across the table, it doesn’t matter because we’re all in this together. We all have the same goal—to expand the creativity of people, from age one.”
What are some innovations in the industry that you’ve noticed?
“New products are coming out all the time. And then there are all the supplies that might go along with that new product. There are fewer brushes with natural hair. This is a good thing for everyone, including animal activists, environmentalists and the animals! People can’t tell the difference! There was a time when synthetic was so bad, it was like using a scrub brush. But nowadays it is so refined. We’ve seen eco-friendly mediums now: Gamblin, Eco-House, the cad-free paint from Liquitex. There are these improvements that are happening in the art industry for the good of the world.”
Rewards, Challenges and Our Collective Comfort Zones
What is the most rewarding part of your job and the most challenging part of your job?
“Building a relationship with customers is both the most rewarding and the most challenging. Using our knowledge to help out, whether it’s about a product, a technological thing, a demo… helping them be successful is what it is all about. The more stores you see, the more you can help everyone. I take photos in stores, constantly, so I can share ideas.”
How do you see yourself helping customers?
“I see my job as bringing our experiences to them. As we become more remote and computerized, it is even more important to have face-to-face experiences where we share information. You don’t have to do it like we used to, but to show up on a regular basis is really important.”
What kind of ideas do you share in hopes of strengthening your customers’ businesses?
“I tell my customers all the time: go into stores, I don’t care what store. Target, Safeway, another independents, and see how they merchandise. Beverly’s required their store managers to go out every month, look at a store and put together a report on what they saw. Sharing information like that with my customers is just as valuable as showing off a new line. Things you might assume someone already knows, but they might not.
I like to share examples of independents doing something out of the ordinary. For example, there is a small store I work with in San Francisco, Just For Fun. The owner is a master merchandiser. I can’t even explain how out of the box the guy thinks. One weekend during the Holiday Season, he hires a Santa Claus and ships in live reindeer from a ranch in Central California. He has a live brass band playing Christmas carols on the street. Then there’s Village Art Supply in Santa Rosa. The owners, after purchasing a basic inventory situation decided to begin thinking outside the box by turning their “space” into an “Enchanted Forest” complete with a fire breathing dragon! It’s an amazing experience just to walk through the store.”
So people go for the experience?
“Yes. And the stores themselves are really unusual… packed with items, you can’t get out of there without buying something. Other stores have picked up on this kind of thing: creating an experience that the customer will want to take a little piece of home with them. It’s so important for people in the business to see what other people are doing! Visiting other stores, learning about what other people are doing, going to trade shows, following people on social media.”
It’s interesting, because that is what working artists have to do to stay relevant, to be successful. They have to expose themselves to different people, places, things…
“And that is difficult for them. Artists can be introverted. And business owners, they need to tend to their stores. But they also need to get out once in a while!”
So these shows, like Dealer Workshop and NAMTA, are instrumental in that.
“Yes. These shows open people’s minds to things they would not normally see. It gets us all out of our comfort zones. We have many people at MacPherson’s and in the industry that a shop owner may not have met, and those important connections need to be made. Eleven of my accounts chose to take advantage of the Dealer Workshop experience this year.”
Connecting The World Through Creativity
Do you do anything artistic in your free time?
“With my three kids and my grandkids… there is always something artistic to do. High school was where my creative life started; I had a very good teacher, I won awards for painting, sculpture. My heroes were Andy Warhol, Claus Oldenburg, Red Grooms. They had a way of creating things that were unique, things people could relate to.
As for what I do in the future with my creativity… Listen, I might wake up and say, I don’t want to do this anymore. That has never happened to me! All the changes that have been thrown at me, it’s fine. Our “why” for MacPherson’s, We Connect the World Through Creativity, we need to keep that in our mind all the time. You can talk about the history of MacPherson’s all you want, but let’s talk about the history of art. Let’s talk about the big picture!”
Agreed! Any final words of wisdom?
“Everyone who works in this industry has the same job. Yes, we want to sell things, but it’s about the people, the connections. I love coming into the office and talking to people… conversations can go on for hours <laughs>. You connect in really important ways.”
George and I had this chat, which by the way, did go on for hours, before Dealer Workshop; check out our Instagram to see how Workshop went and stay tuned for the recap on Art Dog! Who’s Who celebrates members of our industry community who are doing an incredible job. If you would like to nominate someone for a Who’s Who feature, please email us at artdogblog (@) macphersonart.com with their name, position, company and a short description of why you would like to nominate them.