Bibliophiles may dream of opening a bookstore, oenophiles may hope to leave the rat race and start a vineyard on the Western Slope — but art collectors and artists imagine what it would be like to open an art gallery.
Imagine your very own gallery. You’d sell your creations, or those of the artists and artisans that you’d select — and buyers would flock to your doors. You’d contribute to our city’s cultural vitality and ambiance, be surrounded by beautiful artwork and maybe even make a reasonable living from the venture.
As in any small business, that’s the tough part. Your taste may be impeccable and your location superb but unless you can attract art lovers that are willing to open their checkbooks, you’ll soon be out of business. There are a lot of competent local artists trying to sell their creations — so many that they may outnumber potential buyers.
A gallery owner has to subsume her enthusiasm for particular creators to the cold realities of business. Who are your buyers? How will they find you? What are your price points? What are your fixed costs? How long can you keep the business going until it becomes profitable?
Walk the streets and alleys of downtown Colorado Springs and Old Colorado City and you’ll encounter lots of galleries, exhibition spaces and long-established nonprofits that offer artworks for sale. It’s clearly a competitive business, one that’s dominated by locally owned enterprises.
Of the many such enterprises scattered through downtown and Old Colorado City, we chose three very different businesses to profile. The first is a one-woman establishment in a tiny storefront, the second a diverse store that features local artists in multiple media and the third a long-established downtown business catering to an international clientele.
Laura Reilly Gallery
“This was once a horse alley,” said gallery owner Laura Reilly of her tiny, narrow space at 2522 W. Colorado Ave. “It was just a passageway to enable horse-drawn carts to come out on Colorado.”
It wasn’t a public right of way, so building owner Ed Schoch closed it off in the 1950s and made a little storeroom for his eponymous hardware store that occupied the space from 1950 to 1996. The present owners converted it into a 240-square-foot storefront.
“I know [Old Colorado City] well,” Reilly said. “I happened to walk by 5½ years ago and I saw that it was vacant. I thought, ‘That’s an art gallery.’”
A longtime artist in Colorado Springs, Reilly already had a following. Her radiant impressionist mountain landscapes are, as fellow gallery owner Blake Wilson said, “very likable.”
“It definitely took some imagination and work to get the space to work,” said Reilly on a recent sunny afternoon, seated on a stool with the gallery door open to the street. “I wanted to have something for everybody, and I wanted the space to be welcoming. My pricing philosophy is that art is for everybody — it inspires and enriches our life.”
Dozens of Reilly’s paintings are on display, ranging from tiny landscapes to majestic mountain vistas. Prices start at $49 and go up to about $1,500.
“I have clients who started out buying a hand-painted greeting card from me years ago,” she said, “and now they own big landscapes.”
Reilly relies upon street traffic, social media and an emailed newsletter to market her work.
“New collectors have grown exponentially since I’ve been here,” she said. “When you consign paintings to a gallery, you don’t necessarily know the buyer. I love to tell customers the story behind the painting they buy, and I find it very rewarding to have that direct connection. Moving here was a fabulous decision — one of the best of my life.”
Reed and Emily Fair, the 30-something couple who own 45 Degree, have more than 20 years of combined experience in the art business. That experience has shaped 45 Degree.
“We can’t afford a $1,000 artwork, and we think that anyone should be able to buy a piece of handmade art,” said Emily Fair. “We want to be approachable. I’ve heard people say that they never go to galleries because they don’t know anything about art. All you need to know to buy art is that you like it.”
45 Degree started as a custom frame shop in 2010, with Reed as the only full-time employee. In 2013, the shop evolved into a full gallery, one that was successful enough for Emily to quit her job in 2017 and join Reed at the gallery.
“We wanted to be in Old Colorado City,” said Emily. “We’re right on Colorado Avenue, and the parking is much better here than in downtown. Also, it’s easier for locals to find us.”
In the 1,200-square-foot gallery’s spacious, light-filled interior, customers can browse the work of scores of local artists, including jewelry, ceramics, furniture, paintings, prints and home accessories.
According to the gallery’s website, “… we are able to provide a diverse collection of work that is consistent with current décor trends and the primary demographic of our customer base.”
That younger demographic, the Reeds believed, would support a gallery that catered to their taste, one that was casual, unpretentious and offered a wide variety of original work by local artists.
“But,” Emily noted, “in common with a lot of galleries, women over 50 are a key demographic.”
The Fairs are proud of their efforts to demystify the gallery experience. Their amiable gallery mascot, Boyd the Boxer, greets visitors at the door, most of their wares are modestly priced and the Fairs strive to create a friendly and casual atmosphere. Each of the owners has a specific strength. Emily manages the gallery, while Reed manages the custom framing business.
The Art Bank and Oriental Rug Center
First opened in 1980 by Walter Wilson, a renowned Colorado Springs artist and educator, The Art Bank and Oriental rug center has been owned and managed by his sons Blake and Richard since 1988.
Located in a 12,000-square-foot building at 610 N. Tejon St. that the brothers bought in 1993, the store offers a vast assortment of historic Colorado, Southwestern and regional art, furniture, ceramics and sculpture, as well as unexpected treasures from across the globe. Works by prominent regional artists such as William Bancroft, Charles Partridge Adams, Charlie Bunnell, Adolf Dehn and many others are on display in the 6,000-square-foot ground floor showroom, although thousands of artworks are racked in storage spaces elsewhere in the building
There’s also an extraordinary inventory of oriental rugs in the showroom, all hand-woven, ranging in size from small throw rugs to enormous carpets fit for the palace of a Moghul emperor.
Both brothers have advanced degrees in art and art history, and together have encyclopedic knowledge of regional art, oriental rugs and antiquities. After 30 years in the business of buying, selling and valuing the store’s often-expensive stock in trade, their combined expertise is an extraordinary asset, and one that may discourage potential competitors.
As Blake explained, the business has undergone multiple changes since its founding.
“The days of people walking off the street and buying a painting are over,” said Wilson.
Nowadays, buyers and sellers from across the country contact the company, or vice versa. The brothers have done business with thousands of collectors, dealers and potential consigners over three decades. If a client is interested in a particular artist, they’ll either have some of his work in their inventory or know where to find it.
Many nationally prominent artists worked in Colorado Springs during the first half of the 20th century, particularly those associated with the Broadmoor Art Academy and the Fine Arts Center.
“Colorado Springs was one of many art colonies across the country,” Wilson pointed out. “There was a lot of contact between artists here and those in Woodstock, Taos and Santa Fe, as well as with regional groups like the Prairie Printmakers. So collectors and dealers who specialize in one group are likely to come across their contemporaries, and that’s where we can get involved. We can represent buyers and sellers across the country at auction, and work with estates or with people with one or two valuable pieces.”
The Art Bank also represents estates of prominent deceased artists such as Adolf Dehn, whose work was recently featured in a major show at the Fine Arts Center.
The company caters to an affluent clientele, but there are plenty of affordably priced items for sale -— for example, a vintage Navajo wedding basket for $260.
“We can’t be at every auction and estate sale in the region,” Blake said, “So we work with dozens of pickers who may find things we’re interested in. We recently acquired a Greek Dipylon vase that we’re selling to a Washington collector.”
“Do you see those three jars on the top shelf?” he continued, pointing out three sizable storage jars. “The one on the right is Navajo, about 130 years old. The other two may look very similar, but they’re Neolithic, made in China 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. A picker brought them to us. Interestingly, the 130 year-old jar will be more expensive than the other two, but that’s the market.”