Lodi’s Knowlton Gallery will wrap up its final show in mid-January after 10 years in business, but owner Robin Knowlton told me she isn’t leaving with her tail between her legs.
“We have a national reputation,” she said. “I have collectors all over the United States. I’m finding that more and more of my clients are coming from the Bay Area, so I’m really not located where I need to be.”
Galleries are in a state of flux, Knowlton said, because they’re no longer the only way that people find and buy art. People are shopping online and at pop-up events in resort towns or major cities. Noting these trends and her customers’ ZIP codes, Knowlton began to rethink her business model and location.
She typically plans her gallery’s shows a year in advance, so it seemed the right time to announce her closure. The Knowlton Gallery, at 115 S. School St. in Lodi, is featuring a show called “Farmland” until Nov. 29 with works from artists Kathleen Dunphy and Randall Sexton. Once that is over, Knowlton will be putting up works for a sale that will run through Jan. 15.
“The artists were all shocked,” Knowlton said. “Those were very tough conversations to have. This is the kind of business where, if you do it long enough, they’re your friends, and I’m really interested in their career and helping them succeed.”
Of Knowlton’s decision, Dunphy said: “It’s the end of an era. ... She started this gallery in the most impossible place and under conditions that I never would have thought it would have worked, and she has done such a great job for 10 years.”
An artist could go to Knowlton with fresh ideas, Dunphy said, and she would embrace and enhance them.
“She wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, no, we don’t do it that way’ or ‘This is how it’s always been done,’” Dunphy said. “I came to her with an idea to do a show and a talk, and she was really excited about it. We ended up having a dinner and a slideshow and a presentation. She always did it up right, never halfway.”
The economic downturn spelled the end of many galleries nationwide, but Knowlton said: “I’m not walking away because I’m in financial trouble or I don’t like the gallery. ... I really think it’s the best career I could have ever entered, and I hope to stay in the art business in some shape or form.”
Knowlton said she is calling the next period of her life a sabbatical. She will be helping to care for her elderly father in Arizona but also will be exploring how to reconfigure her business. It could be in a different city, or it could be online where she made many sales. Online art dealers, she said, don’t have rent and other overhead, so they can be flexible on pricing.
As she makes her decision, Knowlton will consider the many factors that have disrupted the financial model for galleries. Generally, these businesses sign contracts with artists to represent them within specified ZIP codes, area codes or geographic boundaries. If a sale is made to a customer in that exclusive area, the gallery owner gets a commission of as much as 60 percent. An artist must pay the fee, even if arranging a sale herself with a next-door neighbor in the contracted area.
Today, museum shows, special events and online sales are dramatically cutting into gallery profits, Knowlton said. The Internet has proven to be both a boon and a curse. It has enabled Knowlton and other gallery owners to greatly expand their customer base, but it also makes it difficult for them to enforce contracts.
Let’s say a patron who lives outside the Knowlton Gallery’s 209 area code sees artwork he likes at the gallery, then goes home, sends an email to the artist and buys a piece directly from the artist’s studio. Is the gallery owner entitled to a commission?
Art consultant Phil Hitchcock, who teaches a class called Art in the Marketplace at Sacramento State, said the artist in this case isn’t obligated to pay any fee since the piece was never in the gallery. But, he added, artists definitely should not retrieve artwork that an out-of-town patron saw at a gallery and sell it without paying the commission.
Dunphy told me that she asks where someone heard about her work, and if it’s a gallery, she pays it a finder’s fee.
“Sometimes, artists can be short-sighted,” Dunphy said. “They ... think, ‘Oh, great, I just made all that money. I don’t have to give a commission to the gallery.’ But in the long run, they’re shooting themselves in their own feet and they’re affecting all the other artists out there because galleries can’t pay the bills if they don’t make money.”
A gallery markets the artists’ work and lends credibility, Dunphy said, helping them make a name for themselves. Given the challenges that gallery owners face, Hitchcock said, it’s not a business he would start outside of New York or a major city that attracts buyers from all over the world.