hile chatting with guests in her Oceanside Art Gallery one day last year, Heather Tillmar noticed a man examining paintings by one of the artists whose work she carries in the downtown Qualicum Beach gallery.
The man approached Tillmar and asked if she had any other pieces by the artist available in her shop.
“I said I didn’t,” Tillmar recalls. “So, standing right here, he got out his iPhone and looked up the artist. Then he stepped outside and (using his phone) bought a painting from another gallery, right there on the bench in front of my gallery.”
Welcome to art sales in the 21st century, where your competition is no longer just the other art galleries down the road, but every gallery in the world with an online presence.
Closer to home, artists and gallery operators throughout the art-rich region of mid-Vancouver Island have decried 2015 as a year of dwindling art sales and gallery visits.
In this environment, Tillmar’s Oceanside Art Gallery stands as the exception that proves the rule.
Now in her third year in the downtown Qualicum Beach location, Tillmar has seen her sales increase each year since opening in the tidy space on 2nd Avenue. Part of that success is an embrace of online tools that go beyond simply displaying pictures of pieces available in the gallery.
“When I started out 22 years ago, there weren’t websites,” Tillmar said. “You sent out mailing cards to announce an exhibit. I can remember getting 2,200 art cards ready for a mail-out for a gallery opening.”
“Now, people are buying before your exhibit is even open. The Internet has changed how people buy art.”
Even as it is changing the nature of the business of art, the Internet itself is a constant state of evolution.
Shane Wilson, an antler carver who moved to Nanoose Bay from the Yukon two years ago, just completed a total upgrade and overhaul of his own website. There was a lot to overhaul, as Wilson got in on the ground floor, a decade after he began his carving career in the late 1980s.
“In the Territories there were a lot of real geeks, and they were having text conversations with people all over the world,” Wilson recalls of his introduction to the World Wide Web. “I found that amazing. Once the Internet became robust enough to support images, I started my own website in 1997.”
As his hosting service evolved from a dial-up connection to the region’s first T-1 broadband line — a single line serving all of the Northwest Territories — Wilson continued adding to his original site. But he could not keep up with the public.
“The way people use the Internet has changed,” he said. “There were thousands of pages on my old website. My agent said it was great; it was full of information. But now, people don’t drill down for information. It’s all got to be on top. It’s all cherry-picked.”
Wilson’s new, improved site has four pages. And he doesn’t expect it will ever have more.
Unlike many artists, like painters and potters, Wilson can spend more than a year creating a single, intricate piece of art from moose antler. He doesn’t generate the volume of work — or pieces in the price range —typically required for a gallery exhibit. In any case, nearly all his work is done through commission, including pieces in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto and in the private collection of former Prime Minister Paul Martin.
“I needed a different model, and having the website was definitely a foundation stone,” said Wilson. “But the idea of a magic bullet doesn’t exist. The website is just a tool in the kit.”
Photographer and multi-media artist Marcie Gauntlett knows what he means. A slight, white-haired woman who spent most of a decade trotting the globe as a photojournalist with the U.S. Foreign Service, Gauntlett recently relocated to Nanoose Bay and opened a home studio.
“The first thing I did was make a website,” she said. “Unless you’ve already established your name as a known artist, it’s hard to get people to come out to a remote studio.”
Catherine and Rebekah Anne Robertson no longer concern themselves with bringing people to their Qualicum Beach jewelry studio and gallery.
Catherine, a former fabric and fibre artist, serves as manager and designer for Rebekah Anne Designs, which features her daughter’s custom and bridal pearl jewelry.
Not only do the women have a website with a custom e-commerce platform for retail and wholesale sales, but they hired a Victoria-based company to help develop a brand for the business.
The web platform and photo spreads of Rebekah Anne’s pieces in bridal magazines have been so successful the pair can afford a storefront tucked away off a narrow alley in the Chilham Village plaza.
Their success, frankly, no longer hinges on walk-in traffic.
“I’m old-school,” said Catherine. “Before I married, I made a living making and selling crafts. I had a couple of galleries carrying my work, but I could just show up at a fair and things would sell.”
“Craft fairs have really changed; you can’t just show up any more. Things don’t sell unless you have a brand.”
Just across the street from the Robertsons, Heather Tillmar stands in a tidy gallery, surrounded by works from artists who have established their brands.
She can afford to lose the occasional customer to a gallery elsewhere in the world, because the information superhighway is a two-way thoroughfare.
And, just as commuters from Nanaimo could see the large billboard she rented alongside Highway 19 last summer, traffic speeding along the digital road is finding its way to Tillmar’s digital off-ramp.
“I got a call last year from a person who was looking for a particular piece from an artist, and I was able to sell it to him,” said Tillmar. “He was calling while visiting an exhibit in Sudbury, Ontario.”
Throughout the Parksville-Qualicum Beach region, both artists and gallery operators insist art will remain a popular presence in the community, regardless of sales trends or future innovations in creating, promoting, displaying and marketing.
They’re just not entirely sure what that future will look like.
“I don’t even know what’s happening tomorrow,” Wilson said with a laugh. “It may be feast or famine, but that’s irrelevant. I love what I do, and I’m going to persevere.”