November 2006

The Art and Craft of Selling Art

Author: Paul deVere

According to both Wally and Jean Smith, if someone wanted to be an instant success in the craft business right now, all they would need is a to be a talented woodworker, have a strong creative streak, and a passion for kaleidoscopes. Wally Smith said they if he were a young craftsman, he would jump right into it.

“There aren’t enough people making them. We can’t get enough,” Jean Smith said. “Everybody likes kaleidoscopes.”

“Real eye candy,” Wally Smith smiled.

The Smiths should know. They have been in the art and craft business for over 30 years, the past 18 as proprietors of Smith Galleries at the Village at Wexford on Hilton Head Island . Initially, they were artisans themselves. Wally was a potter, Jean a weaver. Back in Tennessee, at Pitman Center near Gatlinburg, Wally threw pots and Jean wove. The front of their studio became a showroom for their creations. They were so successful as retailers, area artists and craftsmen friends came to them with their creations. That’s when the Smiths’ lives began to turn from producing art to selling it.

“For 15 years we sold what we made,” said Jean. And learned to sell what others made. When the Smiths moved to Hilton Head, Wally was just two years shy of hanging up his potter’s wheel. Jean was already focused on the retail end of the business.

Today, a visit to Smith Galleries is a kaleidoscope of the output of some of America’s finest artisans. Because of their background, because they are products of the world of craft and art, they know the market from the inside. The gallery is really a personal statement to their decades of experience and their individual tastes. Jean Smith describes their place as an “emotional gallery.” Every item on display, she said, “must touch more senses than the eye.”

Over the course of a typical year, the Smith’s interact with over 300 artists and craftsman. That “interaction” may only be for 30 minutes, yet lasting friendships have grown over time. “The time accumulates,” Wally Smith said. As often as possible, the Smiths display the artist’s biography with the objects on display. “We attach their story to the work. We understand what it is like to take a concept and carry it through to the finished product,” Wally explained.

Items selected for the gallery are chosen with a combination of experience, the Smith’s personal aesthetic (Wally said, “It has to speak to us.”), and their retail savvy. “We also pay the artists the ultimate compliment. We write them a check,” he said with a smile. Nothing is taken on consignment at Smith Galleries. When Wally and Jean decide an item is right for their shop and customers, they buy it.

The art and crafts displayed at Smith Galleries range from limited edition giclees and serigraphs to art glass and fanciful paperweights. And everything imaginable in between: “wind bells” clocks, folk toys, finely crafted wooden boxes, yard art, even elegant salt and pepper shakers.

For years customers always asked if there was a catalog for Smith Galleries. Due to the volume of inventory and the fact that a catalog would be very time consuming, the Smiths did not get around to creating one. Then came the Internet. Wally studied the technology and, in short order, created the Smith Galleries website (www.smithgalleries.com). “We really started it just for our customers, as a way to communicate with them.” The Smith soon discovered that people visiting their site went well beyond their customer list.

“We average 400 visits a day on the site. It really is amazing. People coming to vacation here will ‘Google’ galleries on Hilton Head and they find us. Sometimes we’ll even get a note from our website visitors telling us when they are coming down,” Wally said.

Wally put up his potter’s wheel because he had to make a choice: focus on his craft or the gallery. The retail side of won out. “Pottery is very time consuming. It’s not a ‘stop and start’ thing,” he explained. Whether as an alternative way to express himself artistically or just a good business decision, Wally took up picture framing. “Framing is an art. It’s about color, form and texture. We create a work of art that goes around work of art,” Wally said.

A stroll through Smith Galleries, with all the vibrant colors and textures and lights, will easily convince a visitor that the Smiths have discovered another way to express their individual creativity, the fine art of retailing art.

Smith Galleries
The Village at Wexford
(843)842.2280
www.smithgalleries.com

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