Booming Business on America’s Last Frontier
Gallery owners started small, but thought big
Tennys Owens got into business by adopting the entrepreneur’s credo: “Find a need and fill it.” That philosophy has helped her build Artique Ltd. in Anchorage, Alaska, into the most successful art gallery in Alaska.
First, identify the need
In 1970, Owens and her husband decided to stay in Alaska after his Air Force tour ended. It was an exciting time in the last frontier state: oil had been discovered in Prudhoe Bay and thousands of people were pouring in to work on the pipeline.
Others, including many artists, were attracted by Alaska’s pristine scenery.
Artists could find unlimited inspiration in Alaska, but they couldn’t find a place to exhibit. Owens and artist Jean Shadrach, another Air Force wife, bemoaned the fact there were so many artists with no one to market their work.
Find a market for your merchandise
Having identified the need, the women also identified a potential market—the growing number of businesses opening divisions in Alaska might like to rent Alaskan art for office decoration.
Owens and Shadrach gathered art and started calling on the corporations. The positive response confirmed the interest in local art and convinced the partners that they should invest in a storefront.
They rented 900 square feet—all they could afford—in a commercial building in Anchorage for November and December of 1971, and Artique Ltd.’s retail gallery was launched. It was definitely homespun. Crafts were displayed on picnic tables, benches and conduit spools. But the gallery quickly became a lunchtime hangout. “People here were starved for art,” says Owens.
When the initial two months was up, Artique Ltd. stayed, taking over additional space whenever an adjacent business would leave, and occasionally buying out the leases of other businesses in order to expand.
The business now occupies a total of 8,500 square feet in the original building. The retail gallery is at street level and consists of three, 1,000-square-foot rooms that flow into each other through large entrances.
One room is devoted to exhibits; one houses paintings, glass, sculpture, and original work; and the third is for ceramics, wood, other media and prints. Owens bought out Shadrach’s interest in 1985 to become the sole owner.
Promoting artists’ work is essential
While the Alaska of the early ’70s was ripe for a gallery, it was Owens’ entrepreneurial spirit and efforts to promote “her” artists that shaped the gallery’s growth.
For example, Mill Pond Press contacted Owens in the mid-1970s to arrange the production of prints of paintings by Fred Machetanz, an Alaskan artist represented by Artique Ltd. Seeing an opportunity to expand the market for local art, Owens began arranging reproduction prints for selected artists. This, in turn, brought Artique Ltd. into the wholesale business. “You have to print so many copies to bring the unit cost down, it’s natural to wholesale,” Owens explains.
Wholesale division and digital printing
The wholesale division also provides exclusive reproductions for non-profit organizations, schools, etc., to use for fund raising. Owens works with each organization to identify the desired image, commissions an artist to produce the original work, has the reproductions printed, and, if requested, helps the organization manage distribution.
”I’m always working on behalf of the artist,” emphasizes Owens. “I look for opportunities that will benefit the artist without diminishing the work in any way. We’re also very careful to protect the artist’s copyright.”
Owens has now turned her sights to the giclée market. This digital printing process is expensive but produces an exceptionally high-quality print in limited editions of 50 to 75 copies. Owens currently represents only six to eight artists in this manner. “We’re not a national publisher and don’t want to be,” she says.
Artique Ltd. also has a Corporate Art Division, established in the early 1980s, that helps corporations and individuals identify and display appropriate art for offices and homes. Numerous special commissions are also done for these purposes.
Traveling art and demonstrations
Owens’ primary goals have always been to represent artists, to educate the public and to raise the profile of art in the community. In the early days of the gallery, the partners rented a flat-bed truck and took a traveling art show to clubs and organizations around the state, distributing educational brochures and taking artists along to demonstrate. Gallery demonstrations have always been part of the educational process. “We used to have potters throwing in our windows all the time,” says Owens.
Gallery invested in the community
Owens has become deeply involved in Anchorage’s civic, cultural and charitable events. She serves on multiple boards and committees, and Artique Ltd. hosts many public events. She credits her staff of 11, including several who have been with the gallery for 29 years, with giving her the freedom to move about the community.
Owens also uses Artique Ltd. as a powerful instrument for charity fundraising, donating a percentage of sales from designated prints to charity. In 2000, 2001, and 2005, she presented a $10,000 check to Anchorage Breast Cancer Focus Inc. at their annual fund-raiser luncheon, raising matching funds from the audience.
She is proud of the fact that other companies have been persuaded to give a percentage of sales to charity. “I really like getting in there and helping make those things happen,” says Owens. “And art can be a part of it.”
Meet challenges by thinking big
These days Owens is focused on upgrading the gallery Web site (www.artiqueltd.com) to show more original work, include syllabuses of every show, and “do more” with the events Artique Ltd. sponsors. Here, too, the entrepreneurial mind is at work. “A goal is to have an ‘e-livery’ service for locals so they can order online and have the items delivered to their homes,” she says.
There are a number of other galleries in Anchorage now. “And that’s good,” says Owens. “One gallery can’t represent everyone, and all artists need representation.”
But Artique Ltd.’s position as leader in the Anchorage arts scene is firmly established. Alaska Senator Ted Stephens once commissioned the gallery to curate an exhibition of several hundred pieces of Alaskan art to exhibit in the Senate Office building and the Senate Rotunda in Washington, D.C. In 1998 the mayor of Anchorage tapped Owens to write and implement the city’s millennium plan, “an exhilarating but exhausting two-year effort,” according to Owens.
”When people start thinking big, we rise to the challenge,” says Owens. “We’re not ice-breakers in art. We’re a home-grown gallery. Most of our work is traditional. But, we move in Anchorage’s most sophisticated circles.”
Written by Grace Butland, market coordinator for the Nova Scotia Designer Crafts Council, and resident of Nova Scotia. Originally published in the September 2002 issue of “The Crafts Report”. Updated for accuracy in 2006.