I never imagined that there are tourism dynamics that determine the success of art sales, but having a gallery taught me those lessons. Port Townsend is quite charming with its ornate, Victorian, commercial buildings that attract visitors from afar and especially from the Seattle region. At a glance it would seem to be a good place to sell art because it boasts of being an arts and seaport town, and it is a tourist town, no doubt. I estimate it draws at least 300,000 plus tourists a year. So it would seem that there are ample tourists to buy art. However, one problem with Port Townsend is that it’s tourists flock there mostly in the warmer summer months from June through September, so unlike some tourist towns that have tourism throughout most of the year, Port Townsend has a three month season, so you need to hit the home run in the summer.
For most of my professional art career, I’ve sold the bulk of my paintings in tourist towns – Carmel, California, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, etc…. So I made an assumption that quantity of tourists equals quantity of art sales, but I learned that abundant tourists doesn’t always mean abundant art sales. The key factor is whether a place is truly an art market where people go there primarily to buy art. Even though Port Townsend is an artsy town it isn’t an art market destination. It’s an art town that features abundant musical and literary arts events. There are always music and writing workshops, performances, and readings happening at Fort Worden; numerous street performers busque the downtown streets for tips; and most residents identify themselves as either a writer, artist, musician, or poet even though they aren’t a creative professional. So, Port Townsend is definitely an arts kinda town.
Though Port Townsend has numerous art galleries, most of those art galleries are co-ops that are owned and operated by the artists, and most of the work in those co-ops are crafts created by hobbyists – not full-time professionals. Thus, there really isn’t a lot of high end fine art to attract the upper class collectors to Port Townsend for the pure sake of collecting art. Enough tourists buy art there to keep the co-ops open, but their art purchases are more coincidental to their visit to Port Townsend rather than being the sole reason they went to Port Townsend. If, for instance, you compare Port Townsend to Santa Fe, New Mexico or Carmel, California-hard-core art towns where people travel there just to buy art, Port Townsend pales in contrast. What determines whether a town is a thriving art market town is the type of tourists it attracts.
While running the gallery, I spent a lot of time conversing with visitors and found that most of them were from the greater Seattle region who came to Port Townsend purely for entertainment and to escape Seattle for the day. Unfortunately for me, these ‘day-trippers’ had no intention of buying art – let alone anything else. I sold no art to the greater Seattlites. The majority of art I sold was to visitors from far away. I did, however, sell some art to a Port Townsend couple who had just moved to the area from the east coast. I assume that most art sells to tourists who buy art impulsively because they know they likely won’t return, whereas most Seattlites expect to return often, so there’s no impulse to buy. This was the case during the Wooden Boat Festival – a weekend that draws over 30,000 visitors and is Port Townsend’s biggest event-it was our deadest weekend of the whole season.
Additional images of the art gallery and Port Townsend.