Owning an Art Gallery in Port Townsend, WA.

by | Nov 30, 2023 | Studio Posts | 0 comments

Acrylic painting by Janet Tarjan Erl of Point Wilson Lighthouse as seen from the northwest beach.
In the summer of 2016 Harry and I leapt into the unknown realm of owning our own art gallery in the beautiful seaport town of Port Townsend, Washington. The gallery was tucked into a small retail mall in the old downtown.  The visibility was okay because you could see it from the sidewalk as you walked by, but it wasn’t out on the main drag. Rents were way too expensive on the main drag and would have cost three to five times more, so this space was all we could afford. Harry and I spent way too much time fixing up the 400 sq. ft. space, but by the time we opened the gallery, it looked quite professional. 

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.

These days every tourist town claims to be a great art town – just like Port Townsend does. It sounds good in the ads, and it helps get people to visit those places, but actually delivering on that claim is difficult. I suppose there are solutions to nurture the fine arts, but it is costly.  
Though owning and sitting a gallery is very time consuming, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed chatting with the many visitors who came into the gallery.  I am grateful for all those lovely compliments I received, and if I could have made a dollar for every compliment I got, I wouldn’t have needed to close the gallery.  Likewise, all my patrons who collected my art, brightened my summer. Without people supporting the arts by buying it, artists can’t make a living creating art, and if artists can’t make a living creating art, they won’t make much of it, let alone have the time to master it, so I appreciate all my art patrons.  Unfortunately sales were not brisk enough to carry us through the nine lean months of the year, so we closed the gallery in October.  I wish I could say that this endeavor was a rewarding experience, but even though there may be some good lessons learned, my overall feelings were of disappointment. The gallery looked good, the artwork looked good, the compliments were great, so shutting it down was like putting down a beloved pet. 

Additional images of the art gallery and Port Townsend.



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