Written by Janet Davies
When Carlyn Moulton and her partner Barbara Basille had the idea to open Oeno Gallery, they, like a lot of studios and galleries in The County, decided to start a small gallery in their home. Theirs was a spacious home on the Bay of Quinte, near Carrying Place, but, as it turned out, not spacious enough. “What happened was it became so popular it wasn’t sustainable to have that much foot traffic in our house. When the gallery was attracting 5,000 people a year we knew we needed a more commercial location,” says Carlyn. “We looked at different options then approached Huff Estates to see if we could build a gallery there.” Lanny and Catherine Huff who had opened a brand new inn at their winery saw it would be a good collaboration, and the new Oeno Gallery was built.
Named for the Greek goddess of wine (and pronounced Ee-no) the new gallery opened in January 2009 and has grown steadily ever since. “We have expanded our roster of artists and gone from one employee to eight fulltime and four part-timers,” says Carlyn. “I need to hire more people, but I honestly don’t have anywhere to put them.” That foot traffic has soared to more than 30,000 visitors a year. “That’s a lot to manage and host and interact with,” says Carlyn.
Oeno shows contemporary art – mostly Canadian. “I’d say we are 95% Canadian artists, 60% of them are from Ontario. We’ve always had people from the area exhibiting with us, by which I mean the broader region from Kingston to Toronto.” Promoting Canadian artists to the world gives Carlyn enormous pleasure. “We talked about that at a staff meeting just the other day, ‘What is Our Role as a Gallery?” she says. “We could sell T-shirts and make money, and I’m not putting down T-shirt sellers, but that is not what I want to do. I want to promote Canadian artists because I love what they do. Good art makes my heart sing.”
She firmly believes artists should be making art, not thinking about how to sell or ship it. “I have no talent to make art myself, but I do have a talent for marketing and positioning it. I am so happy to be building a much bigger audience for Canadian art outside this country,” she says. Typically, galleries would do that through art fairs. But Carlyn is not a fan of fairs. She does things differently, harnessing the power of the Internet to reach an audience that dwarfs even her new tenfold foot traffic. More about that later.
In 2011, Carlyn and Barbara decided to increase the gallery’s sculpture opportunities. They created a sculpture garden in partnership with Huff Estates that is five acres of fairly manicured property. The modern sculptures range from tiny to massive. “The garden alone draws thousands of people every year,” she says. “And they come back again and again just to walk there and spend time with the art.” One of their first sculptors was Shayne Dark. “He’s a really interesting artist from Kingston, and we have sold his work all over the world,” says Carlyn with satisfaction. “He has had to employ four people in his studio to keep up with demand. We ship his sculptures to Miami, Czechoslovakia, Los Angeles, Australia.” She pauses. “It’s an odd thing. We created a sculpture gardenin a hay field and it has enabled Shane and others to have exposure all over the world.”
THREE ELEMENTS OF OENO
So the gallery shows and sells contemporary, mostly Canadian, art. “We do domestic sales, through the gallery door, so to speak,” says Carlyn. “And we export about as much as we sell domestically.” As mentioned before, they sell work online, and a third element, secondary marketing, has come about quite by chance. “In 2012 someone brought us a small painting by A.Y. Jackson that she had inherited and didn’t like much and she asked could we sell it for her. We did, and that started a whole new venture for us,” says Carlyn. “Over the course of four years, we have sold millions of dollars worth of secondary market work. This Fall we had a big exhibition of work by the Group of Seven and their contemporaries/ We sold paintings by Tom Thompson and Lawren Harris, Frederick Banting, John Beatty and so on. These three aspects of our business help to sustain one another. It’s very useful to have that kind of diversification.”
THE SEASONS OF ART
“When we opened, the season was definitely June to September,” she says. “Now it’s April through November, and really we have visitors all year round. I am grateful for what we like to call The Drake Effect.” She is riffing off an expression used constantly in The County, the lake effect, to explain the capricious weather. “The Drake Devonshire has used brilliant tourism marketing that draws visitors year round. We had people here in February who had been trying to get a reservation at the Drake since September, and when they finally got here, they came to see us – in February.” Oenos’ only part-timers are the gardeners who create and maintain the beautiful landscaping, some formal and some semi-wild but all fascinating. They work to the end of October and start again in April.
“Five years ago customers walked through the door,” says Carlyn. “That hasn’t gone away. Our works range from prints and works on paper to $70,000 paintings, and people will come looking for a single painting or to add to their collection. But more than half of our sales are global. We are selling to people who find us online.” In 2013 they began to seriously attack online marketing and take their emphasis off print and conventional marketing approaches. Going online brought in clients from Hong Kong to Morocco, Australia to the United Kingdon, and, of course, the U.S. “Now, we ship every day to clients around the world. We have gone from being open to the public seven days a week to having to close for three days because we need that time and the space to do our packing and shipping.”
“People buy online with confidence these days,” says Carlyn. “But it is vital that we write very detailed and accurate descriptions of the work and put up photographs, about 10 pictures, showing front, side, back, details, sculptures in perspective with, say, a chair beside them. Often we shoot video and send to the prospective buyer so they get as good a feel as possible.”
How did they find out how to reach a worldwide market? “I’m an old researcher from way back,” she says. “Before I changed my business strategy I did a lot of research on how the most successful contemporary galleries work, how do they grow and survive? I found out who were the best online marketers. There are extensive studies on this, lots of industry reports to read. I found there are about 50 art aggregators, art websites that galleries advertise with to promote their work.” Oeno tried working with six of these aggregators, and they currently work with three. “Three of them didn’t do much for us at all, but these three feed us well,” she says. The aggregators work differently. Some just sell and take commission, others offer online auction type events and some have enormous advertising campaigns that go worldwide. Being part of those massive outreach campaigns can work wonders for a small gallery.
“Search Engine Optimizing has become a very important part of how we get artists out there,” says Carlyn. “I have two people who work for us remotely who are dedicated to web tweaking and continuous redesign. They focus on search engine optimization modification, feeding into Google Ad Words and that kind of thing.” It’s a brave new world out there. One that can make an international star of a small town artist – without that artist having to know how to optimize a thing.
Carlyn loves what she does. “I’m introducing fresh, interesting, original work to a much broader audience, and helping people build collections that suit their taste,” she says. “For the artists, they don’t have to strive to be in five or six galleries in Victoria, Toronto, New York, to be sure their work is seen. They can choose to work with one gallery exclusively if they wish, and galleries can choose to work with fewer artists but work with them exclusively, so they reap the rewards of promoting them well. “When you are online, geography really doesn’t matter,” says Carlyn. She adds with delightful delicacy, “It can be awkward when you put a lot of resources into promoting your artist worldwide online to have another gallery benefit from that.”
Many artists are with Oeno exclusively now, having left other galleries and Carlyn says they’re selling more work and getting more income. “I track these things,” she says. “We build a marketing program and include them in our catalogues. I have produced half a dozen books over the last three years, so I guess we have a book-producing element, too!” she laughs. “So we send 150-page catalogues to buyers around the world. We make videos of art to put up on YouTube, we ensure our artists have a constant online presence.” It’s in everyone’s interests if the artists can relax, not worry about marketing or shipping, and focus on making art.
“We outsource the catalogue design,” she says. “We outsource the writing of articles, we work with a local printer on the catalogues, so we are helping to generate economic activity.” One crucial collaborator is a man who does heavy lifting. Very heavy lifting. “Harold Harcourt and his pallet company in Bloomfield are a tremendous asset for our shipping,” says Carlyn. “He has major transports and all sorts of heavy equipment. He builds crates for us. He has forklifts to lift large sculptures. We call on him every Spring when we do the Sculpture Garden installation, and he’s always there when we need him.”
She recalls an order from L.A. for a seven-foot marble sculpture to be delivered urgently. “The buyer saw the piece in summer, but ordered it in February. Well it’s one big snowdrift out there at that time of year. There were two feet of ice on the piece. Harry came over and built a tent around it, put a heater in, thawed it, lifted it out and put it on his truck. It was massive. But he got it to Los Angeles on time. Harry’s not afraid of big jobs. All I have to do is pick up the phone and he takes care of it. He even has 24-hour delivery of crates.”
She marvels at the fact that such a resource is just around the corner, right there in Bloomfield.
“I want to develop more space,” she says emphatically. “I have to develop more space. I can stay the way I am, keep doing what I do, or I can acknowledge the fact that I live in an area that is rich with talented artists. There are so many I can help to promote and grow their practice and their livelihood, and their success impacts the local economy, too. A couple of our artists who didn’t live in The County have chosen to move here. They bought houses, they renovated them, they put money into local businesses, now they are part of the economic cycle of love here,” she says with a smile. “It’s my goal to keep growing this business and hiring people. Why not.”
She names some recent hires including Dana Charles who moved from Picton to Toronto to do a Fine Arts degree and chose to come home to work. “Where else was she going to work?” says Carlyn. “Zach Shunock lives locally and studied photography at Loyalist and I hired him as my digital photographer. I had to recruit Jacques Talbot from Edmonton, because he has an MFA and I couldn’t find anybody with the specific skills I needed here locally. But Michelle Bunton, a student who works with us, is about to start her Master of Fine Arts. I am able to offer work to young people with arts credentials.”
Carlyn unabashedly sees art as a business as well as a creative endeavour. “You need it to be both,” she says. “There’s no point labouring in impoverished obscurity, right? And my business creates real jobs. We pay good wages, our people get health plans, dental, paid leave. We have a profit sharing program so when the gallery does better so do they. They all just got bonuses because we’ve had a good season. We just negotiated some paternity leave! I don’t want people just filling a slot, I want our people to make this a career and stay long term. I want them to be able to buy a house and provide for a family. This place needs real jobs and I believe you get what you put in. If you invest in people it’s good for your business.
Oeno has sent employees off for additional training. they have partnered with Loyalist College to do specific skill training for them. Carlyn wants young people to feel they have a career development path. “They might start here in their mid twenties and when they’re ready they might fly,” she says, thinking of Chrissy Poitras, one of her first young assistants and now owner of her own business, Spark Box Studio. “Chrissy is a very smart cookie,” she says. “She is enormously talented. I cried when she said she was going to leave, but she has such a lot of great visions and plans and the ability to execute. You can’t hold her back. She has great entrepreneurial spirit and she’s just going to keep on inventing things. We talk all the time. I admire what she is doing. So yes, sometimes people come and get experience and then move on, but I’ll be proud to have created opportunities for people to make it a real career.”
HOW ARTS IMPACT THE COUNTY
Carlyn is not surprised by developments in The County. “Richard Florida writes about the strength of creative economies,” she says. “Artists are frequently the first people to move to somewhere from away. They come to find quiet or cheap or good working space. Well, after you get a critical mass of artists doing that, you get smart cafes moving in, and then you get more visitors come to see what’s happening, and then you have – well you have what has happened here. It doesn’t matter if it’s rural or urban. The same thing happened on Queen Street in Toronto, it’s happening in Hamilton. It happened in Salt Spring Island and it’s happening here. It creates all these layers.
She thinks Prince Edward County is particularly blessed. The artists are not operating in isolation, there are the wineries, too, and The County’s profile is growing internationally. “We’ve got magazines saying we’re in the top 50 places in the world to visit,” she says. “We have a high culinary reputation for producers and the people who turn County produce into wonderful stuff. And then are the tourist operators who take a risk opening accommodation that targets a wealthy demographic. Did you know Huff Estates is producing kosher wine? We have had rabbis coming around here for five years helping to create a whole line of kosher wine which has attracted a whole other clientele that are part of the art-buying public. These things feed each other.” She is delighted that the old Royal Hotel is being developed by Greg Sorbara; that the Drake Devonshire is getting glowing press in Europe and Asia, and that owners of places like The Manse in Picton are good friends and colleagues. “The Manse guests love to come to our gallery and I send my gallery clients to The Manse for accommodation,” she says. “It’s a real symbiosis here.”
How does she see the art scene changing in The County over the years? “You have to distinguish between craft and art, and a lot of what was produced in The County previously was craft,” she says. “I admire craft, I buy craft, I say hooray for craftspeople! The Maker’s Hand that just took place here is a tribute to regional artisans and the considerable market for their work. But production of art that gets international recognition and starts to command serious prices, I believe that’s a level of sophistication that wasn’t here 10 years ago. Oeno Gallery has tried to contribute to driving that, because that other part of the market has been very well served. We are trying to fill a part of the market that was not being served.”
She tries another tack to illustrate how she feels about variety, diversity, choice and experiences. “I really appreciate a great chip truck that serves good poutine,” she says. “But I also like to have a five-star restaurant I can go to for a special occasion, and it’s nice to have everything in between. You don’t want just one thing. It’s great to have some stratification, and to be able to choose. If people want to drink craft beer, or a domestic lager, they can do that here, and if they want to buy a $70 bottle of Pinot Noir, they can do that, too. I think it’s a good thing to have that kind of range in art as well.”
She smiles. “It is the goal of Oeno Gallery to occupy the top end of the art register.”
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