Shepherding a commercial gallery into adulthood requires the faith of Job and a will of steel. Bridgette Mayer Gallery on Washington Square North, 9 years old this year, is about to catapult itself to adult status with a move early in 2011 to a much larger space and expanded exhibition programming that includes museum-quality shows, panel discussions for artists and collectors and one-off solo exhibitions of international artists along the lines of Kara Walker and Yayoi Kusama.
Mayer, 36, was trained as a painter and art historian at Bucknell. She decided she didn’t have what it took to succeed as a painter in 1998, and embraced the business side of art, an area where there are no shortcuts but hard work, persistence and passion. She’s grown her client list from two to more than 300, and the gallery has been profitable for the last five years. Philadelphia Weekly caught up with Mayer in her gallery.
PW: Tell me about your new space!
BM: I’m looking at several spaces—all are in Center City, two are in [Washington Square West]. I like this area, I feel like I’m in the center of things. On First Friday, we’re on the circuit between Old City and Locks, but we outgrew the space three years ago. Now is a good time to move.
Why is now a good time? We’re in a recession.
Galleries are conservative and slowing down, and I’m expansionist. I want to keep expanding the programming. The artists I’ve been talking with would like to show in Philadelphia what they show in New York. Having a big space is one way to attract artists—and clients.
You’re not from here. Do you feel like you’re accepted?
Sometimes people ask me if I’m from Philadelphia and I say no and they turn away and talk with someone else. I don’t want to get caught up in people’s politics. My values are hard work. I came from nothing. I was born into poverty, was adopted and taken out of that and had a great life and education.
What’s your formula for success?
Write a business plan, have a great mission statement, spend the time saving and planning so you can do it well and have a vision of what you want to show. If what you’re doing is unique to the market, there is more opportunity. The best galleries are run by passionate people. I was shy seeking advice; but in the end, people here are supportive, friendly and accessible.
There’s an idea that people don’t buy art here.
Most of my clients are Philadelphians— 60 percent. There are art buyers here. My challenge is to find people who want to invest more —they run to New York.
How did you build your business up?
Ads and marketing are huge. We take out an ad in Art in America once a year; now we take out an ad in Modern Painters . How you present yourself on your website is important. A website should be easy to navigate, clean and everything up front. I did mine in-house, and I update it a couple times a day.
Do you ever think of doing something else?
What else would I be doing? I can’t imagine.
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PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide