Ann Connelly’s business has evolved considerably since she first began selling antique European drawings in the late 1980s.
After moving into a brick-and-mortar gallery near the Perkins Overpass area in 1998, the LSU graduate began expanding her representation from 17th and 18th century artists to more modern ones. What started as a small collection she stored in a workroom at the back of her home has expanded into several hundred pieces, which adorn the walls and are lovingly tucked away in floor-to-ceiling shelves of her Bocage-area gallery, Ann Connelly Fine Art.
“I had to get away from drawings and morph and change according to the physical location to address the interest of local community,” Connelly says. “I was weaving around to figure out the pulse of business and what I needed to represent.”
Now the anchor tenant of Studio Park, a 2.8-acre luxury development Connelly developed with her husband, Paul, the gallery is exploring emerging trends for art galleries and looking to take advantage of technological advancements in the field that some say are increasingly pivoting customers to online shops instead of brick and mortar stores.
The internet has upended how retail shops operate in the commerce space and art galleries have not been immune to technology-driven evolution. Over the past few years, several online shopping retailers specializing in art have emerged, such as Saachi Art and Art Cloud, not to mention Amazon. Not bound to one storage area, these online sites offer shoppers a larger variety than what traditional galleries can offer, starting with a $10 photo reproduction up to a $100,000 original painting by Pablo Picasso.
“Elite galleries with clients in the upper one percent, they’re not changing their system but they’ll have a monopoly on the brick and mortars because the level of entry is so difficult,” Connelly says, adding that virtual galleries are typically geared toward younger collectors with pieces that are under $1,000.
Those working in the business of art are taking cues from so-called social media “influencers” by using platforms like Instagram to not only promote their goods, but also to find new artists and make connections. Moreover, gallery owners are using public art displays and online galleries to help attract new collectors to locally-owned shops.
Connelly’s co-director Chelsea Norris is exploring how they can use online offerings to bolster the gallery’s business. One website she’s considering adding to the gallery’s offerings is Artsy, which uses algorithms and cookies to curate a selection of art for the customer once they visit the site.
Such online offerings lack the “curated lens” of a gallery, Connelly says, but Norris defends it as another entry into the market for the business. While she hasn’t personally bought art from an online gallery, Norris says she knows multiple people who have. Adding Ann Connelly Fine Art to a service like Artsy can not only help widen the gallery’s reach outside the Capital Region, but also help Norris and Connelly curate a well-rounded collection of various items, not just expensive paintings.
“Do we know where we’re going exactly? No,” Norris says. “But we like to be aware of what’s out there and figure out how do we use those tools to benefit us.”
Not all Baton Rouge gallery owners are as warm to online art dealers however.
Liz Walker, who’s owned Elizabethan Gallery for more than 30 years, says online shopping conglomerates like art.com and frames.com may offer people inexpensive art that seems convenient and affordable, but she worries those vendors can misrepresent the product being sold. In an effort to fix the art or the frame, people can open their wallets to sometimes pay more than what they could have paid for an original piece of artwork from a local gallery.
Initially, art.com didn’t affect Walker’s Jefferson Highway business, but a few years ago she says the online seller began upgrading its shipping tubes and offering better deals on shipping. While Walker maintains steady business from customers needing a piece fixed, the growing presence of online art shopping is adversely impacting her bottom line.
“They may offer what seems like a sweetheart deal, and maybe for some posters and decorative pieces it’s fine, but it’s slowly but surely affecting us,” Walker says. “It’s getting harder and harder to have your own shop because of online shopping.”
Walker turns to Facebook to try to introduce customers online to the artists she represents and to the employees who work in the shop, so customers know exactly who they’re dealing with, unlike, she says, online galleries.
Enthusiastic users of Instagram, Norris and Connelly primarily use social media as a tool to make connections with artists from across the world. In the past, for an artist to be discovered, says Norris, someone had to meet a checklist of qualifications: come from an academic background, be featured in a studio, be represented by galleries and have their art featured in a museum show. And for galleries and dealers to find artists, they had to meet them face-to-face at a show.
“The artist quality is not what’s changed over the years—there are always good artists out there—but the way that we find them is so different now, and it requires us to travel so much less, thankfully,” Norris says, adding that she uses Instagram as her window to look outward from Baton Rouge.
Kristen Downing, who opened KAWD Art Gallery on Government Street about a year ago, says social media is a disrupter in the art industry, although she focuses on using it as a tool to promote events and drive traffic in her gallery. She also says her public art installations and downtown murals help build excitement and increase business.
“It brings in people to meet you, and other creators who want to be trained by you,” Downing says. “We’re all free thinkers and we don’t limit our art to a wall to display.”
Norris and Connelly agree public art is a growing trend and recently hosted Francisco “Pastel” Diaz as a visiting international artist at Ann Connelly Fine Art. A visitor to the gallery late October would find Diaz working in one of the larger rooms of the gallery, climbing a small scaffolding and using his arms as tools in his painting process. Based in Argentina, Diaz specializes in bold murals and the former architect’s art can be found on the sides of buildings in South America, Spain, Portugal and Miami.
For Connelly, murals represent an opportunity to give art to those who may not be able to regularly access it in a gallery. They’re also great publicity for the city where the works are installed.
“I think anyone could bring joy to a community by doing something special,” Connelly says, “but when you have someone like this doing it at this level, it changes the perception of the city.”