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Entrepreneur: Art and business merge for Sandstone members
JOHN WARNER/Gazette staffGlenda Ramsey is one of several artists whose work is displayed in the Sandstone Gallery at 2913 2nd Ave. N. in downtown Billings. Sandstone is a co-op jointly owned and operated by 20 local artists. In exchange for display of their works, the artists takes turn running the gallery.

Gazette Staff

Glenda Ramsey noticed some years ago that she and some of her artist friends could get their work in galleries around Montana and Wyoming, but not in Billings.

They decided to start their own gallery, a co-op where each member could permanently display their works in exchange for taking a turn running the gallery.

After finding a building for their gallery, the real work started.

"We figured out how much space there was in the building to determine how many artists we thought we could display without being too crowded," she said. "We then used that number to determine what the minimum amount of money we would need to be able to stay afloat."

That was the beginning of the Sandstone Gallery at 2913 2nd Ave. N. in Billings. Ramsey can be reached at 256-5837 or 245-7145. Here's what else she had to say about getting the gallery off the ground:

Nature of the business: Sandstone Gallery is a professional art gallery specializing in art that is primarily representational. We have fine art that we consider mid-range in pricing. Most of our art is under $2,000, with much of it between $100 and $800. We have two dimensional art in oil, watercolor, pastel, prints, photos, and lots of three dimensional art in steel, bronze and clay, as well as jewelry and cards. We are different than other galleries in Billings in that we are a co-op, jointly owned and operated by 20 local artists. Only the co-op members have their art hanging in the gallery. Each artist is given the chance to be the "featured artist" for a month, with a reception held in their honor. We usually try to do these during an Art Walk or other events that are held downtown, like the Christmas stroll or parades.

Why start this business? There are a small number of professional galleries in Billings, with limited space. Because of this, a small group of us met together in Micheal Carl's living room in August 2000, discussing the possibility of a gallery. At that time, we were having trouble finding galleries in Billings that would represent us on a full-time basis. We were able to get our art in the local galleries in different shows they sponsored, or for a short show of our own, but for the most part none of us were represented by any of them.

Where did start-up funding come from? After a few organizational meetings we made up a contract for each artist, with each of us paying a start-up fee as well as a monthly fee to be able to cover expenses. By that time, Mike had found us the building to rent. From time to time we have had to throw in a little extra money for advertising and fixtures, and we do a lot of our own work like our business cards, signs, brochures, cleaning, painting, etc.

How long have you been in business? We've been operating for almost 2-1/2 years, opening our doors for the Art Walk in October 2000.

Biggest challenges in running the business? The biggest challenge to most all businesses today is the sagging economy. Sales of original art are down from previous years in all the galleries we talk to. Another challenge is our location. Even though 2nd Avenue has been called the "gateway to downtown," we aren't seeing much walk-by traffic.

What was done to overcome those challenges? We have looked at other locations, but have not found anything suitable. We are also working on the appearance of the building, waiting to see what the owner of the building has in mind, and then trying to do something artistic beyond that. We have had musicians play out front in nice weather, we ran speakers outside this last Christmas season and had chalk art on the sidewalk last summer. We are now forming a group of five galleries that are all within one block of us. We are working on doing joint advertising and receptions. We have tentatively decided to call ourselves the Off Broadway Galleries because we are all just a block or so from Broadway. If people were made aware of the fact that there are that many of us within easy walking distance of each other, it should bring more art buyers to our part of downtown.

What is being done to expand the business? We continue to be a part of the Art Walk, and Downtown Billings Association. We are developing a Web site, with the possibility of reaching beyond Billings with our art and sales.

The Gallery is always looking for new artists so we can expand the kind of art we have. From time to time we may lose an artist and look for another artist to fill their spot. Any artist interested in becoming a member brings us examples of their work, usually in photo or digital form, along with a biography and we keep it on file until an opening is available.

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We are also trying to incorporate more classes and workshops to be held in the gallery.

Your worst business mistake? Not developing a long-term business plan for the gallery. As artists, we do things one day at a time. We do have short-range goals and projects, but need to sit down and work out practical long-range business goals. We do have a plan to have a group of business students from MSU-B come in this fall and work up a projected business plan for us. They are to find our shortcomings and strong points and help us fill in the holes.

Advice for someone running a business? Don't give up too soon. It takes time to become known in any business, to build a reputation and be able to depend on repeat customers. Do your homework on the needs out there and plan a way to fill them. You may go through some slow times when you can second-guess yourself, but just don't give up.

Number of workers? All of our members are workers. Each of us have to work a couple days each month, so it's not a real burden on anyone. We all are responsible for sales, daily cleaning, phone calls, and whatever comes our way. We have a board that includes: Director Micheal Carl; Assistant Director Glenda Ramsey; Secretary Jan Scott; Treasurer Jeanine Deiling; and Show Coordinator Sue Hammersmark. The board meets monthly and has a quarterly membership meetings with everyone. There are also committees for specific jobs such as for artists receptions, public relations and advertisement.

What's your five-year plan for the business? To become a respected and well-known gallery in our area. We want to increase our advertisement base, and create a more interesting look on the outside of the gallery to encourage visitors.

A question you would ask other entrepreneurs? What form of advertising brings you the most bang for the buck? What works best to bring customers in the door?

If you weren't doing what you are now, what would be your dream job? Most of us would probably remain artists. It really is a dream job in itself, getting to express yourself in a certain medium that you enjoy. It's just that sometimes it doesn't pay as much as other "real" jobs. I guess you have to sacrifice some things in order to do what you really love. One way some of us get around it is to teach art, that way you are both doing art, and getting a fairly steady income. We have a couple of retired teachers in our gallery. In fact, my high school art teacher is with us, Leo Olson. He has been a great addition to our group. Sue Hammersmark, another member, also taught in the school system. Several of us are currently teaching in art stores, the gallery or our own studios.

“Entrepreneurs” appears regularly in the WorkWeek section. The feature will help readers become familiar with new businesses, as well as educate others in the challenges of starting a business. If you have been in business for at least one year and would like to tell your story, please contact:Chris Jorgensen Billings Gazette 401 N. Broadway Billings, MT, 59101 657-1311, office 657-1208, fax cjorgensen@billingsgazette.com

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