New Shows: What Makes Opening Receptions Work


What gives an Island art opening its pizzazz? Sue Dawson, who manages Alison Shaw Gallery in Oak Bluffs, compares opening receptions to a new display in a store window –– it piques people’s interest; it is a reason to come in. Ms. Dawson, Chris Morse of The Granary Gallery, and Elizabeth Eisenhauer of Eisenhauer Gallery describe how to make an opening memorable and satisfying.

“It’s an interesting challenge for us,” Ms. Dawson says. “We’re unlike other galleries, where people rush to the opening to make sure they have a chance to buy a one-of-a-kind painting by the artist. We’re always promoting the same person.”

Pacing and flow –– how each work is hung in relationship to another –– are important components of a new show, she explains. Frames get consideration, and themes are important.

A couple of seasons ago, the Alison Shaw gallery in the Arts District on Dukes County Road in Oak Bluffs, organized shows with different color themes. The main wall of the studio was painted a new color for each show.

“Judged by comments, it really resonated,” Ms. Dawson says. “We are always looking for different themes.”

The themes of this year’s shows are “Docks” in July, “Detail” in August and “Dusk” in September.

While an opening’s goal is always to celebrate new work, Ms. Dawson believes they are more about the event than strictly seeing the work. At least 20 binders present Ms. Shaw’s work by category, and members of the public just as often buy from those catalogues as from what’s at an opening.

“People will come in with ideas for Alison to shoot that are consistent with her work,” Ms. Dawson says. Last year customers wanted larger sizes, so Ms. Shaw has obliged, enlarging her seascapes and adding new, natural frames. When people asked for photos on canvas surfaces, the gallery responded. Relatively inexpensive “recession buster” prints were introduced after a customer suggested it.

The gallery’s layout plays a role in how Ms. Shaw’s photographs are presented. A divider at the back of the exhibition space allows them to hang small versions of established favorites without intruding on new work.

Food and drink count at Alison Shaw openings, and Ms. Dawson coordinates them with the theme of the show. Each has a special drink and menu. Lifesavers mints were one of the items served for “Boats.” For June’s “Dawn,” the gallery served SunChips.

“We do put thought into it,” she says. “We’re kind of goofballs about it. Sometimes people get it; sometimes they don’t.” Even music is coordinated to gallery themes, with live blues for the “Blues” show.

Since it is part of the Oak Bluffs Arts District, Alison Shaw Gallery gets together with other galleries there, like Dragonfly and PikNik Fine Arts and Apparel, to decide how many openings to hold and when. The next event will be the Arts District Stroll from 4 to 7 p.m. on July 10. Alison Shaw will open “Docks,” featuring boats and docks, and hold a signing for “Schooner,” published by Vineyard Stories, in which Ms. Shaw collaborated with writer Tom Dunlop.

An Island institution for more than 50 years, the Granary Gallery on County Road in West Tisbury, contributes to the rhythm of the summer, with as many as 600 or 700 people showing up at opening receptions.

“My sense of the reason [for openings] is that they are about a lot more than celebrating the artist,” says Granary Gallery owner Chris Morse. “It’s a great time for members of the community to get together. Some people make it part of their weekly routine.” The Granary has summertime openings every other Sunday from 5 to 7 pm.

“It creates a buzz,” Mr. Morse says. “A lot of people meet here.”

He and his staff re-hang the entire gallery, a repositioning that can help a painting be noticed. “I don’t want to have a stale gallery,” Mr. Morse says.

As with the Alison Shaw Gallery, the building layout and grounds play an important role. The Granary is fortunate to have a large parking lot, two entrances, and a courtyard.

“It’s a comfortable environment,” Mr. Morse says. “The courtyard is a wonderful place.” The building is larger than many, and can celebrate three or four artists in separate rooms.

Pianist Jeremy Berlin provides music, but the Granary doesn’t serve food. “We don’t want to provide dinner,” Mr. Morse explains. “We offer wine, beer, and spirits. The bartender knows everyone’s drink by the second or third show.”

The Granary’s first opening of the season is scheduled for Sunday, June 27, from 5 to 7 pm and will spotlight photographer David Fokos, watercolorist/rug maker Preston McAdoo, and bird carver Wendy Lichtensteiger. On July 11 to July 24, “Vegetable,” the second of Mr. Morse’s “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” theme shows opens. Artists from his three galleries — The Granary Gallery, The Field Gallery, and The North Water Gallery — will create one piece for each exhibition.

Elizabeth Eisenhauer of Edgartown’s Eisenhauer Gallery believes the unique part of an opening reception is that the interested customer gets to meet the artist. “I usually see groups of people coming,” she says.

In Ms. Eisenhauer’s experience, artists and collectors often come with their parents and relatives. “It brings my patrons into the gallery when they have more casual intentions,” she says. “It’s where the relationships really develop and deepen.”

Ms. Eisenhauer sees openings as a chance to see a more festive side of her clients, and thinks a successful event is when artists feel they’ve been surrounded with interested and interesting people.

“For the artist, it’s a very honest critique of what people like and don’t like,” Ms. Eisenhauer says. “They can watch people. Hopefully they take what they hear and use it when they go back to their studio.”

She says, “I love to sell something when the artist is there — it’s just a win-win situation.”

Ms. Eisenhauer has some collectors who love to buy during an opening. “It adds a frisson,” she says. “It’s very dramatic when the red dot goes up.”

The courtyard in front of the gallery provides a safe environment, important for Ms. Eisenhauer since her children have grown up playing in the gallery and courtyard. Most of her patrons are also raising families.

Other important elements are a well-trained staff, and having music to create just the right atmosphere. For the Memorial Day weekend opening, Johnny Hoy played, and the atmosphere, Ms. Eisenhauer says, was like a rock ‘n’ roll concert.

But according to her, food is a huge distraction: “I would never step on the toes of my fellow restaurateurs.” She puts the budgetary emphasis on music.

Music outside in the summertime in the North Water Street gallery’s courtyard starts June 24, from 6 to 8 pm, and continues Thursdays through Labor Day with the next opening July 15, featuring new artists Kathy Jones, Justin Taylor, Rebecca Kinkead, and Jylian Gustlin.