Gallery Couples: Partners in art and life

The Willoughbys, Rick and Marge, with daughter Sherry (left) at their Edgartown Gallery. — File photo by file photo by Jon Ollwerther

When Rick and Marge Willoughby were high school sweethearts, they played hooky to go to Rockport and visit art galleries. Destiny was at work. The couple, now married 43 years, opened Willoughby’s Gallery in Edgartown 20 years ago.

“The Vineyard is a place you can do something like this,” says Marge Willoughby. When they came to the Island in 1975, Marge learned the business at Conover’s, then the only gallery on Island.

Mr. Willoughby, an Island native, painted for passion and fished for income. “I thought we would starve,” his wife says, “but eventually we needed to do what we both really wanted to do — open a gallery.”

The key to the Willoughby’s success has been dividing the responsibilities and workday. At 5 pm, there is the changing of the guard: Mr. Willoughby enters to hang a show and Ms. Willoughby, after a full day of manning the gallery, makes her exit.

“Marge is the calming force,” he says, and adds, “It’s about respecting each other’s turf and temperment, and having shifts. We work together — but we never work together.”

Family values play a major role in the gallery partnership of couple Allison Shaw and Susan Dawson at the Allison Shaw Gallery in Oak Bluffs.

“One of the best things about being parents in business together is that we have the same priorities,” says Susan Dawson. “We can deal with things as they come up. If we have a meeting with a teacher or a sick child, we can work it out right away.”

As with the other couples, complementary skills are key here. Theirs is a downstairs/upstairs operation. Ms. Dawson, who worked for the Boston Globe, runs the gallery downstairs while Ms. Shaw tends to her photography in the studio space upstairs. They respect each other’s space and talents.

“Together we are better than individually,” says Ms. Dawson, “the whole is better than the parts.”

If there is a down side of being in business together, it might be that there is no getting away from it. All the couples agreed that it is a 24/7 involvement. For the artist member of the couple, even vacations are an opportunity to engage in their work.

But, as Ms. Dawson explains, “By being part of the business, I can better handle and understand this; I too have a personal investment.”

“With kids, it is different,” she adds. A common chant of their two adolescents is,”You guys work all the time.” The couple have come up with a creative idea to meet this challenge.

Their 14-year-old daughter Sarah has joined the gallery with an exhibit of her own jewelry. “She’ll get an understanding of what it takes to run a business,” says Ms. Dawson.

The importance of the division of labor between couples is shared by Dragonfly owners, Don McKillop and Susan Davy. “This was a very natural synthesis at this point in our life,” says Ms. McKillop. In Boston, her husband retired from business and was painting full time. She was working overtime, including acting as CFO of the Gardner Museum.

“It was time for a change,” she says. After 16 years of marriage, she retired also, and three years ago they moved to the Island and acquired the gallery in the Arts Disctrict in Oak Bluffs from former owner, Holly Alaimo. Mr. McKillop showed his paintings there for many years.They now live in the quarters above the gallery in Oak Bluffs. They are models for late career changes.

“It was a big decision to do this,” says Mr.McKillop. “We talk about the business and live with it all the time. It has helped us to define roles.”

“Our roles are front of the house and back of the house,” says his wife. “I do back of the house,” and Mr. McKillop adds, “Susan is the detailed person.”

“It is really critical to know all aspects of the gallery business between the two of you,” says Ms. Davy. “You have to be able to count on one another when times are tough.”

While their taste is compatible, Ms. Davy defers to her husband on art choices, except where her own photography is concerned. “It is important to respect each other’s skills while sharing the same values,” she says.

Peter and Ronni Simon have been freelance artistic partners for 33 years, but it was not until three years ago that they opened a gallery.

“We were strolling in Vineyard Haven and saw the rental sign at 54 Main Street,” says Ms. Simon. “We just knew it was time.”

Peter, whose photography has been exhibited throughout the Island, always wanted a gallery, his wife explains, and adds, “But it didn’t make sense until I started making jewelry.”

With both partners being full time artists, the question of roles can be tricky, but the Simons have worked it out. Ms. Simon says, “I am in the gallery more than Peter because I can work here on my jewelry and knitting. With Peter’s photography, he needs to be outside. I don’t mind staying here,” she says, “the gallery is really an extension of our home.”