Trends at Martha’s Vineyard galleries

Michael Hunter of PIKNIK Art & Apparel in the Oak Bluffs Arts District. The painting is by Tom Stephens. Jewelry by Stefanie Wolf Designs. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Talk of trends is everywhere these days — in colors (think honeysuckle pink and persimmon for summer), fashion (fewer indulgences, more statement pieces), beverages (watch for beer sommeliers), green living (bamboo in every form), and food (brigadeiros, sweet bonbons from Brazil).

So we asked two Island gallery owners, Michael Hunter of PIKNIK Fine Art & Apparel in Oak Bluffs and Elizabeth Eisenhauer of Eisenhauer Gallery in Edgartown, what trends we should be tuned into at art galleries.

Both PIKNIK and Eisenhauer galleries have weathered some tough economic times since opening more than a decade ago. Mr. Hunter, now in his 13th year, and Ms. Eisenhauer, in her 11th, appear to have deciphered a formula to ensure their survival. But when quizzed about the role of trends in their success, they agreed that following their own aesthetic and developing consistency in their approaches are far more important.

“I don’t look for trends,” Mr. Hunter says definitively. “I don’t follow them. People take them too seriously. By nature, you have to have your own stamp and cohesiveness in your vision. I’m not running after trends in fashion or art.”

Ms. Eisenhauer echoes a similar sentiment: “I have to follow my own sensibility, my own voice. I listen with my heart and determine what my customer wants. If I stray outside my intuition it usually doesn’t pay off.”

While both gallery owners are quick to eschew the concept of following trends in their businesses, both identified several recognizable shifts both on the Island and in galleries around the world as well.

With the economic recession came increased reluctance to buy art. According to Mr. Hunter, women used to come to PIKNIK to purchase eclectic fashions and wearable art, then take home a $2,000 painting on impulse without consulting their partners. But during the last few seasons, impulse buying virtually disappeared.

“It was normal for a couple to come in together to decide on a more expensive piece of art,” he says, “but in recent years couples began coming in to consider a $1,200 painting and visited it two or three times before finally taking it home.”

Ms. Eisenhauer cites 2009 as her most challenging year, with 2010, a distinct improvement. During the past two years she felt a “tiredness” about sales, with less “flow to the interaction” between her and her customers. “We really had to hand-hold,” she says.

Today, both Mr. Hunter and Ms. Eisenhauer detect a new energy and lightheartedness to art buying on the Island. “People are making quick decisions,” Ms. Eisenhauer says. “They’re not dickering about price. They’re making a choice and moving on to the next thing without buyer’s remorse or anxiety.” In fact, she reports a near doubling of sales in her contemporary works from this time last year.

Mr. Hunter relates a similar lift in optimism. A first-time customer came into the gallery on a recent weekend, he says, and purchased an eclectic $6,000 array of pieces. “She’ll be back,” he says confidently.

The economic recession may have yielded an unexpected boon to the relationships among Island gallery owners. Both Ms. Eisenhauer and Mr. Hunter relate a greater sense of camaraderie among those galleries that have made it through the recession. “So many businesses have come and gone,” Ms. Eisenhauer observes. “Customers come and go, too, but we’re all in this together. Now we refer customers to each other more and if someone has a good day we all feel genuine happiness.”

“We perk each other up,” Mr. Hunter says. “We text each other: ‘Just sold three paintings.’ ”

The days of mailing gallery opening invitations seem to be going the way of the Oldsmobile. According to both business owners, gallery operators on the Island and around the U.S. are depending more on the Internet to communicate with potential and existing customers. Email notifications, personalized email messages, and social networking via Twitter and Facebook are fast becoming the norm. While Mr. Hunter relies heavily on his website and on email to clients, he remains somewhat skeptical about the value of social media sites.

“I know there’s a lot of Facebook and Twitter on the Island,” he acknowledges. “But I’m not sure it really moves the art buyers. Serious art buyers aren’t on Facebook all the time. The younger crowd isn’t necessarily in a position to make major art purchases.

Ms. Eisenhauer speaks far more glowingly about the role of social media. “A year ago I thought Facebook was for younger people. But I’ve discovered it’s a great way to get information out. Just about any gallery I’ve Googled has a Facebook page. We don’t use Twitter much but we do use Patch [an online, community-specific, news and information platform], Facebook, and MVOL [Martha’s Vineyard Online].

She also sees a trend in customers’ use of technology to view art and to communicate about it. “Customers walk in with iPhones, shoot images of work, text them to their husbands and make purchase decisions,” Ms. Eisenhauer says. “People used to be guarded about giving us their email addresses to keep in touch. Now they’re eager.”

If Mr. Hunter and Ms. Eisenhauer’s predictions hold true, we should see and hear a lot more good news about the Island art scene this summer — and that’s one trend artists and gallery owners will celebrate.