There are only a few single-artist galleries on Martha’s Vineyard, and they face a unique business challenge: How do you keep the work and the space fresh? How do you keep the customers coming after the novelty of the new space wears off? It’s not an easy task, but it can be done. Just ask Alison Shaw and Sue Dawson, partners and co-owners of the Alison Shaw Gallery in Oak Bluffs, which is celebrating 10 years in business this summer.
Ms. Shaw, a fine art photographer, first gained local recognition shooting stunning black and white images of the Island for the Vineyard Gazette. She went on to produce her own work independently — in color and black and white — and show at the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury. She worked mostly out of a studio space on Circuit Avenue.
“We always said we’d never do our own gallery,” Ms. Dawson said. “We’d drop off a show at the Granary or somewhere off-Island and we couldn’t believe how much work it was.
“Then one day, I had an epiphany in the Cronig’s parking lot, which is apparently a very spiritual place,” Ms. Dawson joked. “I pictured these velvet curtains, and a gallery exclusively dedicated to Alison’s work.” Ms. Dawson proposed the idea to Ms. Shaw, expecting to be talked out of it, but Ms. Shaw simply replied: “Sounds great. I’m in.”
Although the Granary Gallery typically demands exclusivity from its artists, the couple had earned the support of Granary owner Chris Morse. “It’s amazingly generous when you think about it,” Ms. Shaw said. “Chris said ‘this sounds like a great opportunity for you. If it’s good for you, it’s good for me too.’”
With Mr. Morse’s blessing, the last key was finding a gallery space. They heard about a location on Dukes County Avenue, at the edge of the Campground, which was formerly a single-engine firehouse. It was then owned by a cooperative gallery called Martha’s Vineyard Center for the Visual Arts. They were accepting bids from anyone who wanted to purchase the building, provided it would remain in use as a space for art. Ms. Shaw and Ms. Dawson won the bid, and the Alison Shaw Gallery was born.
They moved in in the summer of 2006, and began extensive renovations. The gallery is a historic building (dated to 1914), and part of the Campground, so preservation measures had to be taken while fixing the unstable second floor, the dangerous slab of asphalt out front that blended indiscriminately into the street, and the general leeward slump about the architecture.
Now, the space is virtually hurricane-proof, but it maintains its historic feel and the charming shape of the firehouse. The downstairs is a small yet tidy show space, naturally lit where the sun streams in through airy French doors. They are framed outside by a lush garden, where the asphalt used to be, and inside by velvet curtains.
Upstairs is a studio space, where studio manager Claire Cain and framer Carol Collins do the majority of printing and framing in-house. When she’s not out shooting, Ms. Shaw uses the studio for the computer work that comes with digital photography. In addition to marketing and other business management tasks, Ms. Dawson mans the front desk and provides customer service. In the off-season, they use the gallery space for mentorships and workshops.
“We make all decisions together, we each get a vote,” Ms. Dawson said. “So it makes so much sense to have everyone here together.”
“It comes in handy to have the artist upstairs, to come down and meet people and sign books,” Ms. Shaw said. “That’s something you don’t get at other multi-artist galleries. We’re really self contained here, we’re a pretty well-oiled machine.”
But even well-oiled machines need a change of gear now and then, to ensure they don’t rust. With only one artist to show at the Alison Shaw Gallery, the trick is keeping the space dynamic. Getting creative with gallery openings is one way to shake it up. One year, they did shows based on colors, showing work in all blue, for instance, with blue food and blue attire to match. Before delving into the more obscure colors, they switched to various landscape themes, including a boat show and a sunset show.
In the end, the best way to keep it fresh was to show fresh work. “People would always come in and ask what’s new,” Ms. Dawson said. “So we transformed ourselves into showing Alison’s newest work, and we’ve stuck with that.”
“Being represented by a gallery forces you to do work,” Ms. Shaw said. “You can’t say I don’t wanna get up in a hurricane or a snowstorm. There is a constant but subtle pressure to produce new work.”
Then, of course, there is customer service, which never goes out of style. “We think of ourselves as the L.L. Bean of fine art photography,” Ms. Shaw said. That entails meeting customers, and helping them make educated choices about the art they purchase. Ms. Dawson, a former art director and Photoshop guru, can even mock up a sample of what any given piece of art will look like in your home. Every order is a custom order, and it’s exceptionally personal. “This gallery is about developing relationships with people,” Ms. Shaw said. “Most of our customers are repeat customers. It’s important to figure out how to get people to keep coming back here.”
Since the gallery is somewhat off the beaten path, a block removed from the bustle of Oak Bluffs Harbor and Circuit Avenue, the gallery has to rely on more than foot traffic these days. The Alison Shaw Gallery is, in many ways, the last vestige of the once-thriving Oak Bluffs Arts District.
“When we got here, it was rocking,” Ms. Shaw said. “The anticipation was we would be a key element, added to an already thriving neighborhood.” For one reason or another, many of the galleries that once occupied that corner of Dukes County Avenue relocated or closed altogether. It was a domino effect which — until Gallery Josephine opened last summer — left Alison Shaw as the only gallery on the block.
“We’re hoping for a revival,” Ms. Dawson said. “It was a fun, collaborative effort, and we hope to keep the Arts District flavor.”
“Obviously we’re hoping more art-related businesses will find a home in this area,” Ms. Shaw said. “But we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing: constantly reinventing ourselves. Since moving into this building, my photography has changed a lot, and as an artist I’ll continue evolving. I don’t know what the future will bring, but in many ways as possible we want to keep growing, changing, and adapting.”
For more information, visit alisonshaw.com.