By Mark Morris
The artists at Sawmill River Arts Gallery in Montague have taken a creative approach — not just to their art, but to how they run their business.
Organized as an artist collective 12 years ago, Sawmill River Arts consists of 15 member artists who run the business and 22 guest artists who display their work on consignment. The distinction between the two is significant. While guest artists share 40% to 50% of their sales with the gallery, member artists make a deeper commitment and receive a larger return.
Each member artist contributes to the rent and agrees to staff the gallery at least three times a month. Members also agree to serve on committees such as finance, marketing, and others that contribute to running the business. In return for their investment in time and expertise, each member artist enjoys a permanent space in the gallery and receives 100% of the sales when someone buys their work.
“All the tasks that one business owner might do, we have 15 people able to do these things,” said Hannah Staiger, a member artist and owner of La Boa Brava jewelry studio. “The gallery is our space that we own and operate together. We all have keys to the front door.”
“We’ve been here for 12 years, and we’ve been successful and growing. Now we’re in a position where we are a full-fledged business, and we have to treat it as such.”
As part of the creative process, artists tend to work alone for long periods of time. Staiger said being a member artist is a welcome opportunity to occasionally get out of her home basement studio and experience life not covered in dust and dirt from making jewelry.
“I get to put on nice clothes and come here to talk with customers and my co-workers,” she said, adding that having member artists also serve as the staff gives the gallery a unique positioning. “When you walk through our door, you interact with the artists who made the work that’s in the gallery. Staffing this way allows us to collectively maintain the store and provide a vital resource for all the members, as well as the 22 other local artists who sell their work here.”
To keep things running, the cooperative holds monthly meetings, but for the daily concerns that come up, email is the main communication tool.
“It can be a challenge to get consensus from 15 people via email to make a change to the gallery or vote a new member into the group,” said Lori Lynn Hoffer, member artist and owner of Waterlily Design, specializing in oil paintings of landscapes and botanical scenes. “While email is time-consuming, we do it to make sure all 15 of us are on the same page.”
As a customer of Sawmill River Arts for many years, Hoffer applied for membership in the collective last year after seeing it go through a positive transformation and deciding that she wanted to be part of that effort.
“I was willing to do the work of staffing the gallery and taking part on the committees because it’s so worth it,” she said. “It’s extremely unusual to be able to get 100% of the selling price for your artwork. When you exhibit at a commercial gallery, they take half of your sales.”
On the day BusinessWest visited Sawmill River Arts, it was Roy Mansur’s day to staff the store. In between helping customers, he was removing storm windows to prepare the gallery for spring and summer traffic.
A nature photographer for three decades, Mansur — a member artist at Sawmill River Arts for the past 10 years — explained why he joined the collective after years of displaying his work in different galleries, stores, and fairs. “The chance to have a wall of my own where I can choose what I want to exhibit was the first big pull to joining the gallery for me.”
Focus on Growth
In early 2020, Staiger applied to become a member artist just before the pandemic lockdown closed thousands of businesses, including the gallery. She wanted to become active with a local gallery when it became apparent that the types of fairs and markets where she usually sold her jewelry weren’t going to open for quite a while.
“I contacted the collective and suggested they reach out to the public during the lockdown,” she said. “I offered to help with online and social-media outreach, which was something they needed.”
According to Hoffer, having 15 member artists seems to be the right number to keep the gallery growing. Two new members were recently added after one passed away and another retired. A new-member search committee takes on the job of finding people to apply to be part of the group.
“There’s a whole process involving interviews, deciding who is a good fit based on their art, and what strengths they bring to operating the gallery,” Hoffer said, noting the online experience Staiger brought to the group when she joined. “Hannah is far savvier about social media and online marketing than most of us in the group. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been looking to bring in younger members.”
As an example of new types of art featured at the gallery, Staiger called attention to a rack of printed T-shirts.
“The patterns are from hand-carved wooden blocks that are printed on to the T-shirts,” she explained. “We haven’t had something like this before. This type of art speaks to a younger crowd, and we’re excited to have this artist join us.”
Thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the gallery will look to upgrade its logo and branding. Staiger described it as a bit of a facelift to reintroduce the gallery to the community.
“We’ve been here for 12 years, and we’ve been successful and growing,” she said. “Now we’re in a position where we are a full-fledged business, and we have to treat it as such.”
The group is working with the Homegrown Studio, a local marketing agency known for its work with local farms and small businesses. Homegrown will create a new logo and a new look for the gallery. “Our vision is to create a modern local art gallery,” Staiger said.
Hoffer added that part of the branding effort will involve reaching out to locals as well as out-of-towners to make it easier to find Sawmill River Arts.
“From the universities to the prep schools, it’s not unusual to see students and parents who are not from the area,” she said. “We have an extraordinary destination, and we love it when they visit.”
The art gallery is one of several businesses located in the Montague Bookmill complex. In addition to the art gallery and the bookstore, there are two restaurants — the Watershed (sit-down dining) and the Lady Killigrew Café (pub atmosphere) — as well as a music shop, Turn it Up! The entire complex faces the Sawmill River, which can be heard rushing by in the background.
“We have art, music, books, and the river,” Hoffer said. “With lots of outdoor seating, it’s a real draw for people who want to get out of the house and see other people who also care about all these things.”
Staiger said the mill complex is an iconic New England location makes people feel like they’ve stumbled upon it.
“Many people who come here for the first time feel like they’ve discovered this oasis in the middle of Western Mass.,” she said.
If all goes to plan, many more people will be discovering Sawmill River Arts, and the entire mill complex, for themselves … and maybe bringing home a unique piece of local art, too.