A collaborative competition

Business owner finds success working with local artisans

Posted on Mar 1, 2016 :: Small Business Spotlight
Andrew Schaick
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Jennifer Theuerkauf saw little collaboration among local artists when she moved to Neenah from California a few years ago.

What started out as a nonprofit initiative to help educate artists on effective business practices quickly turned into a brick-and-mortar business opportunity for Theuerkauf. That was when she decided to open The Fine Fox in downtown Neenah. 

“I wanted to bring artists from across the state together and many artists needed guidance on business practices and a place to highlight their work,” Theuerkauf says. “In just two years, collaboration has really ramped up and that has pushed the creativity and enthusiasm for our local artists.”

To stay true to buying local, Theuerkauf welcomes only work from artists in Wisconsin, which she says helps strengthen the industry locally.

“We are the only place in this region that has 50 or more artists that are in Wisconsin,” Theuerkauf says. “Other businesses like this have artists from across the U.S. but our goal is to keep the local business model and to support our local artists here in our own backyard.”

The store holds collections from soap and scents to paintings and clothing. A jewelry section is also prominent and offers a wide variety of earrings, necklaces and other accessories.

About 90 percent of the artwork the store carries is on consignment (with artists earning 60 percent of each sale). The rest of the items Theuerkauf buys from the artists, wholesale, and tracks as inventory.

“Wholesale for some of our artists is a bigger benefit for them because they get paid up front,” Theuerkauf says. “In return, the business also does better and that is the direction we are starting to move towards.”

Since opening in May 2014, sales for the individual artists have doubled, and what started out as 12 artists selling through the store soon became 50.

Besides being an artisan herself — creating jewelry and metalsmithing —  Theuerkauf has a background in business management and legal drafting. When she started the business, she held workshops once a month for artists on how to start a business, how to set up sales and price their work in a way that sustains a business over a long period of time.

“A lot of places around here that are aimed to help people start new businesses focus on the traditional business model and not so much the artisan model,” she says. “We have an even harder time at fighting to make sure their work is valued. The recurring theme I got from these workshops was the artists didn’t have a place where they felt represented.”

She has found the best marketing through word-of-mouth advertising.

At least 30 of the 50 artists regularly promote the shop, and by doing so, they promote their work and the work of others.

“It really goes hand in hand when I promote the shop because when I do, I’m not only promoting myself and my work, but also the work of other local artists,” says Emilie Steinmann, owner and designer of Ooh Shiny Art Glass. “All of my work and creative inventory is at The Fine Fox as of right now and whatever I choose to stock at The Fine Fox is the vast majority of my finished products.”

Theuerkauf noticed that small businesses in general rely on relationships, and in the artisan industry, “competitors” view each other as friends or colleagues.

“We collaborate more than we compete and when you build relationships, you won’t be fighting over the same piece of pie anymore,” Theuerkauf says. “Instead, you will be making something bigger you can all share and the whole region then prospers from that.”

The artisan industry is constantly evolving with more art fairs popping up and places like the Artery becoming recognized in a region that many people have not seen before.

The Artery is the Fox Cities’ first urban market that gives local artists a platform to sell their work and meet fellow creatives in the community.

Theuerkauf says these new types of initiatives bring more awareness to local artists and their work, which also promotes the idea to buy local, which supports and sustains the local economy. This is what local artists currently push for.

For Theuerkauf, the art pendulum is starting to swing in the right direction.

“I think there is now a bright outlook out there for local artists because no one creates what another artist does and if they do, they are basically copying them and are not truly considered an artist,” Theuerkauf says. “When everyone in your market has something individualized and unique, there really is no competition.”