On a typical weekend about 30 to 50 cars fill the parking lot at Edgewood Orchard Galleries in Fish Creek. Inside the main two-floor barn gallery, people stroll through looking at paintings, glass art, jewelry and small sculptures.
Several will also buy something, as they have for 47 years at this family-owned business. Nell and J.R. Jarosh, who took it over from her parents 11 years ago, have bought the business and are paying off the property — both at appraised commercial values. It’s a family, but it is also a business with four full-time employees and six working part-time.
The gallery represents about 150 different artists from Wisconsin and across the country. It’s a rare week that a visitor doesn’t ask how to apply for the gallery’s roster and many more inquire by email as the gallery’s reputation has grown.
Each November J.R. and Nell sort through 75 to 100 submissions from artists who would like to join the gallery, and they choose just three to five, while also deciding which artists will be invited back. One of the hardest parts of the job is informing incumbent artists who have become friends over the years that their work is no longer selling, says J.R., yet it is necessary for the business, and to make room for new people.
“You have to be willing or able to change with your changing customer base, and so far we have been able to do that.”
J.R. and Nell also are constantly looking for new artists on their winter trips when the gallery is closed.
“We have gotten some of our most successful artists when we have seen them in places like Naples or Santa Fe and thought they would be a good fit,” he says.
The gallery won’t represent an artist who is showing at another Door County gallery like Fine Line in Ephraim or Woodwalk in Egg Harbor, but it does have artists who run their own gallery operations, like the Popelka-Trenchard glass and painting studio in Sturgeon Bay or Ginnie Cappaert, who runs a gallery in Egg Harbor. Their contract requires them to price their work the same as it is priced at Edgewood, and if the gallery sends a visitor to an artist’s studio and she buys a work, the gallery gets its 50 percent commission. Artists set their own prices, although they occasionally ask for advice. If they price too high and nothing sells, they risk not being invited back. Painting prices are in the $2,000 to $8,000 range; a tall hot-rolled steel “Totem” by Sturgeon Bay architect and sculptor Dave Valentine, is priced at $55,000. The gallery does not discount prices, J.R. says.
If the weekend marks the opening of a new show — the gallery changes exhibits every three weeks to display as many of its artists as possible — the outdoor patio will be buzzing with visitors enjoying a beer or glass of wine along with finger food. Often a few of the four or five featured artists in the new show will give talks about their work. Some artists are happy to give talks; others prefer one-on-one conversations with gallery visitors.
“I think people are more encouraged to buy a piece if they have a stronger connection with an artist. We aren’t in it just for the money — making those connections is important for us,” J.R. says.
Changing every three weeks is a lot of work, but J.R. thinks the gallery owes it to the artists to give them ample exposure. It charges a 50 percent commission, pretty much an industry standard, and he figures its annual return is between 5 and 8 percent of sales.
“For the first 47 years we have been able to make it go,” J.R. says. “The challenge is a little steeper since Nell and I bought it. Transitions are hard in a gallery business, which is why a handful have closed in Wisconsin in the last few years. The profit margins aren’t big enough to make it easy for someone to slide in and take over the business.”
Like Door County, the gallery attracts visitors from around the country, and some international attention as well. It sent several copies of its illustrated calendar to India this year.
Although the gallery is open about six months of the year, sales continue year-round through the Internet. Around Christmas queries roll in for presents, and as new work is posted in January, some sales are made and pieces are shipped by the artist, with the gallery paying shipping costs.
Nell and J.R. made some changes when they took over, he says. They expanded the price range so visitors could find some earrings or garden tiles for $10 to $20 in addition to the pricier paintings and sculptures. At the end of the year, the small items, under approximately $200 each, account for nearly half the sales.
“We want anyone to be able to find a piece they can afford,” J.R. says.
Because the gallery wants to show its work off well, it spends more on the glossy art guides and Door County magazines and uses newspapers for small ads announcing special events. A recent visitor came in with a page torn out of one of the two Door County magazines — which pleased J.R. (although he couldn’t remember which one).
“That’s what you love when you’re spending $30,000 or more on advertising.”
The sculpture garden also provides a way for people who aren’t regular gallery-goers to look around outdoors and then venture inside, he says. He decided to add sculptures when he realized that many regular art buyers were running out of wall space in their homes but still wanted to keep buying art.
“We have seen a trend toward more functional art like a really nice mirror or a one-of-a-kind furniture piece. Some people can more easily justify a purchase if it is both beautiful and functional.”
He will often deliver and install a painting or a sculpture if the buyer is in the Midwest. He purchased a large trailer so he can move a 6-by-10-foot painting and hang it, an operation that can be intimidating for a buyer who has never worked with a large piece of art. He will usually photograph the installed work and send the image to the artist. For more distant sales, the gallery uses delivery companies that specialize in art works. Last year the gallery shipped an 800-pound buffalo sculpture to Texas.
At the end of the season, the gallery throws a big costume dinner party for its artists so the gallery can get to know them better, and they can become better acquainted with each other. Several artists say Edgewood feels like family, something they don’t experience with other places they exhibit. Food and drink continue through the weekend as artists pack up their work and take it home. The party costs a few thousand dollars, but it saves thousands in shipping, J.R. says, and provides time to chat, laugh and get to know the artists as people, not just suppliers.
“It makes this a nicer business and life for us to be friends. The friendships are more important than the saving on shipping.”