Running a Gallery: An HBR Small Business Interview

barnett-interview-portrait.jpgIvan Barnett is an artist and the director of Patina, an art gallery in Sante Fe, New Mexico, which he co-owns and operates with his wife, Allison Buchsbaum-Barnett. He's also an avid HBR reader and regularly attempts to put theory into practice. I recently interviewed him about just how he does that; below are some edited excerpts from our conversation.

The photograph of Ivan and Allison, right, is by Robert Godwin, courtesy of The Santa Fe Opera.

When we met, you talked about how you find ideas in HBR and put them into practice in running your gallery. Can you give us an example of an idea/article or two that has been particularly helpful?

I loved The Drucker Issue. It's three years old, but it's the one I'd take to a desert island. I've had to teach myself about business; I'm not a graduate of business school, but when I read his words, there's classic wisdom that comes with experience.

For me, that Drucker issue came at a time that Patina was deeply struggling. From 2008 through 2011, we were just up against challenge after challenge to keep our business in play. That ultimately gets to be the challenge with a small business — trying to stay on point and not lose my cool and panic.

So what I took from Drucker was, that even in the rough times, you need to have a methodical approach to working with people and allowing them to be their best selves, so they can give you back their best performance.

How do you keep your head in a situation like that?

For me personally, I had to replay the hundreds and hundreds of people that have come through our gallery from 1999. And believe that without Patina, they would be missing something in their lives. As I would think about that, it would give me that ability to say, "Yes this is worth doing." Whether you have 200 employees or 200k employees, my job is to keep reminding people why we are here and why it matters.

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Even in more robust economic times, any retail business has to cope with seasonality. You're in Santa Fe, which is known as a tourist destination. How do you cope with the unevenness of demand?

Black Friday for us is July 1. Then we have this amazing intensity of business. After that, it gets really tricky.

In the off-season, we stage private functions for corporations or groups to come to the gallery for unique shopping experiences. It's way easier said than done. We connect with groups traveling to the southwest — we've created experiences for doctors' associations, for groups of women executives. We heard they were coming to town and immediately contacted their point person. We had it catered, and we closed the store to the public for two hours. Those kind of specialized events help offset the decline in the normal brick and mortar high season walk-in. It's taken a lot of years to develop the vocabulary and skills to do that kind of thing. There's nothing better than word of mouth, and when those are successful very often we get someone else reaching out to us. In 2012, we've had half a dozen of those events, and they're an economic feed for what isn't happening organically through the door.

We'll also travel and put on events elsewhere. In March, we're going to San Francscio to stage a private showing in a museum. If we're parntering with a nonprofit, we'll give a percentage to them.

I'd imagine that this economy could be a pretty tough one for someone selling things that aren't strictly necessary, need-to-have products. How else have you adapted to the economic climate?

Sometimes, the shopping experience is even more important than the products. I look at my wife who is an amazing person with clients, but she's never really selling the product. She's selling the experience and the story. That can sound pretty heady, but it's true.

For instance, we have a program we call "Observations" where artists come in and work right there in the gallery. That came about from thinking about the power of Cirque to Soleil. What draws people to Cirque de Soleil? Watching amazing talent doing amazing things. So we thought, let's allow people to come in and look at the amazing works in the front of the gallery, but also see the artist in the back of the gallery making the object from scratch. We've featured artists from Germany, France, Korea. It connects the actual making with the object itself.

It's not really a new concept; how many times have you seen someone making a basket and then seen the organization selling that basket? Jaguar might have people visit a factory to see their car being made. It's that level of appreciation of the process that adds value. Ultimately we're talking about adding value.

With our artists, some of them are the only people using a specific technique in the world. It's theirs. When you can show someone the inner workings of that, People light up over it.

I don't consider myself competitive in general, but I'm fierce about that.

You have a different compensation model than a lot of other galleries; how does that work, and why did you decide to shake things up?

We have a very artist-friendly kind of gallery. For example, we are probably one of the only galleries that pay artists every two weeks, through recession and whatever. Unfortunately, very often in the art world, it's pretty common that art galleries aren't managed too well. It's people with a lot of right-brain enthusiasm and not a lot of business skill. Even very prominent artists want to know when their check is coming. The normal protocol is to pay an artist within 30 days. What's happened though, in tough times, is many artists are getting paid in 60 or 90 or even longer. But when you pay them regularly, you get their best work.

Is it tougher to manage artistic, creative people than it is to manage more left-brained people?

Transparency, giving credit where it's due; these are basic needs for all people. And artists are people!

In Clever [by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones] the premise is that creative people don't really want to be led. I understand that notion, but at the same time I think when creative people are working with other creative people that they respect, they will be led. That's where the most wonderful collaboration happens.

That's what I love about Drucker — he talks a lot about having discipline. It's a fallacy that creativity is sort of this unleashed thing that doesn't want structure to it, or that structure will somehow inhibit it. The most talented people I know are the people that have high discipline, as well as skill — to stay on a course and not waver, to not lose sight of what you want to say. Our gallery has a voice, but to have this "organic" artistic voice requires orchestration and a lot of discipline.

It sounds like you see the business itself as a work of art.

I do, I do. Some days are more in the trenches, looking at balance sheets. But for me, in terms of creative management, it's sitting with someone like the bookkeeper and eliciting their talent so I can get more out of their creativity.

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