Hillary Metz, founder and director of Blythe Projects, describes her decision to break away from the traditional brick and mortar and adopt a nomadic approach. She hit the road and has never looked back.
Under torrential El Niño rains in November 2009, I opened Blythe Projects in a 3200 square foot gallery space in Culver City. I had recently moved to Los Angeles from Santa Fe, New Mexico where I had spent my days directing a long-standing contemporary gallery and wondering when Santa Fe was going to fall back into fashion. I sold occasional pieces to wealthy Texans looking to fill empty walls in their second homes, but Culver City felt fresh. Despite the economic crash, Angelenos came out in droves to support the arts.
My gallery’s first rent check was the largest check I had written to date, but I had done my research. I understood that most new businesses take anywhere from three to five years to turn a profit, so for the next two years I adhered to the Culver City exhibition calendar. I was raised with the philosophy, “If you’re going to do something, do it right.” Do it “right” I did: a big, beautiful gallery in the “Chelsea of the West Coast,” an expensive website, full page ads in regional and international art publications, VIP receptions, public receptions, champagne brunch Q&As with exhibiting artists, exhibitions, art fairs, and client dinners, all in YSL heels.
Unfortunately, the “right” way doesn’t necessarily work. A 30-day gallery exhibition didn’t provide enough time to attract collectors, writers and curators. The I-10 freeway seemed to serve as a psychic barrier between my artists’ work and collectors in the Hollywood Hills. My collectors were in Venice, Santa Monica and the Palisades, so I loaded works into my politically-correct-for-LA SUV Hybrid and westward ho! Even on my best day, I felt like an accommodating amateur. On my worst days I felt desperate. I felt like a failure. Yet another gallerist bites the dust! My heart ached because I thought I was failing my artists. I tried to remind myself that building a business takes time– back to the grind. To manage the stress, I started boxing… and smoking… again.
It’s all ego- pure and simple. No one likes to tank or feel like they are tanking, especially when it’s in the public eye. I blamed the tough-as-nails gallery business model, I blamed the overhead, I blamed my dress size. At times, I thought there were just too many artists making “cool shit,” and too many dealers, collectors, curators and critics falling for the dog and pony show. Maybe, the truth was I wasn’t tanking.
In November 2011, I was having yet another day of sitting in a painfully empty gallery. My presentation for the Pulse Art Fair was on a truck heading east to the circus that is Art Basel Miami. Opting to get a jump-start on my taxes, I was tallying up my annual sales and almost pulled a 1980s hair band move at my desk. Sales were up nearly 90% from the previous year! As I punched in the expenditures, I got through my Culver City gallery rent and secured booths for six art fairs and just stopped. Sales were way up but so were my expenses. Because I couldn’t run for the hills at two o’clock on a Wednesday, I decided to psych myself up for another round of emails and phone calls inviting people to see the current exhibition and then I heard it: a cricket. A cricket! “This place is Cricketsville!” I thought to myself and I actually laughed. Months and months of thought, discussions with my business advisors and lists of pros and cons had finally been resolved with the “crick” of a cricket.
I had spent the last twelve years of my life working inside those precious white walls and I was tired. I wanted excitement, travel and collaboration. I wanted freedom! Freedom from the 30-day exhibition hamster wheel for my artists and for me. I wanted more time. I wanted more space for Blythe Projects’ visions and aspirations. I thrive on speed and extremes, both emotional and physical and my hallowed white walls were squeezing the life juice out of me. In that moment I understood that I didn’t even want a brick and mortar gallery space.
On December 31st, 2011 I ditched the unsustainable business model for a system driven by intuition, service and spiritual intelligence. I went nomad, and I’ve never looked back. My gallery program became invigorated with spontaneity, connectivity and joy. I had always wanted Blythe Projects to be an antidote to daily life, a contemplative retreat and a glamorous experience. I had wanted to be in the business of providing a service, not selling a product. While it may be true that every exhibition is unique, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my Culver City space was just another stop on the arts map. The remedy seemed quite simple; I pulled up our stakes and took the show on the road.
Now, Blythe Projects presents limited engagements. The locale and venue are selected specifically for the artist. We focus on the experience. Our inaugural engagement took place on Midsummer, the pagan holiday celebrating harvest and prosperity. 120 art supporters communed on the rooftop pool deck of the Andaz West Hollywood for Erika Wanenmacher, a Santa Fe-based multi-media artist and renowned Wiccan priestess. Collectors vied for the artist’s talisman sculptures and sipped on champagne. We lit a bonfire at sunset and called to the Spirits. Erika invited us to acknowledge ourselves for all of our beautiful work and encouraged us to be grateful for all blessings. This was the first spiritual ceremony I had hosted exclusively for an art-driven crowd. The response was remarkable. As it turns out, give Angelenos a dose of ceremony and the outcome can be amazing. I was inspired to see so many collectors transfixed as Erika burned a cornhusk doll in Mother Earth’s honor while the Sunset Strip ebbed and flowed below.
I no longer tend to a jam-packed exhibition schedule attached to a building. I am able to dedicate more time to creating relationships with collectors and curators and nurturing existing ones. This has resulted in less stress, stronger sales, happier artists and an even happier dealer. The nomad model is perfect for me because I value spontaneity and greater control of my physical, emotional, spiritual and financial resources. I have realized that I no longer have to rely on the security of those white walls I once coveted. As long as I believe in the work, its meaning will be clear wherever I am.
Image © Blythe Projects