Monday, October 19, 2009

INTERVIEW: Liza Cowan of Pine Street Art Works

by Janet Van Fleet

Pine Street Art Works is having its 4th birthday in December, so Vermont Art Zine thought it would be interesting to talk with owner and director Liza Cowan about some highlights and insights from her four years in business.

VAZ: So what made you start Pine Street Art Works?

Cowan: In August of 2005, when the lease expired on my old studio at the Howard Space (around the corner from the gallery) I was looking for a new place to paint. Coincidentally, Burlington Furniture Store was about to cease making futons and close their fabric store, so their lease was available as a sublet. I’m very driven by architecture and I loved the building, the proportions, the brick, the light, the history and the neighborhood. But it was too big to use as a studio, and it’s in an enterprise zone, which meant it had to be used for retail. So in a matter of minutes I made a plan to open a gallery. I took the weekend to make a business plan, then signed the contract. At first I was just going to run a gallery, but I quickly found out that Burlington, even in good economic times, cannot or will not support an art gallery enough to make it thrive. So I evolved my mission: to bring art and art-inspired products to our customers and to explore the fuzzy boundaries between fine art and pop culture. This has grown to include personal and home accessories. Really, I love things, and I’m just as happy selling bags and cards and teapots as I am selling art. It’s about vision and quality.

VAZ: You've shown a lot of interesting things over the years. Do you have any favorites, or things you think are highlights of the gallery's work?

Cowan: Whatever is coming up is my favorite. I’m always excited by what’s to come. Partly because I love the process of envisioning a show, planning with the artists, designing the postcards, doing the research, writing about it on my blog.

But to answer your question properly: I’d say my favorite show was the Paint By Number show in August 2006. I loved the concept, I loved hunting for the paintings, learning the history, thinking about the related theories of pop culture. And, it was a huge hit with customers.

I love all my artists but I’m very pleased that I’ve been able to show nationally recognized artists and photographers like Connie Imboden, Cara Barer, Aline Smithson, Heinrich Harrer and Alison Bechdel. Probably the most beautiful shows were by Denis Versweyveld and SP Goodman, both local artists, because they filled the gallery with so much color and variety. The Studio Glow show was… illuminating. The whole place looked like the inside of a surrealistic fish tank, particularly as the daylight faded. Nakki Goranin’s American Photobooth show was fascinating and also very popular. For the record, the best selling artists here have been SP Goodman (see Quince at left), Cara Barer and Alison Bechdel.

VAZ: These are hard economic times. Do you have any secrets about how you've stayed in business?

Cowan: My strategy has been to stay nimble and embrace change! When I realized that fine art alone was not going to pay the rent, I decided to diversify. Flashbags was my first product, and they have been a staple of my business. After that it’s been a few years of trial and error. I stay true to my vision always, but that doesn’t always translate to sales, so the trick has been to find products that meet my exacting and quirky criteria and will also sell. I learned that people can heap praise on an item but not be interested in buying it. That’s great for a museum but not so good for retail. It’s been a huge learning curve, which I’m still climbing. I’m getting much better though.

Six months of the year, between April and September PSAW, features rotating shows by local and national artists. The rest of the year we keep an inventory of works by our exhibiting artists and we pump up the gallery with products by designers/manufacturers from Japan, New York, California, Nebraska and, of course, Vermont. Among my favorite items are pure acrylic magnet frames by Canetti in NY, recycled cardboard tabletop sculptures by Cardboardesign, also from NY, and Zakka – cute home accessories - from Japan. I also make greeting cards and large scale reproductions from images in my extensive ephemera collections, and recently I’ve started making very reasonably priced mini -prints of work by some of the artists who have shown here.

The other big difference from when I started is that I decided rent out one of my rooms. One year ago AO! Glass moved into the 404 Pine Street premises, with their own independent showroom for their Swedish inspired glass work. It’s been better than I could have hoped for. We work really well together and our products work well together too. I can’t imagine being without them now.

VAZ: So you're getting into holiday season mode?

Indeed. As leaves are dropping, the snow is gathering, it's time to morph into our full time shop. Pine Street Art Works and AO! Glass have a wonderful, eclectic assortment of surprisingly excellent and affordable art, glass and art-inspired home and personal accessories. I’ve shopped far and wide this season, looking for items that will surprise and delight.

We are pleased to offer our gorgeous goods at a wide range of prices, starting at $20. We also have an assortment of works by the artists who have had shows over the years, like Cara Barer, Aline Smithosn, SP Goodman and David Putnam. So come on over: Shop Local, Shop Early and Support Art!

Pine Street Art Works
404 Pine Street
Burlington VT 05401