Columbus Gallery Owners Find Success Online, New Out-of-State Clientele

Online exhibitions help gallery owners connect with art-lovers and artists alike.

Peter Tonguette
Sarah Gormley

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Sarah Gormley, owner of an eponymous Short North gallery, had only been in business for a year. For some new gallerists, the closure of nonessential businesses might have appeared catastrophic, but Gormley embraced the challenge and presented her first online exhibition on Instagram in April. She noticed something surprising: Online engagement—and sales—were robust. And they remained so, even after she reopened her doors in June.

“Revenue was up in year two versus year one,” Gormley says.

She found that her online exhibitions were reaching a clientele unlikely ever to visit her gallery. “Forty percent of my sales went out of state,” says Gormley, who suspects that sales were driven by people stuck at home wishing to spruce up their spaces. She now has clients in 20 states and Canada.

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“That’s what I learned during COVID: People are willing to invest in art that they haven’t seen, and I box it up and ship it.”

Gormley is one of several Central Ohio gallerists to tweak their business model over the last 18 months. In some cases, the results were so encouraging that they plan to stick with their new model as the health crisis recedes.

Duff Lindsay, who owns the outsider-art-focused Lindsay Gallery in the Short North, says that gross sales in 2020 remained stable from the previous year. Fewer overall pieces were sold, but those that did sell were high-priced acquisitions by serious collectors.

During the pandemic, Lindsay could often be found in the gallery and would accept appointments, but he didn’t maintain regular retail hours. By deepening relationships with existing clients, he found he didn’t have to.

“Why am I spending so much of my time with committed gallery hours when what I need to be doing is keeping in touch with customers?” Lindsay says.

This fall, Lindsay plans to resume regular retail hours, but will host fewer openings. Artist Joey Monsoon is one of two artists to be featured the remainder of the year.

“I’m not changing shows every four weeks anymore,” Lindsay says. He anticipates mounting shows for as long as eight to 10 weeks.

Michelle Brandt, who owns Brandt-Roberts Galleries in the Short North, found another use for her time when the gallery was closed to walk-ins: more visits to artists’ studios.

“It’s really important to be in an artist’s studio,” Brandt says. “Some artists want you there, and they want to use you as a sounding board.” That, in turn, helps Brandt convey an artist’s intentions to potential customers.

Her gallery will resume regular hours in September, but Brandt says she will continue to make more time to connect with artists. “Your job is to go work with artists … and you just don’t do that sitting behind a desk.”

Gormley, too, is happy with the shift in focus. “I’ve never believed that art galleries were a foot-traffic business,” she says. “I think it’s a destination business. If you have something compelling to share, people will come to you—whether it’s via Instagram or in-person."

This story is from the September 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.