Squaring the Cube: Don Monet offers tips to wannabe galleristas

Don Monet ran the Cube Gallery in West Wellington for 14 years with his partner Becky Rynor.

Art galleries come and go, and 14 years is not a bad run.

“We are proud to have survived as long as we have in a volatile and sometimes capricious art market,” says Don Monet, who with spouse Becky Rynor ran Cube Gallery in the Wellington West neighbourhood until it closed late last year. “Even a gallery has a time for it to take a final bow.”

I asked Monet, what advice do you have for those thinking of starting a gallery? With 14 years of keeping the lights on at Cube, Monet must have lessons to share and, given the aforementioned volatility and capriciousness of the gallery sector, that practical knowledge must be worth sharing.

Before we get to Monet’s tips, a few details.

Cube closed on its own terms, at a time of Monet’s and Rynor’s choosing. The building has been sold (it won’t be an art gallery, alas), and Monet plans to continue curating around Ottawa, and also to “devoting a lot more time to my own art practice, which has been in second place over the past 14 years.”

Below are a few tips he sent, edited by me for continuity and such. Monet was admirably concise, and I’ve added some words of my own for reasons of context, or self-indulgent nostalgia.

(One note: Gallery owners, I love you, but I can’t bring myself to use“gallerist” or, ugh, “gallerista,” the latter a label that a gallery owner — gallerino? gallabout? gallzilla? — once informed me “they are using in New York.” Well, then.)

Monet starts with, “Make a basic business plan to help you envision how it will go.” That advice may not be as obvious as it seems. A love for art will not keep the lights on.

Regardless of your intent or motivation, if the gallery does not adhere to at least the basic principles of business, it will close. You don’t have to maximize profit at every step, but you must control costs and generate enough revenue to keep the lights on over all that beautiful art.

Expanding on that point, Monet says, “a gallery is a business, and a partnership with the artists of 50/50 is the usual commercial gallery deal.”

My sister owns a philanthropy consulting firm and occasionally posts articles rebutting those who insist that fundraising should cost nothing, that it should, one supposes, only be done by volunteers, even when doing it full-time. Here in reality, major fundraising requires the engagement of professional representatives.

Gallery owners must know the frustration of hearing from those who maintain they should take a much smaller percentage of the sale price of works. “Keeping a gallery open is expensive — taxes, heat, hydro, advertising, basic maintenance, improvements to your space,” Monet says. Also, there’s the need for the gallery owner to make a living, to which Monet alludes with the dry caution, “Be prepared for long hours and little pay.”

Overall, the business runs better if owner and artists get along together.

“Find artists you can work with — who respect you and who you respect,” Monet says. “Aim for compatibility as well as ability. Don’t compromise your taste. It’s a reflection of the curatorial taste, the signature, of the gallery. This is what people enjoy about a proper gallery.”

When Monet hosted Portraits of Bluesfest, a fundraiser for music in schools that I organized for five years while I was arts editor at The Ottawa Citizen, his initial concern was that the artists who contributed original works for auction would be compensated fairly. I explained that 100 per cent of the funds raised would go to the music programs, but he was mollified sufficiently — if not greatly — when I said that each artist would get a full pass to Bluesfest.

Clear-headed business plans notwithstanding, Monet always seemed focused on what was good for his artists, and never has any artist whispered otherwise to me.

That concern is also seen in his tip, “pay your artists first, as quickly as possible. Don’t make them wait for their money.”

This is critical first because many artists — like many gallery owners — may need that money to make the rent on their home or studio. If that ethical compunction isn’t enough for you, consider that people talk. Oh yes, those who inhabit Ottawa’s art circles are a gossipy bunch, and they’ll soon enough know that you’re shafting your artists.

Keeping those doors open may require you “do a side hustle,” Monet says. “We did venue rentals for events – weddings, wakes, live theatre and music, book and CD launches, etc. – to keep us afloat.”

Many galleries do this, though Cube may have done it more successfully than most. In addition to revenue it gives the place a broader sense of utility, of being a part of the broader community. One time, for example, dear friends of mine rented Cube for a party to reaffirm their wedding vows. I almost missed my cue to queue up the re-bride’s favourite song at just the right moment, because the lads and I were outside, um, taking the air. (Move along, folks, nothing to see here.)

Another night: During an election Monet hosted an all-candidates meeting to discuss art issues, which was informative and enjoyable, until a self-absorbed advocate of something who was in the audience obnoxiously tried to steer the dialogue to non-arts issues. Like others in attendance, I scowled at them disapprovingly, like a figure in the background of a Jacques Louis David painting.

Monet probably hosted that event as a donation to local democracy. He also says, “Be a good member of the community. We hosted fund raisers, for free, for charities such as Parkdale Food Centre, etc.” Still, paid opportunities can generate vital revenue and keep an art space alive. They also expose to art many people who may not have otherwise visited an independent gallery.

That draw is a form of marketing, which is vital, Monet says.

“Advertise using show cards etc. as much as fiscally possible. You have to build awareness of your space through posters, cards, Artengine.ca, newsletters, social media, direct email. . . Build a solid email patron list to let patrons know when you have an event or new show.”

Public exposure must be chased, endlessly. Once or twice over the years a frustrated Monet slagged the local media for a lack of interest in local arts. At first I took this personally — I was, at the time, working full-time covering local arts — but when I pulled the focus back and looked at local media overall, I could see his point.

Getting the attention of a beast that looks your way only when there’s a scandal or “newsworthy” art would try my patience too. Yet the gallery owner must persevere and make use of news media, social media, mailing lists and any other public channels that are available.

You will get the attention of some people and they will come to your gallery. Then your next first job is to actually be there.

It’s incredible that it’s necessary to say this, but Monet advises, “Stick to your posted hours. People hate to go all the way to a space and find the door locked when you are supposed to be open.”

One gallery owner (maybe no longer in Ottawa, I no longer care) duped me three times over a couple of years into driving all the way to the gallery only to find the door locked during its own posted business hours. Trying a second time was a reasonable courtesy, but I still kick myself for getting suckered the third time. I haven’t been since. You can’t have erratic hours and follow Monet’s sound advice to always “advocate for your artists.”

To end on that point of advocacy, “Enter some of your artists into the City of Ottawa’s annual art-buying program,” Monet says. It’s prestige, exposure and it demonstrates to the public, and to the artists themselves, that you believe in their work.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.