Best of Alaska Business
Art in the Right Place
Galleries sell slices of Alaska
By Scott Rhode

week before her first showing at Stephan Fine Arts, the painter was, in her words, “freakin’ out.” She had been painting for only three years since a midlife crisis prompted her to convert her oversized master bedroom into a studio. Her work, she says, is “very emotional,” arrangements of high-contrast colors, sometimes with expressive drips. A departure from the birds, fish, and mountains portrayed on most of the gallery’s walls.

The artist need not have worried. When the First Friday in May arrived, she was among friends. After all, the gallery is hers.

Stephanie Johnson
Becky Stephan grew up in the art business. Her father, Pat, a realtor by trade, opened the gallery inside the Hotel Captain Cook in downtown Anchorage in 1977 and pulled her into meetings when she was as young as eight. She’s run the family business for the last seventeen of its forty-five years, building her reputation as an owner, not an artist.

Kara Kirkpatrick has known Stephan in both roles. “When I talk to Becky Stephan, I’m in awe. ‘You’re Becky Stephan of Stephan Fine Arts!’ She’s definitely a very prominent person in my world of looking up to,” Kirkpatrick says. Kirkpatrick co-owns Dos Manos, a gallery in midtown Anchorage where Stephan’s paintings went on sale first.

Stephan Fine Arts owner Becky Stephan (right) explains her painting technique to Dos Manos co-owner Kara Kirkpatrick at a First Friday event in May.

Alaska Business

Stephan Fine Arts owner Becky Stephan (right) explains her painting technique to Dos Manos co-owner Kara Kirkpatrick at a First Friday event in May.

Alaska Business

Stephan Fine Arts owner Becky Stephan (right) explaining her painting technique to Dos Manos co-owner Kara Kirkpatrick at a First Friday event in May
Kara Kirkpatrick at a First Friday event in May
“I wanted to make sure I got into another gallery before I ever put it in my own,” Stephan says. “I also wanted to make sure I did the typical route, which was going to restaurants, hanging in restaurants, hanging in cafés, and doing all that before I went into, like, a fine art gallery. Which would be myself.”

As an owner, Stephan had to make sure that her paintings fit alongside the fifty established artists in stock.

Stephan Fine Arts is one of the few true galleries in Alaska, as Susan Peters sees it. Peters owns Scanlon Gallery and Custom Framing in Ketchikan, which marks its 50th anniversary this fall as perhaps the oldest art retailer operating in Alaska. Too many galleries “don’t specifically just do handcrafted art,” she says. “That’s what a gallery usually has versus mass productions.” Stephan qualifies, in her view, as does 2 Friends Art Gallery in Midtown.

However, as Kirkpatrick points out, “Everybody does it different, and everybody has their own twist on it.”

From the Heart
Making art is not a prerequisite for selling art. For instance, Peters is not an artist herself, but she does enjoy oil paintings of landscapes.

Katie Sevigny paints landscapes, animals, and portraits—and she sells them in her gallery, Sevigny Studio, in downtown Anchorage.

“There was this one moment for me where I was really trying to get into a gallery that I thought was the top of the top, and I knew that I was selling well,” Sevigny recalls. “I walked out of that meeting and walked down the street and saw a ‘for lease’ sign, and I was like, ‘Okay, this is it. If they don’t think I can do it, I’m gonna show ‘em I can do it.”

Kirkpatrick followed a similar path with her Moonshine Designs label. “I didn’t want to do the Saturday Market anymore or any of that kind of stuff. I wanted a store,” she says. “I talked to a lot of different artists at the time that were, like, ‘I wish there was a place that I could just put my stuff and be seen.’” She describes a catch-22 where galleries won’t accept artists who aren’t established, yet the only way to be established is to be in a gallery.

“Maritime artist” Brenda Schwartz-Yeager customizes a piece at May’s First Friday Art Walk and Celebration of the Sea in Ketchikan, hosted by Susan Peters (right), owner of Scanlon Gallery Fine Art & Custom Framing.

Scanlon Gallery

Brenda Schwartz-Yeager customizing a piece at May's First Friday Art Walk and Celebration of the Sea in Ketchikan
“Maritime artist” Brenda Schwartz-Yeager customizes a piece at May’s First Friday Art Walk and Celebration of the Sea in Ketchikan, hosted by Susan Peters (right), owner of Scanlon Gallery Fine Art & Custom Framing.

Scanlon Gallery

In 2006, Kirkpatrick teamed up with Stephanie Johnson, then a server at Bear Tooth Theatrepub, to open Dos Manos. And they opened wide: the shop stocks 130 artists, including Kirkpatrick and her husband Mike’s Screamin’ Yeti Designs, with more on a waiting list.

“Steph and I, neither one of us has a business major. Neither one of us went to school for art. It’s more our heart,” Kirkpatrick says.

One way for right-brained artists to manage a left-brained business is to team up. Juneau Artists Gallery has been a co-op for more than thirty years, run by its members. “We all collectively make the decisions about hours of operation, methods, policies, and procedures,” explains Jayne Andreen, a jewelry maker and co-op president.

The co-op divides management responsibilities, with a bookkeeper the only paid staff. Each artist has a voice in the layout of the space and the use of money.

“We are individual artists, and we are normally doing our art in a solitary way,” says Andreen. “Being able to come together with this mutual priority of having a viable gallery that really highlights all of our work could be very challenging—I’ll say, at times it is; it can be a little challenging—but we are also focused on the greater good. It’s amazing how well we work together.”

Who Buys Art
Art galleries are surprisingly recent in the Alaska landscape. In 1971, Tennys Owens pioneered the field when she opened Artique, Ltd. in downtown Anchorage. Not an artist herself, Owens brightened up Alaska by distributing prints to retailers statewide and by furnishing decorations for hospitals and lawyers’ offices.

“Nobody has ever done that as good as Artique,” says Stephan. “Artique was amazing at that. They had, I think, a commercial portion of their business that really focused on that.”

Artique closed a few years ago, yet paintings still hang in the shop on G Street. It’s where Sevigny moved her gallery from its original location around the corner on 4th Avenue.

“I feel fantastic about being in a space where there was a gallery for so long and also such a big part of the history of the city. I feel really lucky and blessed that we were able to take over that space,” Sevigny says.

The G Street location was risky, though, because Sevigny had been depending on the flow of tourist traffic.

Turns out that art galleries are functionally a branch of the tourism industry.

“Tourism is a major factor in our survivability,” says Andreen of the Juneau co-op.

Ketchikan likewise relies on cruise ship passengers, and Peters is happy to sell them souvenirs. “People love art, and they love to buy art from where they visited. I do so myself,” Peters says.

Stephan also benefits from high-dollar business travelers staying at the Hotel Captain Cook. She observes that the 2021 season, absent cruise ship visits, brought the type of tourists willing to pay more for art. “The independent travelers typically are spending a lot more money on their trips, and they have time. Cruise ships come in late and leave early, and independent travelers might be spending a whole day in Anchorage,” Stephan says.

However, many visitors found their way to galleries thanks to local guides. Sevigny observes, “It was mostly community members that were bringing in friends and family that were visiting.” She also says she was amazed to see that late-year holiday shopping rivals tourist season. For that reason, Sevigny makes sure to return the community’s support by, for example, donating items to fundraising auctions.

Juneau Artists Gallery also has steady year-round local clientele. “One of the things we do to recognize that is the first week in October we host a local appreciation sale. We do that as soon as the cruise ships leave town so that we can really let people know how much we appreciate their ongoing support,” Andreen says.

In fact, Dos Manos’ location in Midtown, off the tourist track, is somewhat unusual. “We didn’t want to be downtown because there’s plenty of other businesses downtown,” Kirkpatrick says. “We more wanted to go for local shoppers as opposed to tourists because we felt that local was a way to keep it going throughout the year, not just seasonal.” She put her shop in a busy section of Spenard, in the former headquarters of the Anchorage Bucs baseball team.

Each member of the Juneau Artists Gallery co-op receives a section of wall or floor space, and the size corresponds to their obligations to the organization.

Christine Kleinhenz

Juneau Artists Gallery co-op
Each member of the Juneau Artists Gallery co-op receives a section of wall or floor space, and the size corresponds to their obligations to the organization.

Christine Kleinhenz

Location doesn’t matter for online sales, of course. “That has opened up a whole avenue for people to find art and not necessarily visit,” says Peters.

Stephan takes particular pride in her gallery’s digital storefront. “I think you’d quickly see that we have the very best website by far. We actually have our artists on there, and they actually go to product. That’s a huge task, and I have one person who works on that and maintains it,” she says.

Stephan Fine Arts is a little unusual among Alaska galleries in that one-third of the artists in stock are from out of state. “We have an international clientele. Yes, we want to have Alaskan, for sure,” Stephan says, but “my dad started the gallery with his own collection so that Alaskans could see international and national artists. That’s why he started the gallery. We’ve always stuck with that. We bring in artists from elsewhere so that locals can see something that’s not local.”

Still, Stephan concedes that tourists and business travelers want a slice of Alaska. That means galleries must stock products that fit in suitcases.

“Our biggest skew is, you might call it, our prints and handcrafted jewelry. And it’s been that consistently since I’ve been in this business,” says Peters. “People like prints. They’re affordable, easy to pack for a traveler.”

Sevigny agrees, as both an artist and a dealer. “I do well with originals, and I do a lot of commissioned originals, but I would say what keeps the gallery going is definitely prints for sure,” she says.

The Hard Part
Some works of art are priceless, but galleries have price tags. Each artist picks the number. For example, Stephan’s paintings range from $600 for a relatively small canvas to $1,500 for a larger, 4-foot-square canvas. Another picture, the same size, sells for $2,700.

“Pricing is the hardest part, I think, for every artist,” says Kirkpatrick.

Generally, the price compensates the artist for the time invested. Kirkpatrick explains, “To a person that doesn’t maybe know what it takes to paint that, it could be like, ‘Oh my gosh that’s so expensive,’ but you also don’t know how long it takes that person to do that.”

The same goes for Andreen’s jewelry. “It took me quite a while to figure out, as a jeweler, what was realistic. I finally reached the point where I take the prices of the materials… and I keep track of that as I’m building a new design,” she says. Andreen also figures the cost of packaging and overhead, but the final number is a judgment call.

“It’s so hard to have a market value price because a lot of times artists are dealing with emotions,” says Sevigny. She figures artists are more wary of charging too much.

The gallery has a choice of either buying art wholesale and then selling the inventory or taking items on consignment, selling them on behalf of the artist.

Dos Manos doesn’t have the budget to buy inventory, so most items are consignment. “Sometimes it works best with consignment because then we don’t have huge overhead, and we can display people’s work without having such a ‘We have to sell this!’ to make money or whatever,” Kirkpatrick says. “Takes the pressure out of it, I guess.”

At Sevigny Studio, the wall art is all consignment, but Sevigny says it’s not her preference. “Consigning, I would say, we do not make as much on the profit, but it’s a nice way to get artwork that is different than mine and that we can’t afford to buy [wholesale].”

Scanlon is mostly wholesale, and it took years to build up inventory. “Consignment is very difficult. It’s a lot of paperwork,” Peters says. “You don’t get the full percentage, either… There’s not that big of a mark-up in art, so if you cut it down even more… it doesn’t make the numbers you need to cover your overhead.”

The other model is a co-op, like Juneau Artists Gallery. Parcels of 80-inches of wall space are rented monthly. The gallery keeps a percentage of sales. Andreen says the cut is 12 to 15 percent, whereas the industry standard is 50 percent. Members are also obligated to work a number of hours proportional to their display space, but they only earn money on sales of their own items.

Selling art, unlike selling commodities, sometimes takes a personal touch. “We know that art pieces are a piece of that artist’s heart, a piece of them that’s out there,” Kirkpatrick says. “If somebody’s gonna take the time to love a piece of art and pay for it, we’re very excited. It is kind of like an adoption. ‘Take a picture of it on your wall and send it to us! We would love to see what it’s like in your home.’”

Peters agrees. “I’m always interested in where it does go, to what type of home. People are drawn to art. It’s real personal sometimes,” she says.

“When I have customers looking at art, I often suggest they get it home first,” Stephan says. “I think it has to live in that space. It can look so different in the gallery.” If the customer doesn’t like it, the art can be returned for a refund.

In the end, Kirkpatrick says she enjoys cutting checks for artists, knowing the money enables more creativity. “We’re running the store, but all the artists are the ones doing all the work,” she says. “We just get to play in the art all day.”