The art gallery business in Toronto is cutthroat, but fortunately Marianne Katzman knows what she’s doing. Katzman, director at Katzman Contemporary, has spent over a decade in the art world, and done everything from hanging paintings to ordering supplies and writing cheques to pay the bills.
Katzman got her start at what she calls “a very small ma-and-pa gallery at Yonge and Eglington,” where she learned the tools and tricks of the trade. After a few years in the corporate hospitality industry, where she chose, managed, and consulted on artwork, she had the chance to work for the highly-regarded Toronto art dealer Leo Kamen. “This was the epitome of where I saw Canadian art thrive,” she remembers. “He was part of the community, the language and the history of what was happening currently [in the art world].”
Katzman and her husband, Dario Del Degan (partner at Katzman Contemporary) now have a gallery of their own. Here’s what the two of them say niche businesses should keep in mind if they want to be successful.
Pick your moment
When Leo Kamen decided to retire, he offered his gallery to Katzman. At the time, Katzman and Del Degan were working at a boutique culture and communications firm in Shanghai. But when Kamen made his offer, Katzman couldn’t say no. “I just felt like it was a huge fast-track—this was not starting from ground zero, this was starting with a business that already has a 30-year history,” she recalls. “I would be taking not only his roster of artists but also his roster of clients.”
Del Degan’s background is in academia—he has a PhD in theatre. He spent time as a sessional lecturer both before and after the spell in China, but in 2013 the gallery had to move and the couple decided to buy a building.”I decided that the gallery needed a little more help after we had a couple of assistants who weren’t really helping Marianne grow,” says Del Degan. “So this pressure to help the business grow and have our investment in the property be worthwhile prompted me to leave academia altogether and join Marianne full-time.”
There’s a risk to having both spouses working in the business, Katzman acknowledges. “Our entire income is coming from one source, and we have to be very diligent and careful about that,” she says.
Offer something unique
There’s a finite market for any niche product—that’s what makes it niche, after all. So distinguishing your offering or business from the competition is crucial. “What you have to do in order to survive in [the art gallery business] is to be a unique brand—to know exactly who you are and what you’re doing,” says Katzman. “How we do that is by the idea that no idea exists in a vacuum or a white box.”
Katzman Contemporary emphasizes connection—the idea that the artist, idea, space, and community are all linked. “What we’re doing is taking an idea and giving you a suggestion of the way to read it—it’s a contextualization,” says the proprietor.
Del Degan echoes the importance of articulating a unique market position. “[Standing out] means identifying who your audience is and identifying that particular niche, and then promoting it as far and wide as possible,” he says.
Staying power is also crucial, because success won’t come overnight. “You have to consider the investment of time over a long period, and having the resources there to cover you for that long period, until you can build your reputation to such a point where people are coming to you,” he says.
Galleries can be an intimidating spaces, leaving those without formal art training feeling unsophisticated and out of place. Del Degan says Katzman Contemporary tries to dispel those associations. “Once of the things that we are trying to do as a gallery is be much more approachable, and have an open-door policy with the visitors who come through,” he explains. “That means maintaining a friendly disposition when people walk through the door to make them feel comfortable.”
It’s a smart strategy—art may be a niche market, but making those inexperienced in curation and collection feel welcome might just help the gallery make some unexpected sales.
Going to China was an opportunity for Del Degan to quit the stressful, unpleasant world of sessional teaching that he says was “eating my soul.” But when the couple returned to run their gallery and before he joined full-time, Del Degan took on a little bit of teaching temporarily to help keep the finances flowing.
“Consider your safety net,” Katzman advises anyone considering setting up a niche business. “If you don’t have the funds backing you, if you don’t have the nest egg, you need to have clients who believe in, who will back you, who will believe in you.”
For more insights into Katzman and Del Degan, including how working together affects their marriage, listen to this week’s BusinessCast by clicking the button above or download by clicking on the iTunes logo below:
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