Ferrin Gallery Selling Its Space in Pittsfield

Shifting Focus of the Business Plan: Part One

By: - Apr 25, 2011

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When Leslie Ferrin moved her successful Ferrin Gallery from Lenox to Pittsfeld it was widely viewed as a signifier of positive change. The space she purchased on North Street had been occupied by Scott Laugenour of Gallery Boreas. He like the Storefront Artists, took advanntage of free and cheap rents from landlords eager to breathe life back into a depressed retail district.

Having Ferrin Gallery plant roots for the long term was viewed as part of the transition of Pittsfield from the dead in the water, former home of General Electric to a reconfiguration as a destination for cultural tourism.

Other aspects of that overhaul have been the $9 million renovation of the 100 year old plus Berkshire Museum,  and  $23 million invested to restore the Colonial Theatre to its former glory. Add to that the success of establishing Barrington Stage in Pittsfield and its expansion to lease a second stage from the VFW. For the past year there has been the multi screen Beacon Cinema. There are a number of new restaurants as well as dense attendance for the seasonal Third Thursdays.

There are no longer free rents for artists in vacant commercial properties. Overall, Pittsfield has made signifcant progress. The Colonial Theatre has entered a new phase in partnership with the Berkshire Theatre Festival.

But there have been reasons for concern. The economy has made it particularly tough for the arts and non profit organizations. There are specific incidents raising red flags. Back in October we reported on the visit of Sonny and Gloria Kamm. The California based couple were scouting for a partnership to house their enormous collection of tea pots and its ephemera.

The Berkshire Museum was short listed. Ferrin hosted a reception to meet the Kamms. It was disappointing when the Board passed on the opportunity which would have entailed developing and maintaining a new off site, vacant church property (with enormous potential) in the center of Pittsfield.

Several months later, Stuart Chase, the popular and successful director of the museum resigned. Chase was mostly mum with the media leading to speculation. He declined to answer a yes/ no question put to him by Charles Bonenti in a vague exit interview with the Berkshire Eagle.

After considerable speculation Chase has been appointed CEO of a new arts organization IBerkshire.

Now we have learned that Leslie Ferrin and her business partner Donald Clark have put their North Street space on the market.

Is this yet another indicator that things are going south on North Street?

In an extensive interview, Ferrin clarified the reasons for this business decision. Surely the tough economy has been a factor. But she also plans to redefine her business model. She expressed that it is “More about doors opening than closing.”

Ferrin provided insights to the state of the arts economy in Pittsfield as well as the Berkshires. This two part report conveys straight talk from an informed insider.

Leslie Ferrin Did you get my press release? (Regarding putting the gallery on the market.)

Charles Giuliano We never got this. (Dated February)

LF Dan Alden my real estate agent prepared it as a statement and chose not to distribute it unless asked. It was prepared as a statement in case anyone asked. You asked so now you’ve got it. It wasn’t meant to be a giant release just a statement in case anyone asked. It was all a part of coming out in the winter. With Stuart ( Chase leaving the Berkshire Museum) and all these things were getting mixed up.

All we are doing is putting our space up for sale and it isn’t really effecting our business.

I just didn’t want anything confused.

CG But it is confusing. Today I posted  that John R. Stomberg is leaving the Williams College Museum of Art to become director of the Mount Holyoke College Museum.

LF Cool. That’s a good place. It’s a big loss for Williams. Everything is moving and changing more quickly than at other times. Everybody has been holding back or something I don’t know.

CG There’s no mystery here but it would be good to clarify how you came to this business decision. Through sources what I understand is the space is not holding its own in terms of overhead vs. sales. You are doing most of your sales through art fairs. Also, as I understand it, the space is on the market but will continue to function as a gallery until such time as there is a sale. Am I on track?

LF Yes, but when we made the move from Lenox we paralleled from rental to ownership. We have to be somewhere and we were spending money in Lenox to rent a retail operation. We can stay where we are but saying that we depend on walk in trade. Well. All the other stuff you said is correct. It (walk in sales) never did cover expenses so this is not news. It’s misleading to say that we moved there (Pittsfield) thinking that something was going to be different. We were trying to protect ourselves from situations that happen in an area that’s changing quickly. You go in and, like Boston, everyone has to move every few years because you have no control of your rents. That’s why we tried to stabilize by using the gallery as the tenant for this space. The reasoning behind all that is kind of complicated.

I wouldn’t want to put it out there that sales were a third of the reason. The thing to say is that the Berkshires are viable two months a year. As viable now as when we were in Lenox. Except that we are in Pittsfield which is more of a year round community.

CG Can you quantify the difference in sales between your time in Lenox and the past few seasons in Pittsfield?

LF The sales occur in the summer. The rest of the year we have maintained ourselves by doing the art fairs and partnering with galleries in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle and California.

CG I’m trying to understand the average sales of a summer in Lenox vs. a summer of sales in Pittsfield?

LF They are about the same.

CG That’s important.

LF It would be misleading to say that the biggest reason is walk in sales. The biggest reason is that the business is growing in a different direction: Expanded partnerships, art fairs, and managing the artists’ careers that are growing internationally. For example Chris (Antemann) is partnering with Meissen porcelain in Germany. We’re partnering with a gallery in London. We’re working in Estonia and possible Moscow, Denmark. Jason Walker is in China..Molly Hatch is designing for Anthropologie. In addition to showing the artists are using the whole world for residencies and production.

CG You happen to have a gallery in Pittsfield but there is more than that about you and Ferrin Gallery. More than a general interest gallery you are know as an expert in ceramic art with a national and international reputation. Who happens to be located in Pittsfield. In that sense does it really matter where you are? You could be working out of your living room.

LF It matters because during those two months our clients come to the Berkshires. They are not going to come through my living room. Which is why we moved from North Hampton to Lenox. We do have a steady flow of cultural corridor, New York-Boston, and visitors from all over the world. They come to the Berkshires for the mix of cultural offerings.

CG Is there a way that you can maintain that presence?

LF I think so. One of the reasons we put the space on the market is because there is an interest in Pittsfield, North Street of businesses moving into the Berkshires. North Street is way more valuable now than it was four years ago. Today, I walk down North Street and think of what it was like when we first came here. So if someone wants to run with it they may want to ensure their future in the same way that we did.

In the meantime I keep my eyes open for where do we go next. There are so many development projects that will be useful but it will be different. It won’t be bricks and mortar on a main street location. We are looking for something that is more adaptable to the seasonal openings and closings. Exhibition and project spaces.

There’s no reason for us to leave the Berkshires. I still like working with professional colleagues like John Stomberg and Stuart Chase. There will be people who replace them that will still be great to work with. For all we know I may still be working with them but in new positions.

CG The rule of business is to buy low and sell high.

LF That’s before the recession hit. I’ll be very happy to get what we paid for the space.

CG So you don’t see any equity even though North Street is more developed now?

LF To be realistic in a hot economy of course we would have gotten a gain on that. There are a lot of people who bought high and are now going to sell low. I think we bought realistically and maintained the space. We’ve given it value.

CG Is there the chance of selling it as a gallery or establishing a partnership relationship?

LF I doubt it. I can’t imagine why somebody would want to do that. I’m going to listen to every offer that comes along.

CG May I ask the price of the space?

LF It’s public information but I would rather that you go on line and get the latest accurate information.

(437 North Street Pittsfield, MA 01201-4603. listed at $350,000)

CG What the hell is happening to Pittsfield?

LF I walk down the street and it looks pretty good to me. I think the city looks better than it’s ever looked. I think the economy is tough all over whether it’s Pittsfield, North Adams, Boston, or New York.

CG I don’t think we can separate this story about Ferrin Gallery from what is going on with the Berkshire Museum, Storefront Artists, The Colonial. Barrington Stage, The Beacon Cinema and everything in Pittsfield. It is inevitable to connect the dots and see a trend.

Particularly in regard to the visual arts, going back to the sanguine era of Maggie Mailer and Storefront Artists, it seems there is not as much sizzle to the steak.

LF Would you say that’s more of a function of the art business in general?

CG I’m trying to understand it. I don’t want to speculate but there is an obligation to inform the reader. The attempt is to gather the information and come to some conclusions. The exit of Stuart (Chase) is still an enormous gaping question mark. It has never been clear just what was going on there.

LF Do you know anyone on the board who can answer questions? We are all looking to the board for some direction for the museum. Nobody has given us any signs yet. There is no new director. So I have the same questions that you do. My decisions are made based on our business and it’s a for profit business. Their decisions are completely different. Are they related? I’m waiting to hear. I knew how they were related when Stuart was in charge and I’m waiting to hear how they will continue. The relationship between contemporary art and contemporary artists and contemporary art audiences. And the community we are involved with at least two months out of the year.

CG Do you have any direct connection to the museum? Are you on any advisory committees?

LF They don’t have any advisory committees that I know of. The membership that I have there is The Crane Society which is a high level donor. You get to go on trips and attend special openings.

CG You appear to have had a close relationship with Stuart as one sharing interest in the field.

LF Yes, and with Marie.

CG Can you shed any light on the situation?

LF Frankly, no. Stuart and the museum made it pretty clear that it was time for him to move on. They are looking for a new director. Why? How? As Stuart and I both said, don’t tell me anything that isn’t going to be public information. It’s just not public.

CG In your relationship you have respected his privacy?

LF Absolutely. I know I’m a public person so don’t tell me anything that isn’t public.

CG From a media point of view his departure was messy.

LF I think so too. If he was talking to the press he would probably say so as well.

CG It’s tough when you have a relationship to sources. But he wasn’t straight up about answering questions.

LF Charles, you know in these situations there are certain obligations that you have to meet. I would look to the board for answers. They are the ones who have to answer your questions. Or their PR people. I’m asking the same questions and not getting any answers. I’m just as frustrated with the lack of progress.

CG Another issue is how the Colonial Theatre fits into the equation. There has been discussion about developing the lobby as an informal night club and performance space. To create some synergy in that block between events at the Berkshire Museum, Storefront Artists, and the Colonial. Particularly on Third Thursdays. How to enliven the traffic and synergy along North Street. It has been a PR disaster to drive by the Colonial at night and to see it dark. It seemed there was movement in that direction and now with Stuart gone it feels like that dialogue has fallen apart.

LF It’s a struggle and there isn’t any one person who can answer that. I don’t think it’s falling apart I think it’s transitioning. Falling apart implies that it’s in free fall. It’s in transition. The Colonial had a director and certain level of support and now it’s changing. At least we know now who’s running the Colonial and it’s Kate Maguire. You have to give her some room and some time. You can’t expect results in the middle of the snowiest winter in history.

The Berkshire Museum has a job description out and Maria Mingalone is doing her best to keeping it going. I believe Stuart did leave it in a very stable place for this summer. Maria and I have met and I know what we are going to try to do together. I think she is going to rise to the occasion.

CG What are they doing this summer?

LF The part that I’m interested in is what they are doing for contemporary art. The Braus Collection is going on view. That’s a promised gift.

From the museum’s press release (Collectors' Choice: Selections from the Jane and Jay Braus Collection, May 21 through October 1l. Over twenty-five works selected by the couple. By artists including Sam Francis, Nancy Graves, Red Grooms, David Hockney, Alex Katz, Sol LeWitt, and Graham Nickson.)

They are a local couple who love the Berkshire Museum and worked closely with Stuart. Maria is picking up the ball and working with the collection. Their name is on one of the galleries in the museum.