Would you like an original with that sofa?

Carol Johnson of Johnson FurnitureART DEALER Carol Johnson of Johnson Furniture finds success selling originals from local artists in her New Braunfels, Texas store. She says the local art stands out from the commercial art that is mass produced.

November/December, 2016—

These days the furniture might be from Asia, but the painting above it is from down the street. More retailers are selling wall décor, sculptures and other pieces of art from local artists.

When it came time to buy a sectional sofa, Michelle Taylor didn’t take any chances. The Ashley piece sitting in her living room is a muted brown she unblushingly acknowledges you’re likely to find in any home furnishings store in any town.

But when it came time to decorate her living room walls, Taylor was a little more selective. She stumbled across a local artist whose southwest paintings she admired for more than a year. She bought two of his paintings—both framed and double-matted under glass—to complete her makeover. “I wanted something different, something that would stand out and not make the room look like my neighbor’s house across the street.”

Now here’s the rub: That conventional Ashley sofa and those one-of-a-kind paintings came from the same store—HFA member American Furniture Warehouse in Glendale, Ariz.

Taylor’s investment in local art—wall décor in industry parlance—mirrors a small, but growing trend by consumers wanting art that not only complements their furniture purchase, but also stands out from all those mass-produced autumnal landscapes, sun-splashed beaches and still lifes keyed to whatever the on-trend upholstery is at the moment.

Many home furnishings retailers are more than happy to capture that sale while offering yet another story to their brand’s identity. American Furniture Warehouse was one of the first retailers to exhibit local artists in its stores. West End, a division of Williams Sonoma, has been hosting “Pop Up” sales for local artists for years. But the strategy isn’t limited to Top 100 companies.

HFA member Carol Johnson has been selling local artists’ work off Johnson Furniture Co.’s 80-year-old walls in New Braunfels, Texas, for years. “First and foremost, I think the local art we sell is beautiful and unique,” Johnson says. “It’s a good business decision because it’s setting us apart from the big boxes who just can’t or don’t have the interest to market local artists.”

Johnson’s 9,000-square-foot building includes a raised ceiling, which only increases the real estate to sell local art. Johnson majored in interior design with a double minor in construction and photography. “I’ve appreciated good art for as long as I can remember,” she says. “I think our customers do, too.”

It would be easy for Johnson to head to High Point or Las Vegas and return with a healthy supply of commercial art, pieces that have been consumer tested and ready to sell. In fact, Johnson does just that—she estimates 40 percent of the art she sells in her store is commercial—but the 60 percent that comes from local artists in Texas gives her something her big box competitors can never offer.

“When a retailer partners with a local artist, it’s another story we can tell, another story we can add to who we are,” says Johnson. “I think people are tired of shopping the same old stores with the same old product. When they walk into my store they know immediately that something different is going on.”

Johnson will approach some artists about showing in her store, but after so many years of supporting local artists, they now come to her, she says. The key to working with artists is finding those who understand retail. Johnson takes a 40 commission on every piece of local art she sells. Sometimes artists think that price is too steep.

“I make them take ownership of the piece. I don’t want to be the one to price it, but I’m also the person who has to sell it,” she says. “(The artist) needs to know that I’m invested in their work, too. Every inch of a retail building has a dollar amount attached to it. If I’m using that space for something that’s not mine, there’s a price for that.”

Johnson says it’s important for retailers to know that selling original art is different than selling a sectional. “You have to be knowledgeable about the piece and the investment people are entering into,” she says.

Even if an artist’s work is not selling at the pace Johnson wants, the work still serves as a nice backdrop for her vignettes. “People walk in and they see our displays and they know before the door has closed behind them that they’ve entered a store that’s completely different than others they’ve shopped,” she says. “I’m not sure you can put a price on that.”

HFA member Contents Interiors has been showing and selling the work of local artists in Arizona and the Southwest for 14 years. Tamara Scott-Anderson, the store’s vice president, says the store holds regular juried shows, allowing artists to submit their works. Scott-Anderson says the store’s sales design staff serves as the juried committee “because they know what our customers are looking for and what sells.”

Scott-Anderson says her store in Tucson sells a wide array of paintings, sculptures and smaller locally made pieces such as cutting boards, fused glass and raku lamps, the latter, she says, “have been selling like crazy.” She estimates half of her store’s art inventory is production artwork, the other half is locally created.

“We think it’s a win-win for both the store and the artists, who often lack the exposure to get their name and work out to the public,” Scott-Anderson says. Contents Interiors’ contract calls for a split of the sale price between the artists and the store. Scott-Anderson says it’s important for the artists to be comfortable with the arrangement they make “so there are no surprises.”

That’s not always easy, says HFA member Beth Claybourn. Her store, Beth Clayton Interiors in Baton Rouge, La., has sold the works of local and regional artists with mixed success through the years. “You have to find artists who understand retail and they’re not easy to find,” says Claybourn. “A lot of artists don’t understand my store only has limited space. That 12-by-12 space costs me money. They don’t understand that you have a risk in showing their work just as they do. Every day you have someone’s painting on your wall is a day that you’re not selling something of yours.”

HFA member Judy LaMontagne took a different route at American Furniture Warehouse. Six years ago Montagne was looking for wall décor that could exceed the quality she was getting from China but still be competitive in price. LaMontagne started talking with Circle Graphics, a Colorado company that produces billboard signs. The result is AFW’s Artists of the West program.

The program allows artists to upload their work through AFW’s website for consideration. If LaMontagne thinks the art will sell, she will buy the rights to the work from the artist outright. All 14 of American Furniture Warehouse’s stores in Colorado and Arizona have carved out sizeable wall space for the Artists of the West program.

“It’s the most successful program I’ve ever been a part of,” LaMontagne says. “Hugely successful, actually—and not just for the company, but the artists and (Circle Graphics) which produces the prints for us. When you think about it, every aspect of the program is made in America so everyone wins.”

LaMontagne says she sifts through about 100 submissions every month from artists, photographers and graphic designers, looking for art she thinks will sell. She reaches out to about 5 percent of those artists and offers to buy their work outright.

Montagne says she looks at the art with three criteria in mind. “It has to have mass appeal, sell in high volume and come from a local artist,” she says. “If it meets all three criteria, I’ll talk with the artist.”

The wall reserved for the Artists of the West program in every AFW is jammed with prints of all sizes, shapes and scenes. There’s even a touch-screen computer that shoppers can use to learn more about the artist whose work they are thinking about taking home. “It’s a great way to engage, to connect with the customers,” says Montagne. “They’re no longer just buying a piece of art from China. They’re buying something from their community. They’re buying a story they can tell their friends about after they take that piece home and hang it on the wall.”

Celebrate your story

“If you’re the only furnishings store selling local art, be proud of that! That means you need to let people know what you’re doing and how proud you are of your local art community.” —Carol Johnson, Johnson Furniture Co.

Stand out

“We like to have our local artists stand out. One way to do that is with our price tags. They’re different for our local artists. They let people know their story.” —Tamara Scott-Anderson, Contents Interior

Nothing personal

“Art is no different than furniture. It’s not what you like. It’s what your consumers like. If you don’t connect with it, but you think your customers will, it’s probably a good arrangement.” —Judy LaMontagne, American Furniture Warehouse