THIS CITY: Postcards vs. Paintings
Going Out

THIS CITY: Postcards vs. Paintings


This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 print edition of Ottawa Magazine.

Illustration by Michael George Haddad
Illustration by Michael George Haddad


Don Monet may be the hardest-working gallery owner in the city. The man at the helm of Cube Gallery says tourists are a worthwhile market for his business to target, even if he is located in Wellington West, outside the city’s tourist core. So target, he does.

Monet can be found surreptitiously leaving his brochures in prominent downtown institutions that attract cultural tourists or lounging in the lobbies of downtown hotels where would-be art collectors might stay. There, he schmoozes the all-powerful concierges — the men and women who hold so much sway with the tourists who consult them for sightseeing ideas. Monet makes sure the concierges are clear on where his gallery is and what it offers. He also teams up with local business owners who have booths at Ottawa’s many music festivals — often
coffee purveyors — so that he can share Cube’s promotional bumph with music lovers as well.

On the other end of the spectrum is Petite Mort’s Guy Bérubé who, when asked if he markets to tourists, responds in typically candid fashion: “I’m afraid I dodge tourists like an STD.”

Most of Bérubé’s sales are international, and while he says that he has seen an upswing in sales since he opened in 2005, he admits it is still a tough business. “People go out to be entertained at galleries. I always say to them, ‘Imagine if I sold jeans and you came in for two hours and chatted me up and then just left without buying any jeans.’ ”

Bérubé is closing his doors on August 31. He’ll continue doing art projects in Ottawa and remains positive about the local art scene, “but to continue paying rent on a ‘gift shop’ where nobody buys anything is kind of ludicrous,” he says, adding visitors often think that art is very expensive. Bérubé notes that his website lists pieces that start at $25.

The website comment illustrates a point. It used to be that short of visiting an artist in his or her studio, going to a gallery was the only way to buy art. Today, social media allow galleries, as well as artists themselves, to reach potential customers easily without bricks and mortar. Websites compound the experience by making it possible to sell online. But that doesn’t change the fact that many want to see art in person — think about the first time you saw the Mona Lisa in all its tiny glory versus all the times you saw it on everything from playing cards to bedspreads — and for storefront operations, getting bodies into their spaces is still important, if not essential.

Location, it seems, does make a difference. Pierre Luc St-Laurent once owned Gallery 479 on Sussex Drive, a location that he says did attract tourists. He had a salesman who sealed deals quickly with a “sell and crate” motto, and things went well there for five years — until the loonie gained strength on the U.S. dollar and American tourists started spending less. “We did very well for a time, but it was the time to close, and we closed,” he says, noting that the location was key for selling to tourists at that time.

At his flagship space, Galerie St-Laurent + Hill on Dalhousie, he does get buyers from other parts of Canada, but usually they are referred there by friends. “I don’t focus so much on tourists,” he says. “Typical tourists come to see the canal, the tulips and, if we’re lucky, the National Gallery. Also, I’m not selling $25 paintings.”

Lisa Pai of L.A. Pai Gallery isn’t selling $25 paintings either, but her work, much of it jewellery, might be more appealing to tourists simply by virtue of its portability. “It’s hard to pinpoint how much of my business is from tourists, but in terms of marketing, I want to make sure I cover all my bases,” she says.

To help guide tourists, Pai wants to restore a one-time initiative that saw local galleries distribute maps of the area that showed the locations of shops that sold art in the ByWard Market. She envisions a small card with a map and a list of the galleries.

She also uses her website, now revamped and generating more buzz, as another tool for marketing. Her plan is to put all her gallery’s artists and their holdings online, many of which will be for sale from the site itself.

Pai has also tried print advertising, some of which she knows has been successful. “Some of my best sales ever were as a result of an ad I placed in an American magazine,” she says, who adds that the person never even came to the gallery but became a regular buyer of large sculptural works.

Of course, tourism has its seasons, and summer is Ottawa’s best, says Patricia Barr, owner of Wall Space Gallery. “The Westboro neighbourhood always has fun things happening in the summer, so it makes it appealing to be able to step into a gallery while walking around,” she says.

She’s had walk-in buyers from as far away as British Columbia, Alberta, and Nova Scotia, often out-of-towners visiting family in Ottawa. “They come in, hopefully buy something, and then it’s on their radar for the next time they’re in town. People fall in love with art when they’re travelling. They’re more relaxed, and they might be looking for something that evokes a memory of a place.” She “relies heavily” on social media. She has also advertised in Canadian Art’s online version.

It’s not clear whether the mother of all Ottawa galleries, the National Gallery, attracts tourists who will buy art from commercial galleries, but Alexandra Badzak, CEO of the Ottawa Art Gallery, is pretty sure it has the market cornered on tourist visits. She hopes that will change when the OAG has its shiny new building.

“The downtown Rideau BIA marketing committee has been working with Ottawa Tourism to see how we can market our assets,” she says, adding that it’s an ongoing challenge to attract tourists, given that Ottawa is home to many national institutions to which tourists naturally gravitate.

First-time visitors will inevitably hit the major national spots, she says. “One hopes if they come again, their experience can be deepened. Say you go to London, you hit the big ones first, then maybe you venture over to the Tate Modern. We want to be on day two of the tour.”

When the OAG opens in its new location, its first big show will be a retrospective of 150 years of Ottawa art. At that point, Badzak will shower the train station and the airport with billboards. But for the OAG, it’s more about sharing the city’s art story than selling.

Orange Art Gallery has a cool new location in City Centre that is also used for events. That location improves exposure, but their website has also been key to sales. The Orange website allows for online purchases and recently had a sale in Beverly Hills. “People will buy art sight unseen,” says owner Ingrid Hollander.

Galleries such as Orange are seeing the fruits of online marketing, which helps keep the bricks-and-mortar institutions (and the people who pour their hearts into these galleries) in business. This ultimately enriches the tourist experience.

Yes, visitors will likely hit the National Gallery first, but as Badzak at the OAG says, there is always day two.