Gallery and studio owners find their footing
Kendall College grads grow in South Division live-work space through diversified business model.
Matthew Provoast and Erika Townsley bonded in art school because they enjoy working in nonstandard ways.
Rather than photographing for a mat and frame, they experimented with mixed media — including image transfers, collages and found-object sculptures — during their time at Kendall College of Art and Design.
They graduated with bachelor’s degrees in fine arts with an emphasis in photography in 2015.
Three years later, the pair — now in a relationship — have built a business on their willingness to take risks and try nearly anything that strikes a chord.
In September 2016, they opened Light Gallery + Studio — a live-work space they rent from Dwelling Place of Grand Rapids at 317 S. Division Ave.
Originally, their idea was to use it solely as a space to meet clients. Townsley is a freelance food photographer for local restaurants, while Provoast does wedding photography.
Gradually, the space “spiraled” into a gallery of local art, Provoast said.
When they couldn’t find enough artists willing to pay for full gallery exhibitions, they tweaked the business model yet again.
“It morphed into consignment, which is more affordable for artists, and with the overhead, it was better for us, as well,” Provoast said.
Light Gallery + Studio now has three functions: as an exhibition space, a gallery/shop and an event space for workshops.
Provoast said the exhibits correlate with First Fridays, a once-per-month Avenue for the Arts program in which South Division businesses become a destination for local art, handmade goods, and food and drink specials.
The goal behind the gallery space was to make it affordable for artists and approachable for customers.
“We wanted to have a space where people can come in and feel comfortable and not be sticker shocked by the place,” Provoast said.
“It also leaves room for us to work with emerging artists and educate them about having a standard retail value for their work.”
That means setting the same prices for comparable pieces at each of the places they sell their work, to allow fair competition for gallery owners.
The third element of the business — workshops — came out of the owners’ and their artists’ interest in sharing their knowledge with anyone who would like to flex creative muscles.
Townsley said it’s been fun to see what emerges with each group.
“You look at a class like linoleum carving,” she said, “or we call it stamp carving. We have people with their master’s degree in art and then we have their moms, and nobody knows how to do this kind of art, so it’s a level playing field.
“It’s nice to have people who are like, ‘I am an accountant, and I want to do indigo dyeing as something to do after work.’”
Their other workshops have taught the crafts of encaustic painting, tapestry weaving and photography, to name a few.
The pair stressed there is a difference between their workshops and “a wine-and-canvas night with Susie” setup.
“After our workshops, everyone leaves with a one-of-a-kind piece of art,” Townsley said. “A lot of times, people don’t continue to paint after (wine-and-canvas) classes. But I’ll see people on Instagram posting ‘I’m still doing tapestry weaving’ months later.”
Provoast and Townsley said the workshops have opened the door for other revenue streams — such as more gallery sales since people are in the store who wouldn’t otherwise be there — and they are planning to teach private classes and classes for kids.
“I grew up in a really small country town where, if my parents hadn’t gotten me involved in art camps, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Provoast said. “We are navigating how we want to do (them), whether it be a class or other format for kids.”
Light Gallery + Studio’s current roster of art workshops range from $35-$60 for three-hour weeknight classes to $80 for a six-hour intermediate weaving class.
The gallery side offers paintings, photography, prints, zines and other handmade items priced from $1-$600.
Provoast said they are able to keep prices low because their overhead in the live-work space is low and the rent is income-based.
“It would be far different if we had a space that was $6,000 a month and had $100,000 in loans hanging over our heads, which most businesses like this do,” he said.
Townsley described the South Division corridor as one giant incubator space that allows artisans to launch and grow.
“Woosah (Outfitters) started here, and we watched (owner Erica Lang) grow it over time and purchase a whole building,” she said.
They view it as a positive when businesses vacate the neighborhood because it means they grew into something bigger and more prosperous.
“I don’t think the population views it that way when businesses move out of this corridor,” Provoast said. “They see it as a failed venue.”
Over the past year and a half, Light Gallery + Studio has built a roster of 60 emerging and established local artists, up from a dozen when it started.
Provoast and Townsley agree the growth is largely due to their willingness to adapt.
“It’s trial and error,” Townsley said. “If something happens, we adjust. We learned full gallery rentals aren’t going to work; what can we do instead? We can’t be stubborn about it. It’s how you grow and find out who you are.”
Added Provoast: “It’s also the way to create a sustainable business, by being open and willing to do different things until you find what works.”