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LIVE LOCAL: Gwenyfar chats with New Elements Gallery owner Miriam Oehrlein

Through ownership and location changes, New Elements Gallery has remained a fixture of the downtown arts and business scene. Courtesy photo

 

There are staple businesses that pepper the streets of downtown Wilmington: Finkelstein’s, The Pilot House, The Cotton Exchange. They have been part of the landscape for over 30 years and are so integral to the city’s fabric, we sometimes take them for granted for just always being there.

New Elements Gallery is among the ilk. The gallery has been providing a venue for artists for over 30 years and is an anchor of the visual arts scene. It is also, in an odd way, a microcosm of our little block of Front Street. 

Previously located at 216 N. Front Street, the gallery moved to the corner of Princess and Second when its building was purchased and subsequently renovated. In 2015, when Miriam Oehrlein purchased New Elements and moved back to the north end of Front Street—this time to 271 N. Front Street—it seemed to signal a regeneration for our block (full disclosure: it’s where my family’s bookstore is located). In the last few months, we have lost multiple businesses, though. Three have moved to other locations in town, and one has ceased operation. Construction projects surround us, and then there is the COVID-19 shutdown for us to navigate.

Part of what art galleries have always represented are experiences in beauty and the expressive parts of life. These make living desirable, not just something to be endured. New Elements’ window displays are beyond captivating, and its staff makes me feel like the savviest art collector in the world.

 Looking out the window of the bookstore, I realize I am so much in the center of my little storm that it can be hard to maintain perspective. So I turned to Miriam for an extra set of eyes to assess what is going on right now on Front Street, and where we are headed. She was kind enough to share her insights.

encore (e): When and why did you buy the gallery?

Miriam Oehrlein (MO): We bought the gallery five years ago.  I was a jewelry artist in New Elements Gallery, and I received a form letter explaining that [the owner] was retiring, and that she was looking for a buyer for the gallery—that she was ready to be an artist herself full-time. I had no idea that she was an artist, and I mentioned the letter to my husband while we were getting ready for bed. He said, “You should ask her how much she wants for it. That would be a great job for you. You know a lot of the artists, anyway. Why not get paid to hang out with them?” To which I responded, “That is a terrible idea.” He rolled over and went to sleep, and I stayed awake for three more hours. I called about the gallery the next day after I asked him “Were you serious?” And here we are…

 

 

e: I’ve had a lot of framing done by New Elements Gallery over the years. It looks like that part of the business has transitioned. When did you stop framing? What changes in the market signaled that change?

MO:  I stopped the framing side of the business when I moved from Princess Street. All the frame samples took up valuable wall space where I could hang art. I analyzed the numbers and found framing brought in less than 3% of gross sales the year before I moved. It took up my time (which is so valuable as a business owner), and we were working with a framer offsite to do the work (which was what the former ownership was doing). I would rather send the business to my framer, and have the time to follow up with leads or be on the show floor.

At this time we also saw a drop in the purchase of framed work and an increase in demand for works on canvas. The change in floor plans and new construction had given way to fewer but larger walls and more windows, so clients didn’t want reflections.

e: When and why did you move back to Front Street?

MO: The Princess Street property was harder to hang art, but we loved changing out our windows. My rent was increasing steadily each year, eating profits that were increasing at about the same rate. My lease was past its date, and we couldn’t negotiate what we wanted. The building had some issues as far as maintenance and water. I loved being across from Art in Bloom, Bloke, and Louis’, but I knew I had to close or move.

Lance had been looking for a space, and our friend Jeff Hovis was selling this property. I called him the next day and gave my OK just from photos. It had great storage and a straightforward layout. I loved the loft office where I could see clients walk in. I love having a viewing room downstairs where we can take clients who are looking to make a purchase. . . . And I really felt like I captured more meaningful traffic, as far as out-of-towners, which probably was the biggest reason [I moved].

e: When and why did you move back to Front Street?

MO: The Princess Street property was harder to hang art, but we loved changing out our windows. My rent was increasing steadily each year, eating profits that were increasing at about the same rate. My lease was past its date, and we couldn’t negotiate what we wanted. The building had some issues as far as maintenance and water. I loved being across from Art in Bloom, Bloke, and Louis’, but I knew I had to close or move.

Lance had been looking for a space, and our friend Jeff Hovis was selling this property. I called him the next day and gave my OK just from photos. It had great storage and a straightforward layout. I loved the loft office where I could see clients walk in. I love having a viewing room downstairs where we can take clients who are looking to make a purchase. . . . And I really felt like I captured more meaningful traffic, as far as out-of-towners, which probably was the biggest reason [I moved].

e: What do you see happening for our block of Front Street in the coming season and year?

MO: Front Street is a blessing and curse sometimes. At times I think I succeed in spite of the city. It hurts my business when they close the street for parades and festivals, as I have a high-end product. However, I love the art block; on Fourth Fridays, we are swollen. I love my neighbors, and without construction traffic, it is going to feel different. So many businesses have been hurt by the construction, but I think we were all so hopeful occupation of all the buildings might give us the injection we needed.

When I look at the construction, I have tried to tell myself, All those apartments [being built will] need at least one piece of art. I have had a conversation recently where a [business] owner said, “We can’t hold on any longer. With the recent shutdown and the poor past years performance, I have taken all the financial hits I can stand. I have to move.”

The businesses immediately around us, I think, left for their own reasons. It doesn’t look good to see empty stores. My greatest fear is our downtown goes back to the downtown of the ‘80s. But I don’t think that is going to happen. The Ambassador program with WDI makes the streets safe for shopkeepers, residents and clients alike. We might bounce back from this better than we think.

I can only control myself and my actions. These other things are out of my control. So I have plans to spruce up my back garden and commission street art for my back doors. If the city decides to close Front Street in 2021, we will be ready to take customers in the back of our property. We also want the residents of the new condos to have something lovely to look upon.

I really feel like businesses that are going to survive this have a good online presence, engaging social media and great relationships with clients. I have spent two years upping our social media presence and revamping a tired website. When I walk down Front Street, all I can think is, I am going to let my little light shine.

e: Tell us a little about the virtual gallery tours. Is this something you will continue to do when you reopen?

MO: Heather Divoky (may God eternally bless her) has been really generous with her knowledge of social media and is a tremendous problem-solver. Two weeks after the shutdown she said, “I am going to research virtual art programs; we need to show online.” BF Reed was scheduled for March Fourth Friday, but we didn’t have all the information we needed. This year we partnered with Century 21 downtown, and Janet Triplett had dropped off her work and had sent over all the particulars [for her show]. We decided to have a virtual show, “Wide Open,” with beautiful, peaceful images of the coast when no one was allowed at the beach.

It was brilliant as we had folks at home, feeling locked in place and maybe hungry for content. I think we might be tied to [the virtual gallery tours] permanently; I would like to put them on my Google Business site, and I don’t know when we can safely orchestrate a Fourth Friday moving forward. [Virtual tours] provide a private way to experience the show if you are unable to go downtown. One of the draws of Fourth Friday is having an art-filled social experience; I know it is not the same. Our duty is to show the artists’ work in a respectful and thoughtful way, and this allows us to keep the conversation going.

e: Hammy, the dog, does wonderful social media guides on Wednesdays for New Elements. Could you tell us a little about his background and education? Why was he selected as your spokesdog/unicorn? 

MO: Hammy becomes a bit mercurial when asked about his qualifications as an art critic or his education. Perhaps he is a bit like me, and his education about art is mostly autodidactic? He does have a great eye, which you can’t teach; that is something you either have or you don’t. A lot of clients say, “I don’t know anything about art.” My feeling is, if you know if you like it or not, that is all you need to know. I think Hammy is a great example of Everyman (or Everydog); he likes the art as it relates to him and his experience. Which is, in the end, the point.

e: How many people do you have on staff? How has everyone been handling the shutdown? (I am assuming Hammy, the gallery dog, is included as a staff member.)

MO: I should have put down more employees for all this aid. If I can count [my daughter] Annabel and Hammy, that would be a game changer. Hammy gets paid in biscuits; Annabel works for llama merchandise and her own business cards.

We have two employees, Daphne Cole and Heather Divoky. I had them apply for unemployment—completely and with reduced hours, respectively. Heather took home a laptop and has helped me by orchestrating the virtual shows, sending out more frequent and richer communications for our mailing list. (We have been sending out a biweekly newsletter where we pair current virtual show with a wine pairing from a local downtown bottle shop, recipes, art and videos from our artists.)

She also has been editing videos for “Art for Art’s Sake” that I have been shooting for our lonely YouTube channel, which must alternately be painful and hilarious. With the shutdown, we have an incredible gift of time, so we started working on that.

Daphne’s role is mostly visual merchandising, and she does a lot on the website. Since there are only two laptops, I am taking care of those things, but I will need her to come back and help me get the gallery put back together.

e: What do you wish the public understood about owning an art gallery?

MO: The overhead for any business (art gallery or otherwise) goes on whether you are open or not. When you get ready to make a purchase, think about how you could do that safely and locally. Most gallerists love their artists and their business, and they would bend over backward for both of them.

e: What would you ask of artists and art lovers?

MO: There is some great art coming out of this quiet and introspective time. Get ready to experience the motherlode.

Remember, no matter how bad things seem, we all crave beauty.

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