Declining number of art supply stores

A.I. Friedman, the Manhattan art materials store, never had a lot of products for sculptors – there were some small tools for carving, some Sculpey and a limited number of small bags of plaster – but its closing on April 30th after 80 years in business means that yet one more venerable brick-and-mortar supply company for artists to visit, shop and learn about new products is gone. New York City, where there are perhaps more visual artists per capita than anywhere else in the world, has seen a spate of these closings in recent years. In 2014, Pearl Paint closed its doors for good after 81 years, and both New York Central Art Supply (founded in 1905) and Lee’s Art Shop (founded in 1951) closed last year. In 2006, Peter Leggieri Sculpture Supply was shuttered after 17 years.

Certainly, this isn’t the end for sculptors in New York or anywhere else. The 20,000 square foot The Compleat Sculptor, which was founded 22 years ago, is still in operation at its west SoHo location, and there are some others dotting the map around the country. Beyond that are the various chain art supply shops, Dick Blick, Jerry’s Artarama and Cheap Joe’s, among them, which artists may visit or browse the product selection online.

One-quarter of The Compleat Sculptor’s sales these days are transacted online, up from 10 percent just five years ago, said the company’s president Marc Fields. “I ship all over the world,” he said, adding that a sizeable percentage of his walk-ins are visitors from different states and foreign nations. “People love to come in and wander. You can’t feel things, like the weight of a tool, when you’re buying online. People want to see what new products we have and ask questions – ‘what kind of glue should I use for this?’ ‘what tool do I need for this?’ – and there are people here who can give answers. I can answer questions.”

The store’s Web site tries to approximate the experience of actually being in the store, as the home page is regularly changed to highlight products that are “trending, new things that people are asking about and buying,” and there is both email and call-in technical support.

Fields noted that his greatest challenges in keeping a storefront open is competing on price and shipping costs with the big franchises and the cost of rent in New York City. “With rent and salaries and utilities and whatnot, my monthly break-even number is $250,000, or $3 million a year,” he said, which is 20 percent more than five years ago. “That’s a lot of $5 clay tools I have to sell.” If someone orders a 50-pound bag of plaster online or over the telephone, he loses money, since the cost of shipping is $30 for that $30 bag. “I recoup with larger orders,” and fortunately for him most of his customers are buying more than one item at a time.

Competition from online distributors, and particularly Amazon and Amazon Prime, has led to a drop in sales of certain items at Sculpture Depot in Loveland, Colorado, according to the owner of the art supply store, Karen Richardson. “There are items I have sold frequently in the past and then find that sales totally stop, because they are being offered on Amazon at prices below what I can buy them for,” she said. “With books and videos, certain tools and smaller things, if they are on Amazon I lose sales.” Sculpture Depot remains profitable, but perhaps a bit less profitable than a generation ago, due to Internet sellers that have lower shipping costs. To counter the effect, Sculpture Depot also has expanded its Web presence, with online sales accounting for half of its gross income. Additionally, Richardson said that the store has reduced its shipping costs by sending smaller packages by parcel post, which takes longer to reach customers. “Out clients understand that and are willing to wait.”

Adapting to a changing environment also has been important for Stone Sculptors Supplies in Sebastopol, California, which opened its doors in 1986 and now does 90 percent of its business online, according to sculptor and co-owner Karen Ryer. “We have lowered our prices to beat the competition from ‘knock-off’ tools, especially rasps and chisels,” she said.  “That means a bit of stress for us, since we refuse to compromise on quality.” She added that “foot traffic” never has been significant, and the store no longer sells actual stone (“we have discontinued the stone end of the business given our age and the difficulty of keeping good stone cutters”) but only tools and other supplies. “I think the personal touch of face to face sales is the real way to make a good living, but when it comes to stone, that is almost impossible.”

For artists, the loss of brick-and-mortar art supply shops is only a partial loss, in part because the businesses that sold materials specifically for sculptors always have been few in number and far between. Well before the advent of the Internet, sculptors were accustomed to purchasing materials through mail order catalogues. “Most art supply stores cater to painters and people who do crafts,” said sculptor Mark Hopkins of Loveland, Colorado. “There’s no loss for me in stores going out of business, because the Internet has opened up a lot of avenues for getting things.”

Still, given their druthers, many sculptors prefer the experience of going into a store than looking at a computer monitor. “I like to go down to the store and talk to an actual person about what this product is,” said Dan Ostermiller, a sculptor in Loveland, Colorado, which is also the home of the store Sculpture Depot. “I have to put a tool in my hand. Some tools don’t feel right and, if I already have paid for it, then it’s a waste of money because I won’t use it.” Less than 10 percent of his supplies are purchased online, “and I only order things online that I am familiar with,” for reasons of price. But not always price. Sculpture Depot, for instance, does not sell the chemicals he mixes to produce the patinas for his bronzes, so he needs to look elsewhere. “The prices of the chemicals themselves aren’t so high, but I get hammered on the shipping for them. The shipping may be more expensive than the product.”

Paige Bradley, a sculptor in Stamford, Connecticut, has more of an even mix of buying online and in stores. “I am not going to pay to ship gallons of rubber or resin,” she said. “I am not going to pay to ship 50-pound bags of plaster, stone, or clay.” For these and some other materials, she will drive into Manhattan to shop at The Compleat Sculptor and Jerry’s Artarama. “I love the feeling of walking into Compleat Sculptor or Jerry’s,” noting that at both stores “you can find a library of magazines and books that are about the current art market and new technologies in the trade. This is where you find tools made in Italy and paper worth $25 a sheet made in Germany.” At other times, she makes purchases online, such as “from Amazon because the prices are so good. I get my general and specialty hardware off McMastercarr.com and my armatures from specialty sculpture websites like sculpturedepot.com and compleatsculptor.com.”

The loss of one or even a number of art supply stores may not make all that much difference in the lives of artists, because there are other places and other ways to get what they need. “The only thing that scares me is if places like A.I. Friedman going out of business is a sign that people aren’t buying art,” Ostermiller said. “That I worry about.”

By Daniel Grant

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