"It's a classic gallery story."
That's the way Scott LaFontsee describes the evolution of his business from an upstart 600-square-foot frame shop to a two-story downtown studio that showcases artists from around the world.
"Galleries set up shop where no one else will go because those are the places they can afford," LaFontsee says, explaining why he and his wife, Linda, chose to leave their first location in midtown Grand Rapids for a much larger space in the Monroe North district.
Back then, in 1992, the storefronts along Monroe were empty and bushes blocked views of the Grand River across the street. Yet, true to the "gallery story," as Scott and Linda celebrate their 20th year in business, the street is now a thriving commercial district with shops, bars, and river views – in part because of the business LaFontsee Galleries brought to the area.
“[They have] succeed[ed] with the transition of marrying art, commerce and community support," said officials of ArtServe Michigan, an arts advocacy organization, upon bestowing LaFontsee Galleries the 2004 Michigan Governor’s Award for Arts & Culture.
Started in 1987 as a small-scale shop where Scott framed photographs, LaFontsee Galleries and its companion shop Underground Studio has become one of West Michigan's best-known studios, showcasing and selling pieces from more than 50 artists. Local talent generates most of that work. But the gallery also has an expanding number of national and international artists as well, selling paintings and three-dimensional artwork on consignment from an 18,000-square-foot gallery.
The studio's selections are diverse, including metallic vessels from David Huang; abstracted paintings from Christy DeHoog; and geometric, textured pieces from German artist Brigitte Riesebrodt. Some of the gallery’s most prized pieces come from German artist Dietrich Klinge, who carves sculptures into wood then casts them in bronze. LaFontsee Galleries, in fact, is one of three exclusive American exhibitors of Klinge’s art.
Initially, Scott and Linda approached artists whose work they wanted to exhibit. But these days the gallery enjoys quite a reputation. Now the husband-and-wife team find that artists are approaching them, hoping to be among the visual stylists who earn either a spot in the gallery’s rotating array of exhibitions or a berth on the studio floor.
The LaFontsees credit their popularity to their approach, which emphasizes a rapport with artists. Scott and Linda want clients whose work has commercial appeal, yet retains artistic integrity. "We're looking for artists who are serious about production," Scott says. "If we have 10 of an artist's pieces, sell 8, and have 2 left with no new work coming in, then we have a problem."
An artists' individual vision also is a determining factor when the couple considers work, and the LaFontsees maintain a hands-off approach when it comes to portfolios. "Over the years, we've watched as galleries have been sold to new owners who tell the artists, 'The red ones are selling; make more of the red ones.' Pretty soon, the artists are saying 'no way' and taking their work elsewhere,” Scott says.
"What we’re looking for is high-quality work that fits with the other pieces we have on the floor," he says. "We want long-term relationships with artists, and that approach has given us a good reputation in the art community."
LaFontsee Galleries is different from other studios in another respect. "We don't have artists just show their work and take it back when the show is finished," Linda says. The LaFontsees keep pieces they've displayed in the past but haven't sold. They store them in the back so that if a customer likes an artist's style, but needs something different from what's on the floor, they can explore other options.
In addition to the gallery, the LaFontsees offer other services, including art installation, consultation, framing, and restoration. LaFontsee Galleries works with interior designers, letting them take artwork into clients' homes for "test runs." They even loan pieces out for a few days at a time.
Corporations and hotels comprise a portion of business as well. Linda recently sold 60 of her own paintings to the Bellagio Hotel, and the LaFontsees are also selling small-scale versions of Steel Water, the sculpture that will officially be unveiled this September near the new Marriott hotel in downtown Grand Rapids.
Perhaps the gallery's most important mission is education. "We're proponents of learning the language of art," Scott says. "You might be the best brain surgeon in the world, but if you haven't had time to study art, you won't know much about it." Many people don't understand why one painting is worth $300 while another is worth $700, he notes, adding that staff members at LaFontsee provide whatever help customers need to understand the pieces they're considering.
"We had a gentleman come to one of our shows and look at paintings of old industrial buildings,’” Scott says. “He asked, 'Can you explain these to me, because I think they're ugly.' So we explained the colors and told him, 'Every time you come in here, spend five minutes with a different painting in this series.' Six weeks later, he was there to buy one of them."
It's this commitment to art awareness that led “On-The-Town” readers to name LaFontsee Galleries “Best Gallery” 10 separate times for that magazine’s annual Townie Awards.
"We've grown up as the community has grown up, but I still feel like we're just getting started," says Scott, noting that the gallery plans to hold a 20th anniversary celebration for employees, artists and customers this fall. "They're the keys to our accomplishments and we want to celebrate with the people who made us successful."
Tonya Schafer is a freelance writer who lives in Grand Rapids. She also works as a technical writer for General Electric Aviation. She last wrote for Rapid Growth
about horse-drawn carriages in downtown GR
Photos:Scott and Linda LaFontsee inside their highly acclaimed gallery
Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved