What is it really like?
It's been a number of years since I closed down my gallery, but I often think about those days, those six years. I can't speak for every photographer who has ever run their own gallery, but in my experience it was a roller coaster ride that taught me so much but also left a lot to be desired.
I remember sitting on a bench across from this empty space with my wife, watching and talking the opportunity through. At that point, the only thing that would have stopped me quitting my career in IT and transforming this old, run down space into something of my own, was a fire or my life ending. I was that set on it. We spoke of the possibilities and the opportunities but really we had no idea of what lay ahead. I spoke of this being what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and I truly believed that would be the case. I had been working towards having my own gallery for perhaps 6 years prior to this day.
There is always that ignorance when starting something new and somehow, I wish I could go back to those exciting times, when I didn't know if it would work or not. I was so optimistic and full of hope. Obviously I can't go back, and I now know and have come to grips with the reality that it didn't work, it is that simple. When I rang the landlord that day, it was on from that initial conversation, they were as keen as I was. As I entered the space several weeks later, my dreams started to come alive, the possibilities were seemingly endless.
There wasn't another space like it in the region and somehow, a lot of people got really interested in what we were doing. I did the best I could to set up the space and in Easter of 2012 we opened our doors. It was overwhelming to have hundreds of people coming through for a look. In those early days having people in the space seemed like enough. What I later discovered was the difficulties and intermittent nature of selling framed photographs to a very niche market. What I also learnt is that there is a massive difference between what people say they are going to do and what they actually do. Back then we weren't selling enough, but back then I had many things to try, to find the formula. We were energetic and my wife and I often planned, to make the business better and more profitable.
TRYING NEW THINGS
I pushed on and we started to expand the range of photographs to get more spread on possible sales. But in all honesty it didn't really change a great deal. We traveled for months and invested a lot of money we didn't really have, to then have a big exhibition though on opening night , we sold very little despite having almost 150 people attend and the whole gallery fitted with new, framed work. We started running photography workshops in the space to try and level the income stream and this seemed to work, it seemed to put some consistency in our income. Little did I know at the time, this would attribute more to my decision to move away from the profession than any other influence.
We then moved away from having people do our framing and we set up our own production line to press prints and frame them to the highest standard. This was in an effort to save time and money and would allow us to control quality. We created a vacuum sealed clean room, used the best equipment and materials to create these just beautifully framed prints. It did save us money and allowed us to control quality but the time it took was almost immeasurable. For many years I would work the gallery during the day to then come home, put my daughters to bed to then spend from 8pm to 3 am in the workshop framing prints. It was madness and simply not scalable.
Like any business our staff were our reason and means to existence, we had some amazing customers and made some great bonds. I would say on average that a high percentage of people who visited the space were just looking, and that was OK. One day I did the sums and realised that out of all the visitation, only 5% of those visitors actually made purchases. That was a frightening statistic, we were trying to survive. We had those great people that came through but we also had a lot of people looking to gain, asking how to set up a successful gallery, looking at how to leverage of us.
Over the years I noticed things along the way. I noticed good friends fading away, I noticed family fading away and I noticed myself starting to hate what I was doing. We traveled on some more big trips to try and give some reasoning to this venture and we had some amazing times on the road as a family. Possibly my favourite trip was to the north of Australia for just over four months. I wouldn't trade those memories for the world. The freedom that came with going away to take photographs for months was like an addictive drug, it was amazing. This was the reason I started this whole thing, to travel, be consumed by nature and feel that freedom of the road less traveled. After the really big trips, being away for months, it was taking almost a year to get the business back on its feet.
We were in Tasmania for 6 weeks when it happened, it all came to a head. l had been running one of my photography tours down there, I ran many in Australia, I had been away from my family again, I was away more than I was home by that stage. I returned home to meet my family and turn around and drive down south to get away and get some time. We worked for almost two years to be able to afford this trip but as we got away something was missing for me. The excitement was gone. All I could think about was how hard I would have to work when I got home to get things back on track. The business was still only really surviving financially week to week and I was already in debt. I was standing on a beach in the north, towards the end of the trip with my eldest daughter and it came to me. I couldn't do this any longer, how much more would I have to give to try and make this work?
I was done from that point on-wards. I couldn't talk myself out of it. I didn't tell anyone, I felt like a failure. We returned home to life again but it was different for me. It was a Sunday night a month or so later and I just piped up to my wife and said -
"We need to shut this thing down. I can't do this anymore and we are still going backwards"
My amazing wife just agreed, she knew for a lot longer than I did just how crazy this venture had turned out to be. How it had affected us and what it was doing to me. We were plain and simply relieved and 6 weeks later the gallery was gone.
I stand by my decision to have a go but this is one of those times when I would have to say I wouldn't do the same thing again, I would do it differently. I still have a love of photography but it is very different to past years. I have gained so much and seen so many amazing places and shared this with my family, just priceless. But I am also tainted by the experience, it really turned out very differently to what I had planned.