Staring at our own walls has become a wholly unanticipated pastime of late. And, while we may be resigned at the moment to remain on the safe side of those ever-present walls, it doesn’t mean we can’t use them to bring new joy and comfort.
The current demand for home design has powered on. And, even in the face of temporarily shuttered galleries and shudder-inducing economic forecasts, art sells.
“Everyone’s in their homes right now and they’re trying to move things around and redo the walls," said Allison Williamson. As founder and director of the Artist Collective, she oversees the Charleston-based company that for 10 years has made a vibrant splash on walls across the country, pandemic notwithstanding.
The company comprises four distinct artist collectives in Charleston, Nashville, Atlanta and the Washington, D.C., area, gathering the works of the chosen local artists in each area to then share them with art lovers around the country.
According to Williamson, our current sheltering has not hampered sales, which have been steadily rising each year.
The Artist Collective’s model is particularly primed for the current look homeward, both in form and function. Not only are people upping their home design game, they are changing things up by way of the internet. With its emphasis on online art sales, the art collective continues to ship art off to transform spaces in other places.
“They’re just nesting and wanting to change things around and put happy things on their walls,” Williamson said. “I’m so thankful we have that online platform to be able to support that.”
The company does so through a website, artistcollectives.org. It also sells its art via two of the most stylish national home design hubs in the country, Serena & Lily and One Kings Lane.
But Williamson has done time with bricks-and-mortar sites, too. An art history major at the University of the South, Sewanee, she thereafter ran a gallery in Park City, Utah, for five years that specialized in Russian Impressionist art.
“But it was a little bit frustrating because we did not have an online presence,” she said. “In order to get a customer, you had to wait for someone to walk in the door and they had to be in Utah.”
The move online
After relocating to Charleston, she worked with local artists to market themselves. That's when it struck her that the solution to increasing traffic and greater national exposure was to move art online, particularly in light of the growing influence of digital communications such as email and social media.
“It just made it really accessible ... and a fresh approach to buying art,” she said, adding that the site also benefits from others sharing the art on social media. “Instagram is really big for us.”
Thus began the Artist Collective. Gathering a few Charleston plein-air artists, Williamson ran it from her home for the first six years. She started with more modestly priced pieces, reasoning that people would tend to buy pieces priced at more than $500 in person. However, she soon got feedback regarding the desire for bigger, more expensive pieces.
The company grew, too, as more artists came on board and interested partners in other cities like Nashville and Atlanta requested that she start collectives there.
The work spans genres from representational to abstract to plein-air, “We try to keep a well-balanced group that offers different styles,” said Williamson. Together the works have a fresh, modern flair.
The art is then organized around a monthly theme, which is selected by Williamson, from seascapes to music to shapes, while never being too prescriptive or restrictive to the artist’s vision.
“It kind of pushes the style, too,” said Chelsea Goer, a Charleston artist who has been part of the Artist Collective for the past three years. When Williamson spotted her work on social media, Goer had been working as a graphic designer for Amazon.
“Obviously, she had some clout, so her opinion of my art was such a big confidence boost for me,” Goer said, adding that she started moving art so quickly through the collective it surprised them both.The artist is now painting full time, and can hardly keep up with the demand for her work.
The partnership with Serena & Lily came through the internet, too, when a buyer from the company reached out to Williamson after exploring her website.
“They were brands that I really respected and I loved their whole vibe,” said Williamson, who added they have now worked together for more than six years.
The Artist Collective also works with One Kings Lane, the online store selling high-end and antique home furnishings, decor and art. For them, the collective submits work twice a year to remain indefinitely on their website.
Such reach can be a game changer for artists like Goer. “My art is not only on their website, but it’s selling on their website, which is still mind-blowing to me.”
Charity starts at home
The Artist Collective also features a charity component, with 5 percent of all proceeds going to charities that are designated by the artists and that rotate.
Recent charities have included Meals on Wheels and St. Andrew’s Parish, which neighbors the collective’s brick-and-mortar space and was damaged in a fire two years ago.
The collective also organizes pop-up fundraising events, such as a recent one for a Water Mission International in the Bahamas.
Home away from home
Even with the demonstrated success of the digital operation, Williamson ultimately found a need for a brick-and-mortar component. Three years ago, she set up a space in the Old Village, which includes an office and a showroom, as well as three artist studios.
The result is a clean, yet color-popping place, cheerily buzzing with customers, designers and artists. “Once we opened, it was amazing how many people come in that say they’re visiting Charleston and follow us on Instagram,” Williamson said, adding that most everyone who visits comments on how happy it is.
One such customer is Kim Keevers, who has become such a regular, her whole house is brimming with art from the Artist Collective. "From the second I walked through the gallery doors, I was addicted," she said via email.
And while the showroom trades in art, it veers from the traditional gallery setup. Williamson casually gathers works together, which Goer noted has been known to compel customers to buy four at a pop, thus inspired by the way they have been grouped.
Reflective of the collective ethos of the company, the space serves as a welcoming home for the artists, who drop off work and settle on couches to catch up and swap notes.
Goer notes that the range of experience among the artists frequently proves mutually beneficial, with the veterans mentoring newbies, who in turn offer advice on useful resources such as social media. “I’ve just never had that experience where artists can really help each other,” she said.
Emily Brown is another artist working in a collective studio. “That’s been a bonus, just to have other artists painting and being able to have their input ... to help critique your work.”
And business is full-steam-ahead at the collective, with designers continuing to plan and work, artists fulfilling the unflagging need for art and plenty of walls wanting happiness.
“Your art can really create the mood for your house,” said Williamson.
From her artist’s perch, Brown concurred. “You need to surround yourself with what makes you feel best,” she said. “I would hope that my art would make someone happy and content in their home.”
"I think more than ever they're pulling the trigger on art because they've been looking at that wall," said Goer.
But well before our current quarantine, Keevers learned how the art she had purchased from the collective elevated her mood. "Last year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent many months of treatment. While recuperating at home, I took great comfort in my surroundings, including my collection of art from CAC," said said.
She shared that the muted hues of Shannon Wood’s marsh and water scenes brought her peace and tranquility, while the bright and rich colors of Lynne Hamontree and Tammy Medlin brought happiness. She added that the feminine subject matter of Page Morris gave her hope and strength and reminded her that she was beautiful no matter what, and the abstract works of Ann Keane made her stop and think about everything good in her life.
Lately, Goer has found herself increasingly drawn to painting people. The urge toward engaging with the human begs for a connection with our current social distancing. Perhaps, it's the subject that makes us truly happy after all.