Image Is Everything

Image Is Everything


Aussie shepherd Jazzy is in fine company, sitting to the right of a Jiro Yonezawa bamboo and urushi lacquer sculpture. Photos: Tom Grotta

Tom Grotta and Rhonda Brown didn't set out to be art dealers. But their good taste - and friends who insisted on buying artwork from their home - led them to open browngrotta arts. Today, the 24-year-old business, based in Wilton, Connecticut, represents top fiber artists from more than 25 countries. Though its beginning was serendipitous, its success is not.

Grotta and Brown, both of whom have other jobs, work tirelessly to build their business. Although they have no public showroom, they present at SOFA and other shows. But their main vehicles are their website, with more than 1,000 images; their catalogs, which have set a new standard for fiber art in print; and their inventive "digital placement" service, which enables a virtual sales process. With this unusual business model, browngrotta arts has grown its network of clients far beyond the limitations of a brick-and-mortar store.

What draws you to textiles?
Brown: The natural materials, the techniques, the makers.
Grotta: The haptic qualities, and an appreciation of work that requires so much patience, which I don't have.

Your catalogs and books are beautiful. How did you begin producing them?
Grotta: Early on, nobody was showing textile work in depth. When it was being catalogued, it was being photographed flat - obscuring the three-dimensional, tactile qualities that really make textiles sing. So I took on a mission to photograph textiles. Because I also run an advertising agency, I was able to purchase a lot of toys along the way - typesetters, scanners, digital press, bindery equipment. Most galleries couldn't afford to do what I did. It evolved, quite frankly, into the part that I enjoy most in what we do.
Brown: Over the years, we've gotten much more ambitious. We now hire an essayist and labor over the biographical information.

Explain "digital placement."
Grotta: Basically, you may like [a work], but you're not sure. So we digitally scale it in people's spaces so they can see how it looks. We've done this residentially, commercially, and we've also done museum installations. And that has changed the business dramatically. In the past two years, the majority of our business has come off the website. Fewer and fewer of our clients ever come to us.

So you sell people things they have never seen in person. Do you see everything you sell?
Grotta: Yes. As far as I'm concerned, I don't understand the work until I see it behind the lens. I also need to install it. I have to understand the work so that if somebody asks me a question, I feel knowledgeable about it.

Who's your typical buyer?
Grotta: We don't have a typical buyer. Before the recession, we had a good core of collectors. We don't have collectors anymore; we have people who are decorating, which means more clients from more places, but not as many dependable ones.

What's next?
Grotta: There have been an awful lot of dealers and shows that spend too much time catering to the base. You don't grow from there. The growth in this market is to bring more people into the fold. As the economy changes, as the clients change, as the demographic changes, we have to change too - without losing sense of where we've come from. The art is a constant, but how you get it to people or how people see it, that's ever-changing.

Andrew Zoellner is American Craft's assistant editor.