As art advisors, we spend a lot of time getting to know people. To help them find art, we often need to learn about our clients, finding out what they like, what they dislike, what makes them comfortable or excited, what they're looking for but haven't found yet. That's why we've come to value our clients, new and old, as friends. So in the spirit of getting to know one another, and with a little extra (but not too much) time on our hands, we took the opportunity to chat with Sorelle's founder and owner to help everyone (clients, readers, partners, followers, friends) get to know Sorelle better too. Read our conversation to learn about Sandy Pelletier and her often fearless approach to running an art gallery in a very digital world, how Sorelle came to be what it is today, the fast-paced changes she's put into motion since celebrating 10 years in business last summer, and where she sees the gallery going next.
When and where did you first open Sorelle?
The first Sorelle opened on Phila Street in Saratoga Springs, NY in April of 2009. It was 200 square feet and on our first day, we put two big chairs out in front of the gallery. Then we brought some of the artwork out and hung it outside on the side of the building.
Prior to opening Sorelle, what did you do for a living? What made you want to open an art gallery?
I worked as a part time art teacher for the Guilderland Central School District (GCSD) and I was a mom. I got my Masters in Art Education in 2008, and opened Sorelle a year later. I knew I wanted to open an art gallery because it is the most creative thing in the world, and technology was changing things very quickly. You could have an online presence and reach a much larger audience.
What did people say when you told them you were opening a fine art gallery? Were they critical of your plan and if so, what were some criticisms?
When I opened Sorelle, some were critical, but others who knew my background weren’t. I had left a good career in technology to open an art and framing business in the 80’s and later sold it. It was very different conceptually from Sorelle… We did custom framing and sold art on a more commercial basis, we had contracts with insurance companies. When I opened that first gallery, people were critical. I think a lot of people are afraid of the risks involved with opening a business, and there’s a lot of fear of failing. I thought people may have even be a bit envious, maybe wishing they had the courage to try something themselves. I did fail a lot, but was able to survive and reinvent the gallery to change with the times. I had great parents that encouraged me and always made me feel there were no limits to what I could accomplish. Now I know that without failure you can’t understand real success.
Were there any significant challenges that you ran into when you first started the gallery?
Yes, so many! For a while, I had three stores under the Sorelle brand running at once - two in upstate New York (Albany pictured above) and one out of state in New Canaan, CT, which was a huge adjustment. At the same time, we were starting to expand online, and I was a bit ahead of myself. I had invested in an app so clients could view artwork from our website on their own walls from home. At the time, clients weren’t as comfortable with technology, so it didn’t take off. I should have waited 5 years!
Sorelle has opened new locations more than once. How has the gallery changed since it first began over 10 years ago?
It has changed tremendously. The biggest change we’ve seen is the way clients find us. Most often they google art galleries, love our website, and then come to the gallery in person. Sometimes they are in the same town and didn’t even know we had been there for six years. So, the question became: should we go to a warehouse environment and pay less overhead, or find a really prime location and negotiate better rent for a short term to test the waters? We did the latter and are moving to Westport. We love New Canaan, but we are always trying to find the balance. The other shift we’ve seen is a move toward minimalism. When a business lasts over a decade, the advances are astounding; Now that everything is online, we don’t need all the furniture and paper files we once did. Now all we need is the art, a great website, and a strong WiFi connection! And of course, you need great people to run it all.
You’ve worked in sales in the past. How is selling art different from selling in other industries?
It is different, and it isn’t. Buying art can be emotional, but buying a car can be too! Art is different in that it can create harmony or a sense of nostalgia. I find that most clients want something that works well in their space, but that also holds meaning for them. There is usually something about the work that they continue to come back to. Clients are very sophisticated and do their research. They want to know about the artist, the materials and process. Is the artwork a good investment? My job, along with my team, is to guide them to find something special, that ticks all the boxes and makes them feel good.
We’re living in an unprecedented time with Coronavirus, and its impact on small business has been significant. What has your experience been like as a small business owner, particularly one that sells something like art?
When this first started, I thought we would really struggle. But it’s been several weeks now, and I’ve found my online business is stronger than ever. Sorelle’s first website was coded in 2008, and I’ve had four different websites since then. In the last 6 months, we launched a new site which was a major investment for a major update, and it paid off. We had also decided to start offering high quality and limited-edition prints just before the virus hit; we wanted something for clients that loved our artists but that didn’t have the budget for original art yet. I knew we were missing out on that market, so last year I invested in the equipment needed for selling fine art prints on-demand. Our artists are able to opt in to license their images, which creates an added source of revenue so they can continue to make art. So, I think that plan has paid off… we’ve been fortunate and done well throughout the pandemic, particularly by being accessible online to a very recently expanded audience.
Do you see yourself changing your business strategy or operations at all once we are on the other side of the shutdown?
Yes, but we are always changing. As a business you have to embrace change, or you will become obsolete. The virus forced us to regroup quickly and adapt to having the entire team work remotely. We already had some team members working remotely so it was a comfortable transition, but a transition nonetheless, at a time when we were planning to move to a new store location in Westport. Instead of moving, everyone went home and we have Zoom calls twice a day. We have had the time to become laser-focused on the online business, which has been amazing. We've also gotten to know each other better, which may not have happened as easily prior to the virus because things were moving so fast. When we come back, I hope our world remains a little slower, and I’m looking forward to what the new gallery in Westport brings.
What do you see for Sorelle going forward?
I see a vast online business with more tech innovation to complement the storefront. I see my artists thriving and making great art with more financial success. I see clients finding that perfect art that will make them smile every time they look at it. While I love the way technology can connect us to anyone anywhere, I still love my retail gallery, because you can have that one-on-one with a client or designer and I’m happiest talking about art all day! And, I hope my team follows in this journey with me for a very long time; Maybe they will bring Sorelle into the future when I am gone. After all, we are ‘Sorelle!’ Did you know that ‘Sorelle’ means ‘Sisters’ in Italian? You’ll have to read ‘Our Story’ for that one!
What is your favorite part of owning a fine art gallery?
Everything! It took a long time to get here but I am the luckiest person on earth because I get up every day and do what I love. And there is always something new around the corner to try!