Art and Adaptability with Russell Collection Fine Art Gallery Owner, Lisa Russell
All businesses face challenges, but few founders have the ability to adapt the way that Lisa Russell, owner of the Russell Collection, has. Despite choosing the wrong initial location, being the victim of art theft, and getting dropped by her insurance company, Lisa has consistently found a way to roll with the punches and reposition her gallery for success.
foundingAUSTIN: What inspired you to open up an art gallery?
Lisa: Since I was a little girl I always wanted to own a retail store, but I never knew exactly what I wanted to sell. When I moved to Austin I started checking out the different art galleries because I’ve always been around art, my father is an art collector, my mentor was an art dealer, my mother is a designer and my grandmother is an artist. Then I realized that no one in Austin was selling any art by the masters. Around Austin, we had about 18 small galleries and most of them were owned by the artists themselves. So I decided I would bring something really unique to Austin—something that was museum quality. I opened 14 years ago in the Arboretum carrying only master works by Rembrandt, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, and Chagall.
fA: Who are your clients?
Lisa: My gallery has changed since it opened. I have 80 percent contemporary art now and 20 percent masters. We work a lot with all the new condo developments, hotels and companies moving into Austin as well as with clients all over Central Texas and around the U.S. When I first opened my gallery, downtown was very sleepy and there was nothing going on, which is why I decided on the Arboretum. I struggled there, so I ended up downtown and my clients have changed as I started venturing more into representing contemporary art versus the masters.
fA: Do you have an ideal client that you like working with?
Lisa: No, I think they’re all fun. I mean, the clients that I like working with best are the ones that I see attach their eyes to a piece of artwork and can’t get away from it. And it brings them such joy and happiness. I also like working with designers. It’s fun because they’re incorporating the art into their designs. But one-on-one with the clients, when you see the emotion that a piece of art evokes in them and you know you’re helping them acquire something that’s going to add beauty and love into their life, it’s like the most extraordinary experience for me.
fA: How do you measure success for your gallery? Is it through annual sales or percentage of growth?
Lisa: Annual sales. I think sometimes in the art business, and in the art market, if you pay any attention to what’s going on in auctions, it’s all very cyclical. They say for investment purposes (and I do not sell items for investment purposes) that if it increases in value then that’s just a bonus because someone’s purchasing a piece of art that they love and simply want to be around. But over an 8- to 10-year period of time you should see about a 10 percent increase in the value of art. So, as far as my sales are concerned, it really depends on what shows we are having that year and whether or not that show is a success or not.
There really is no way for me to predict that growth each year. I think it’s just based on what the collections are and where the art market is and where the stock market is. I’ve found lately that there is a direct correlation between my art sales and the stock market. When the market goes down, people start buying art again. When it’s up, they’re holding onto their money and investing in the stock market versus the art market. I would have thought it would work the other way around, because if they’re making a lot of money in stocks then they have enough money to buy art, right? Art is tangible. You can touch it, you can hold it, you can feel it, and it’s going to bring you joy while the market is down. But I have noticed every single time the market drops I suddenly start making big sales again.
fA: What was the inspiration for your company?
Lisa: I believe I’m a natural born salesperson. I just have a talent and once the idea was proposed to me that I should open up an art gallery in Austin, it was a perfect fit. It was something that I never thought I would do. I’ve been to great museums, as I grew up in Los Angeles, California. I’ve been exposed to amazing art throughout my life. And I never ever thought I would be doing this—selling art—but I knew I wanted to sell something, so this is perfect. It worked out that my dream of opening a retail store kind of got combined with the most beautiful thing I could ever do, and that is be around art 24/7. I guess that’s the inspiration.
fA: Did you self fund or did you get investors? How did you approach that?
Lisa: I did not have investors. My family helped me with the build-out of the Arboretum location, and the business has taken care of itself since then.
fA: What would you consider the top strengths that were crucial to your success?
Lisa: My ability to understand marketing and to do my own bookkeeping or accounting. All of those skills I learned getting my MBA from Arizona State University. I think my personality and my ability to manage my employees are probably the top two strengths that I have, besides selling. I don’t sell as much now as I did at the beginning, 14 years ago. Now I have a full staff of people who are trying to make a living selling art, so I don’t get in their way, I just help facilitate what they need to have happen. I also look for artwork for clients that may not be in the gallery. I have a few clients that only want to work with me because we have such a history together, but for the most part I’m trying to build wonderful lives for my employees where they’re selling, learning about art and having fun with it.
fA: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Lisa: I would like to double or triple my growth in sales with the expansion into Lakeway. I’m hoping that we’re going to have enough success that I can provide more jobs in Austin. I would like to hire a fulltime bookkeeper or accountant. It’s getting a little too complicated for me to do all of the time.
fA: What is the most difficult lesson that you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
Lisa: I think the first most difficult lesson that I’ve learned was not realizing that location, location, location was the key to being successful. I didn’t know enough about Austin when I first opened the gallery and about the different neighborhoods and the locations and where I should really situate myself. For the first four years that I was in the Arboretum in the north part of Austin, I really struggled. As soon as I moved downtown, everything changed.
fA: What do you love the most about being an entrepreneur?
Lisa: The creativity of being able to experiment with different ways of marketing my business and the ability to meet all these people because the art business is actually a small world so I feel like I have this really strong art community surrounding me all around the globe. I think that’s most rewarding for me—knowing that we all help each other in this business. I mean it’s a bit ruthless at times, and it’s a very male-dominated business in some respects. But, at the same time I feel like I’ve been embraced by some really important dealers in London, New York, Australia, and other places.
I also love the fact that as an owner of a business I have the freedom to properly raise my children and be involved in their lives on a daily basis while still taking risks and growing and making myself better. I feel fulfilled in every which way. Through my family, through my kids, through my business, through my friends, and through my clients. I have so many incredible clients who’ve gotten me involved in charities that I would’ve never known about. I helped start the first set of fundraising for the Seton Breast Care Center with Susan Lubin and Marcia Levy. We created this amazing event called Hope, and it involved my artists and we auctioned off all the art. We raised somewhere between $25,000 and $50,000—and that was the beginning of their journey, I think, to raise $6.5 million. I love meeting people like that.
fA: Do you have a favorite mistake, something that at the time was a negative that turned out positive?
Lisa: I recently had some flooring issues in the gallery and I had to close down for two weeks to have my floors redone. I found out and I thought, “Oh that’s horrible. I can’t do this now. I can’t close and give up the sales.” It actually turned out to be a positive thing because once we reopened and everyone saw what we’d done, all these people started coming in saying, “I thought I’d come by and check it out.” And of course all of those visits turned into sales so it was actually quite nice that this little flooring problem happened. I don’t really know if that was a negative or a mistake, but it was certainly something I didn’t expect to happen and now that it has happened, I’m glad it did because the gallery looks phenomenal.
Also, about two years after I opened the gallery I was robbed. I had two $60,000 Picasso linocuts stolen and I got written up in the New York Times. You know how they say there is no such thing as bad press? It was true in this case! I actually gained quite a few clients from the East Coast as a result of that article. People started looking at my gallery online and decided, “I’m going to call her, I like that piece.” That was an interesting thing. I was panicked and freaked out when it happened, and as much as the theft hurt and as much as it hurt that my insurance company dropped me after that, it did gain me some publicity and some notoriety as a gallery in Austin that carries the masterworks. And for the record, I now have a super sophisticated security system!
fA: Did they ever find those pieces of art?
Lisa: No, they still haven’t found them. We thought we had located one or both of them two different times. One time, I was at an art expo in New York City a year or two after the robbery, and this lady from Houston approached this dealer friend of mine and said, “Hey, I have these pieces for sale.” And he said that she described those two missing pieces to a T. She was supposed to come back the next day to bring them to him so that he could buy them from her, but she never showed up.
fA: What’s the best advice you received while you were starting your business?
Lisa: Don’t start a business and walk away from it expecting somebody else to take care of it for you. There’s no one better than you to get your business up and running. I know a lot of people who have started a business and they’ve done it with the intention of having a manager be there. They’re like, “I’m going to open my own business. I have freedom, I’m going to go do other things.” But you know the minute you turn your eye from your business, bad things happen. I guess that’s why I still do my own accounting today.
fA: What advice would you give an aspiring startup?
Lisa: Take your time. Don’t make hasty decisions. Make sure you have a business plan, and you have a grasp on how you’re going to grow.
fA: What would you tell a mom at home right now who’s thinking about starting a business?
Lisa: I think that women are fairly intimidated by starting their own thing because society says that as women we shouldn’t be as successful as men, so to speak. I really don’t feel that is the case. I feel that we’re as strong as anybody else and we can make a statement by taking a risk and starting our own business and working hard and showing that we are more than just women, or more than just mothers, or caretakers, or homemakers, or nurses. That we can be successful and we do know what we’re doing.
fA: When you hang the hat up, where do you see yourself?
Lisa: I see myself as a grandmother and I’m going to be wherever my children are to be around my grandchildren and to be able to do the things my grandparents did with me when I was a child. Because I think my kids have missed out on that part of life. I used to spend every summer as a kid with my grandparents in Arizona and those were some of the best times of my life. My grandparents took me on these amazing trips to Israel, to New York, and to Washington D.C., and to all these different places. I’d like to be that for my children’s children. That’s when I’d like to retire.
fA: Who inspires your or motivates you?
Lisa: My brother. He is 53 years old and he is a recovering addict. He got sober when he was 40 and he is probably one of the smartest human beings I know. He went from being on the streets to getting sober and owning three businesses. He now owns a rehab addiction company that is very successful and a catering company. Talk about ultimate entrepreneur. And he helps all these people who’ve been where he’s been. He hires them, helps them find some peace, solace, solidarity and a job. He does these amazing things for people. I’m like, “You went from just about dying to becoming this extraordinary human being.” So, the fact that he can turn his life around now and be as successful 14 or 15 years later, it’s amazing to me. So, whenever I need advice, he’s the one I call.
To find out more about Russell Collection Fine Art Gallery and learn about upcoming events, visit the website russell-collection.com.