Shop Talk

Bridges: Pleiades Gallery keeps its business plan fluid

Your idealistic small-business idea may be amazing, and people may love it. But despite either of those factors, if owners aren’t realistic, they don’t have a chance.

That’s why I appreciate the effort that sculptor Renee Leverty and painter Kim Wheaton have put into building a sustainable, contemporary art gallery in downtown Durham.

From the start, the community embraced Pleiades Gallery and its interesting mix of sculptures, photographers and painters. Still, people loving the work and idea won’t keep the doors open, but realistic planning and making adjustments will.

Before Leverty and Wheaton opened Pleiades in April 2013, they spent six months working with the Durham Tech Small Business Center. The center’s Director LaShon Harley walked them through developing a business plan, creating a model, financing and forecasting.

They developed a cooperative-like model in which 10 artists, including Leverty and Wheaton, would split rent and utilities and 20 percent of art sales would go to other gallery expenses, such as credit card processing, marketing and light bulbs.

The artists signed a contract outlining the relationship, which included only Pleiades artists being shown at the gallery, except for an annual community show. The model also relied on consensus among the 10 artists when making business decisions.

At the gallery’s one year mark, Leverty and Wheaton went back to Durham Tech and assessed their effort, and then turned to SCORE, a national nonprofit that offers free counseling and low-cost workshops.

While meeting with a SCORE counselor, typically retired executives or current or former entrepreneurs, they explored their goals and the art market in the Triangle.

They had conversations with other gallery owners, directors and Pleiades artists. They sought to understand priorities and opportunities to improve their model.

“Through that we realized we had to change,” Leverty said. “We have to evolve our model, and we had to change our contract.”

Through research they learned that featuring an artist is important, so they constructed an upstairs space where each Pleiades artist can host a one-month show. The new model, which went into effect in January, also allows one-third of the gallery space to be used for different things, including visiting artists. Leverty and Wheaton also nixed the idea of relying on consensus, as it was preventing them from quickly responding to opportunities.

Leverty and Wheaton pulled paying utilities from the equation, hoping to make the opportunity more affordable for artists.

When they proposed the new agreements, three of the 10 artists opted out.

In general, the changes have brought new energy and more traffic, they said, and an understanding that change is just part of the entrepreneurial process.

“Our model evolves as we learn more about the process and how to move with the market and the art world in the region,” Wheaton said.

Bridges: 919-829-8917;

Twitter: @virginiabridges