When Nicole Phillippe, of Memphis, decided to take a leap of faith and open an art gallery, the first thing she did was break the rules.
Nicole Phillippe, a recent Memphis College of Art graduate, has opened Allie Cat Arts at 961 S. Cooper St. in Cooper-Young, which features all local artwork.
(Photos: Lance Murphey)
“Everyone usually tells you to narrow down to a specific market, but I wanted to reach out to a wide market. I wanted to create a place for everybody,” said Phillippe, owner of Allie Cat Arts at 961 S. Cooper St. “So many people told me it couldn’t be done, but I just said, ‘I’m going to make it work.’”
As a result, the eclectic space, which held its grand opening in August, pretty much banishes any preconceived notions of art snobbery and intimidating curators. The 1,000-square-foot gallery is filled with paintings, photography, sculpture, pottery, glass art, furniture, mixed media pieces, handmade clothing and jewelry in a variety of sizes and, most importantly to Phillippe, price ranges.
“My goal is to bring art and handmade goods to more people. There aren’t a lot of galleries that cater to the average person,” she said. “I want mine to be a fun, unpretentious, funky place where a regular person without much money can feel just as comfortable as a high-end art collector.”
However, finding that happy medium was difficult, Phillippe said.
“Many big-name galleries are white walls with ginormous, expensive paintings,” she said. “And then you have the smaller gift shop-type places where sometimes the quality is just not there. That’s not what I’m going for.”
Like many young artists, Phillippe explored several avenues for channeling her talents into a lucrative career path. A 2006 graduate of Memphis College of Art, she originally set her sights on a career in animation. Later, she switched her major to computer arts. She worked at the Memphis-based children’s magazine Jabberblabber and also as a freelance graphic designer before being selected as one of 100 recipients of former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen’s funding for art teacher training.
Phillippe, currently at Sherwood Elementary, has been teaching art at Memphis City Schools for the past six years. She considers this unexpected turn of events in her career to be serendipitous, as the spark of inspiration for her gallery came from a fellow art teacher, Barry Joyce, a Memphis artist who teaches at Evans Elementary and works as a customer correspondent at FedEx.
Allie Cat Arts at 961 S. Cooper in Cooper-Young features local artwork at all price points.
“He is an incredible artist, but he teaches full time, works at night and has kids in college – he just doesn’t really have the time to promote his work,” she said. “And his pieces are definitely meant for a gallery setting.”
She thought of other friends whose talents also were going unnoticed and decided to do something about it. She took free small-business classes at the Memphis Public Library and enlisted the help of the Memphis Small Business Association in reviewing her business plan.
Then, with $2,000 from her savings account, a lucky find on a great lease for a space next to Café Olé in the Cooper-Young neighborhood, and a lot of handyman work from her boyfriend, Dan Schultz, she made her longtime dream of opening her own gallery – one she had envisioned since high school – come true.
So far, her vision for supporting local artists has been realized. Since the gallery’s opening, Joyce has sold three large pieces there. He works in various mediums – watercolor, acrylic ink, mixed media, crayon batik – and his creations range in price from $200 to $1,000. He said Memphis can be a tough place for an artist, and good relationships with gallery owners definitely help.
For those budding Memphis artists who don’t have gallery ownership aspirations, there are many other paths to success here, but most of them still require an enterprising and perceptive nature, he said. He advises local artists to pay attention to the changing needs of Memphis art buyers, for instance, and to be willing to adapt, but without compromising their artistic viewpoints.
“People in this town are nostalgic, and there was once a boom for art that referenced Memphis and its roots,” Joyce said. “We used to be a $500 art town, but now tastes are getting more sophisticated. Sometimes it’s more about interior design elements and color schemes than subject matter.”
And no matter what, don’t give up, he said. Success in the Memphis art industry takes time, as evidenced by Phillippe’s multifaceted career path.
“Keep working, keep doing what you do, show your work at festivals, network with gallery owners, go out there and keep looking for new opportunities to get your name out there,” Joyce said.
Liz Lee Scruggs, another local artist who shows her paintings at Allie Cat Arts, can attest to that advice. A lifelong Memphis resident and self-taught artist, she’s been pounding the pavement off and on for several years for opportunities to show her work.
“At one time, any place in town that would let me hang my art, I would do it,” she said.
Scruggs even reached out to galleries in New York City, and recently, she received an offer for a rather prominent one. Unfortunately for them, that offer came with a gallery exclusivity requirement, and Scruggs had already found a home.
“Allie Cat Arts has an amazing energy about it, and the fellowship among the artists here is very rare,” she said. “There’s no competition. We all want to see each other succeed. The big New York City galleries, they’ve said to me, ‘We only want your very large pieces.’ But Nicole said, ‘Give me everything you’ve got.’ And the first week I showed there, I sold a painting. That’s when I knew this is where I’m meant to be right now.”