Katherine Brown Galbraith, the owner and artist behind The Station Art Gallery in Westfield, New York, decided to start a plein air event in her town. Its success surprised even her. How did she do it?
The Wet Paint Show and Sale at the Station Art Gallery on August 3
Galbraith points to three factors in the success of the inaugural edition of Plein Air Westfield, which was held July 31 through August 3. First, the area around Westfield offers many subjects for painters. It’s one of the reasons she lives there. “Westfield should be on the map for artists — it’s a beautiful little town,” says Galbraith. “Plus, there’s the escarpment, the gorge, the beach on Lake Erie — lots to paint.”
Second, her gallery, the headquarters for the event, is a 1904 historic railroad station that once served as a passenger depot for the New York Central Railroad. It was decommissioned in 1971 and was recently purchased by Galbraith and her husband. The building is a sentimental favorite of Westfield residents, and the village was glad to see the station put to good use. “It is a public asset, and it has always meant a lot to the people of Westfield, so they were very supportive of us,” explains Galbraith. “At the time it was built, Westfield and Buffalo were the same size. There’s a lot of history there, so people were watching to see what we would do with the station.” When she needed help with parking issues or some of the other issues new businesses face, the village authorities and the local press were very helpful.
The exterior of the Station Art Gallery in Westfield, New York
And last, Galbraith, with the help of her husband and friends, made sure the movers and shakers in the town were kept informed of developments and invited to all events. “We had 200 people in our tiny little town attend the May 24 grand opening party,” she says. “We were amazed. We had a fantastic turnout and sold at least 10 paintings.” And later in the summer, nearly a third of the pieces painted during the plein air event were sold during the Wet Paint Show and Sale.
“Keep Tryst Farm,” by Katherine Galbraith
Galbraith also thinks the attendance of artists from outside the area helped spur interest and sales. As a painter, she has friends from various states, and she invited them to attend Plein Air Westfield and stay in her house. The artists were Jane Albin, Tom Annear, Elissa Gore, Al Newman, Mary Padgett, Hanna Rubin, Roberta Staat, and Galbraith. With Galbraith, they had a painting buddy, a plein air event organizer, and someone with a gallery who would put the new work on display. The results went beyond these modest promises. “My husband said to warn the artists that there might not be a good turnout, but we were all blown away,” Galbraith recalls.
Because it was a shoestring operation and an inaugural event, no awards were given. But one sponsor has already signed on for 2014, assuring a juried event with prizes, and all the participating artists said they wanted to come back.
Nass’s Day Lily Farm, one of the painting spots for Plein Air Westfield
What were the downsides to hosting the event? Galbraith dismisses the notion that Westfield is too remote for a successful event, pointing to the close-by Chautauqua Institution, a summer education program and resort that has drawn disparate people from Booker T. Washington and President Grant to George Gershwin, Jane Goodall, and Eliot Spitzer. “It’s a big draw,” she says. “If they can get to Chautauqua, they can get to us.”
So what are some of the pitfalls a newbie should consider when launching a plein air event? Galbraith wasn’t sure how things would go, so she did it all herself. She was an artist, a gallery owner, a hostess, an event organizer, and a caretaker. “Delegate, delegate, delegate!” Galbraith says. “It was hard. I wanted to paint, and I couldn’t. Don’t try to do it all yourself.”
Painting amid the flowers at Nass’s Day Lily Farm
Next year, artists might be housed by any number of Westfield residents. Many houses are big, reflecting the town’s rich past. The current residents are enthusiastic about Galbraith’s initiatives. “I don’t think you can have a plein air event and have it succeed if the community isn’t excited about it,” she says simply.