Beth Bergman couldn’t figure out how to make a living as an abstract painter. But she keeps both professional artists and enthusiasts well stocked through Wet Paint: Artists’ Materials and Framing, her independent art supply store on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue.
Bergman, who described herself as “very much a dabbler” as an artist, has had little time for picking up paintbrushes in the three decades since she acquired Wet Paint.
Instead, she’s poured her creativity and business acumen into guiding Wet Paint through economic ups and downs and technological changes that have seen others retailers in her niche consolidate or close.
Her longtime support of Twin Cities artists, work with local independent business groups and leadership in the industry’s national trade group have made Wet Paint one of the most widely known and well-respected independent art supply retailers in the country.
Bergman’s efforts also helped her get elected to the International Art Materials Association’s Hall of Fame in a presentation last month at the association’s annual conference and trade show, which took place in Minneapolis.
What’s her secret to keeping a small retail store going when, according to Bergman, only 10 percent of the population uses art materials and when 80 percent of that market is under the age of 18?
“If you talk to the people that work for me, they’d say I never let up,” said Bergman. “I always want to do things better than I did yesterday. Now the economic model demands that you’re constantly changing. What worked yesterday doesn’t necessarily work today. You have to keep working at it every day. There is no single answer.”
That’s in part why she has been an advocate for independent businesses like hers through the Grand Avenue Business Association and MetroIBA, the Twin Cities’ Independent Business Alliance.
Bergman, who has a degree in studio arts from Macalester College, was a classmate of Wet Paint founder Hugh Huelster. He sold art supplies in a corner of the Hungry Mind Bookstore near Macalester until he graduated and opened Wet Paint as a stand-alone shop in 1976, Bergman said.
Bergman, who helped start the Women’s Art Resources of Minnesota (WARM) gallery in 1976, worked in administrative accounting at Ecolab for eight years before she “retired from the cubicle life.” She worked at Wet Paint for six months before buying it in 1984 from Huelster.
“It seemed to be a very good match with my business skills and artistic interest,” Bergman said. “It is a business, but I feel like this has been my calling, owning a business, having employees and bringing these materials to a very underappreciated part of our culture, the artists.”
A recent marketing plan review, Bergman said, resulted in a new mission statement — “to match artists with the right materials and supplies so they can successfully fulfill their creative expression.”
It also led to a new focus on marketing more specifically to each of the store’s customer segments — professionals, college students and the general public — and to a newly identified group, enthusiasts. They are key, Bergman said, because of their numbers, buying power and, in some cases, proximity to the store. More marketing now is going through e-mail and social media.
Longtime customer Kent Aldrich of Nomadic Press, a commercial letterpress print shop, said the store’s knowledgeable employees keep him coming back to buy high-quality printmaking paper.
“I probably couldn’t have made it as far as I have without having her on the other end of the phone for the first decade of my doing this,” Aldrich said.
Professional artist Dan Bruggeman is a senior lecturer in art at Carleton College and longtime Wet Paint regular. “There are some fairly high-profile artists who live here or have lived here … who wouldn’t dream of buying supplies anywhere else,” Bruggeman said. “They take care of everybody.”
The expert says: Dave Brennan, marketing professor and co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business, encouraged Bergman to make personal contact with prospective customers at art shows and events to drive new business.
Brennan also recommended making plans to keep the business going.
“Generally speaking, being on Grand Avenue is a positive, and having longer-term employees is a positive,” Brennan said. “The issue down the line is going to be is [Bergman] the business. If she is, how does she perpetuate the business in terms of an employee or selling it to somebody else who is interested?”
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org