Karen Desnick is a fine art framer who I literally met online www.metroframe.com. I’ve always been mystified by the whole art framing industry which is peripheral to the art world, yet plays a crucial role in how art is presented and perceived. Plus, how does someone even become a fine art framer? Read on and find out …
MICHAEL: Hi Karen, thanks for chatting with me. Framing seems so mysterious to many people including me. First of all, when you were a little girl growing up, did you imagine that you would become a framer? How did you get into it?
KAREN: My family has had a framing business since the 1960's. It was the last thing I thought I would end up doing. My first real job was in advertising in New York. My husband and I both worked and lived in NYC and loved it. Because we were in advertising, my family would ask us advice regarding marketing and advertising so we remained interested in their framing business. The advertising business started to become less glamorous to us and we had an opportunity to invest in the family business and to help it grow. We decided to move back to Minneapolis. My husband's degree is in art history and both of us have always been interested in the art world. Like most businesses that last, we have had to adapt and change to the marketplace. We originally were in the retail framing business with multiple stores. What made us unique was that we did our own finishing. In the 1980's, it became clear that there was a surplus of retail framers and it was becoming more difficult to make a living in that segment of the market. The niche in the market that was being under served was the fine art market. We decided to change directions. We started closing our retail stores and moving into manufacturing. The real need in the marketplace was for a wholesale source of fine art exhibition frames for artists and photographers. We originally outsourced our moulding production, but it quickly became clear we needed to make our own. We have continued to purchase equipment that allows us to mill, sand and finish very high quality moulding and custom made frames. In addition to artists and photographers, we now sell directly to most of the major museums in the country as well as galleries and picture framers who specialize in framing contemporary fine art. Because we are a manufacturer, we do a lot of custom milling and finishing for museums such as replicating period frames. Custom work is also often done for very large artwork which requires custom milling. We just sent out a frame for a Jasper Johns’ piece that was 119" x 57".
MICHAEL: Wow. Still, I would think there are quite a few custom fine art framers in places like New York and Los Angeles (no disrespect to Minneapolis). Can you name any museums that you guys work with and how did you get their attention?
KAREN: Some of the museums we work with are: Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery, Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Milwaukee Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Walker Art Center, Center for Creative Photography, Phoenix Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Museum. Your assumption that New York or Los Angeles has plenty of fine art framers (and they do) and therefore there would be no need to purchase from a Minneapolis company is not an unusual one. It reminds me of a quote that Mario Batali’s partner said about him in an interview in the NY Times. He was asked to describe him and he called him the most optimistic person he knows - bordering on delusional. I laughed when I read that because that is what most people thought when we started marketing to museums -especially those on the East and West Coast. When people ask me how we got into the museum market, I tell them this story. There was one museum on the East Coast that I called on for 8 years. The person I was contacting was unfailingly polite and we didn't even get a nibble. On the 9th year, we got our first order and now they are one of our best accounts. The best way to market any product is face to face. We like to visit our customers and or potential customers and find out what they need. Listening is critical and when you have the opportunity to talk face to face, it is much easier to understand what, if anything you can provide them that they aren't getting with their current suppliers. Some of our best products have come out of meetings we have had with customers, helping them solve their framing problems. There is a lot of stress in mounting an exhibition. Our customers have to know that when they order 150 frames for an exhibition that is opening in a month, that they will be beautifully made and arrive on time. It isn't hard to be "delusional" when you know you have a product that will solve your customer's needs.
MICHAEL: You're clearly a savvy businessperson. I love your philosophy about meeting people face to face. It's becoming a lost art which is a shame. What you do isn't only a business, but also an art form in itself. As you know, there are people out there who actually collect fine art frames and display them alone. What do you think about this?
KAREN: I can't say that I am familiar with collecting frames and displaying them alone. This is probably because our customer base is made of organizations, businesses and individual artists and photographers who need frames to display their work in exhibitions. The vocabulary for contemporary exhibition frames is very limited, making them less likely to be collected and displayed by themselves. More decorative period frames are very beautiful and I can see why collectors would like them. I once had a private tour of the National Gallery and we spent as much time discussing frames as the artwork. As beautiful as they are, I'm not sure I would hang them without art.
MICHAEL: Funny. Still, my point is that frames really are a big deal. They can really make or break a piece of art. I can't tell you how many times I've been in great museums like the Met and have seen frames that I've loved and ones that I didn't like so much. I suppose it's subjective. What role do you think frames should play in the overall presentation of art?
KAREN: I totally agree with that. When you look at a framed piece of artwork you should see it as a total presentation. If you see the frame first, it is too strong for the picture, if you see the artwork first, the frame is not strong enough for the picture. There are many times I go to museums and mentally check off which framing presentations work and which don't. Selecting the right frame presentation is critical and curators and preparers spend endless hours of research making sure the presentation is perfect for their exhibitions. A good case in point is the Andre Kertesz frames we custom milled and finished for the “Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918–1945” show at the National Gallery of Art. In this case, they wanted a frame that was appropriate for his Hungary photographs and a different frame that was appropriate for his Paris photographs. Our website has these frames featured www.metroframe.com/custom-milled-frames. I can assure you the amount of thought and work that went into the exhibition to ensure the frames were not only historically accurate, but complementary to the artwork was extensive. And of course, color is a critical element. We often custom finish frames to customer's specifications. We have added 3 whites and a graphite finish to our standard line that were originally customer requests. That gets back to our previous conversation about listening and responding to your customers.
MICHAEL: Well, you've certainly explained why custom art framing doesn't come cheap, but what about framing from national store chains? Why is it so expensive?
KAREN: The picture frame market uses the traditional marketing methods of many larger industries. The industry has wholesalers that almost exclusively outsource their manufacturing overseas. In order to reach a broad market, they need to carry 1000's of different styles of mouldings, many of which are not big sellers. (The old rule 20% of my inventory makes up 80% of my sales.) They import their moulding and have distribution centers around the country. The distributers then sell to picture framers or chain stores who in turn sell to the public. The distribution and inventory costs of the wholesaler and distributer and the overhead of the retail chain store all is factored into the price of the frames. For this system to work each part of the chain has to be profitable.
MICHAEL: Is that also how your company works?
KAREN: Metropolitan has chosen a very different path. We do not sell through distributers. By selling direct we can eliminate the distribution costs. We have chosen to concentrate on the contemporary fine art market. Within that market, we strive to service all aspects of what our customers need. By making moulding and frames to order and doing our own milling and finishing, we dramatically reduce the cost of carrying inventory as well as ensure the level of quality. Expensive is a relative term. Most of our customers find our products reasonably priced given the level of quality they receive.
MICHAEL: What kind of art do you like? Are you a collector yourself?
KAREN: My personal tastes are eclectic. I tend to like contemporary artwork from emerging artists. I have recently purchased some colored engravings and a handmade artist book. I wrote about it on our blog. When we travel, we visit our customer's studios. I see some amazing work. The work that I do purchase is mostly our customers. And, if I do say so myself, they’re a talented group. I think collecting is important and necessary if we believe art and the making of art is important. And I do. We try to support the importance of collecting by featuring our customers on our site, blog and Facebook and Twitter.
MICHAEL: Talented emerging artists always seem to be struggling … especially in economic slumps like the current one. I would think the situation is also tough for established fine art framers. How are you doing? Do you feel the economy is improving?
KAREN: This economy is challenging for almost everyone and our business is no exception. In times like this, it is much more important to think strategically. I've been through enough business cycles to know that this is not the time to pull back, but to invest. We are investing in infrastructure and equipment, so when the economy starts to recover, we will be positioned to take advantage of our new capabilities. Staying up to date with the technology is exhausting, but also exciting. I think social media and the internet is making it possible not only for businesses, but artists to market their work differently. Not every artist can or will be represented by a gallery. For those who don't fit into that mold, the internet is providing a different avenue. The biggest worry I have about the economy in the short term is the massive budget deficits the states have. The federal government just gave everyone a one year 2% decrease in their social security taxes. I think that savings will probably be taken back by the states when they raise taxes to balance their budgets. I don't see major differences in the economy in the coming year. Businesses will need to lengthen their outlooks for recovery and plan accordingly.
MICHAEL: I think that in times like these, people also do more soul searching about how to do things of more social value. How do you think your work and business help society?
KAREN: I don't think any business can be successful in the long term unless it cares about being of service to their employees, customers, and community. As I tell our employees, we are all in this together. It is a team effort. I feel the same about our customers and our community. And "delusional" as I may be, I believe we can all change the world if remain committed to serving others.
MICHAEL: Thanks for chatting Karen. This was great.
To find out more about Karen Desnick’s custom fine art framing business, check out their website at www.metroframe.com