by Jenn Bergin
Rick Jones has dedicated his career to serving as an advocate for the arts. Last year, at age 67, he retired as founding director of the Fitton Center for Creative Arts, a nonprofit organization offering arts education, events, exhibitions and opportunities for community engagement in Hamilton, Ohio.
But he didn’t stop working. Instead, he did quite the opposite. Rick and his wife leased a 1,600-square-foot space in downtown Hamilton and opened an art supply store.
“I wanted to be part of the community’s downtown arts revival,” Rick explains. “That inspired our store and its name, Renaissance Fine Art Supplies.”
Revitalization through the arts
Hamilton is a midsize Rust Belt city, part of the metropolitan Cincinnati area. The city turned to the arts as a way to bring it back from a long, dreary period marked by the loss of big business, particularly paper manufacturers. (Hamilton was once home to Beckett Paper, which made Strathmore papers for years.)
In the early-’90s, as part of a Cultural Action Plan to use arts for civic improvement, the Fitton Center opened on the Great Miami River, one block from downtown.
At the time, Hamilton’s “arts culture” was limited to a community theater and small symphony orchestra. “The center was the beginning of our arts renaissance,” Rick says. Having spent a decade working to build a community arts center in Wooster, Ohio, Rick was hired to manage the plans and fundraising (over $6 million initially) for the Fitton, and develop the center from the ground up with staffing and programs.
“Ideas were slowly vetted and adopted to lure creatives to the community,” he explains. In 2000, a master-planning effort called Vision2020 began, and Hamilton was officially declared the “City of Sculpture.” The initiative recognized the community’s large and growing collection of public sculpture, as well as its 265-acre Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum.
In 2010, a new city manager brought in young talent and renewed determination. Since then, the city has added an amphitheater in a new downtown park and the $11 million Artspace Hamilton Lofts. The mixed-use arts facility features 42 live/work spaces for artists and their families. Renaissance Fine Art Supplies opened on the ground floor.
It’s designated commercial space for creative businesses, galleries and retail. Other tenants include a craft brewery, shops and restaurants, a grocery-deli, and an adult game park.
Renaissance is the only art supply store in the area, but there are plenty of independently-owned “artsy” stores nearby selling handmade items, re-purposed found objects, pottery, woodworking and more.
“I now have an opportunity to help the creative community in a different way,” Rick says. “With the resurgence of this community through the arts, more artists are moving here and talents are being rediscovered. Hamilton needed a quality art supply store.”
Maker, marketer, manager, merchant
“As an arts center director, I worked with people from many different backgrounds, and managed a 48,000 square-foot facility with dozens of employees and programs,” Rick says. “But researching, planning and launching an art supply store in a 1,600 square-foot space has been my biggest challenge yet!”
Learning about vendors, buying inventory, and merchandising and marketing products was new and exciting but not easy, he admits. His connections in the community helped – he already had established relationships with bankers, CPAs and legal professionals.
With an MFA in painting, Rick has a vast knowledge of the products he sells, which range from airbrush supplies to paint and adhesives. He once studied under famed Abstract Impressionist Grace Hartigan, and taught college-level visual arts. “This helps me find what customers need, and if we don’t have it, we get it for them or recommend something else.”
Rick’s wife Chris, a professional basket maker for 25 years, and their son Brandt, a computer artist and writer, are his business partners. Working with family has been the hardest transition, he says, because “I’m no longer the boss, I’m just the owner! I take on many tasks that were handled by a staff of employees in my ‘former life,’ but I love every minute.”
He focuses on buying, marketing, odds and ends, and social media. He uses Facebook ads, Google and Yelp to promote the store, and article marketing to increase brand recognition. So far, he has written a dozen art-related articles for EzineArticles.com and other online sites. He’s a publicist at heart: when the store first opened, Rick sent a media release to at least 90 news outlets. It must have worked – nearly 400 people came to the store’s opening reception!
Recently, Renaissance Fine Art Supplies opened its online store, and offers more than 35,000 products for sale at rfasupplies.com. The store celebrated its one-year anniversary this November.
Black and white and lights all over
The store’s lighting draws almost as much attention as its range of inventory, Rick says. Above the angled gondolas in the back are two rows of 4-foot, single-tube T8 fluorescent fixtures. Hanging across the 20-foot-wide front window are four “steampunk-ish” fixtures at different heights. Two rows of large industrial can fixtures hang between the fluorescents.
The floor itself is a focal point, says Rick. “The retail space has a simple vinyl tile floor, but my wife thought it might be interesting if people entered and stepped onto a large gray scale. So, it gradually goes from black to white as you come in.”
The store’s layout – angled rows of gondola shelving down the center and high wall shelving around the perimeter – is driven by the shape of the space. “It’s 22 feet wide and 70 feet deep,” explains Rick. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best way to create the most merchandising space without feeling crowded, while still meeting ADA requirements.”
Walls and fixtures are black to highlight product and “add a bit of class.” He built the store’s cashwrap and movable display units to use in open space up front, but recently decided to add another gondola there for better merchandising. Inventory is displayed by category, because “not mixing things up too much creates less confusion for the customer.”
The happy place
“Our store is like good a friend,” Rick says, “willing to listen and ensure your happiness. We get to know our customers and understand what they’re working on. We want to help them find what they need to make the best project possible. Our Return Policy says it best.
Happiness is our return policy. If you don’t like what you bought here, bring it back. Together, we’ll find happiness. No receipt required.
Future plans for Renaissance include adding classes, custom framing, and eventually a second location. “Who has time for retirement?” Rick asks.
One day their son will likely take over, or maybe he’ll decide to sell. “Then we’ll travel or make art, or even play golf or fish – who knows? Right now we see ourselves at the store for the duration.
“We choose to remain agile and flexible when it comes to life and work. This way we miss far fewer opportunities. And, it’s more fun!”