the standout

Colorful murals are nonstop advertisements for the store. They are often featured on TV, in tourism books, and on billboards and ads for Reno. “They’re the gift that keeps on giving,” says storeowner Debbie Wolfe.
by Tina Manzer

Relatively speaking, it’s a small store in a small market, but over the years Nevada Fine Arts (NFA) in Reno learned to think big.

2019, its 50th year in business, was its most successful yet. “Staying relevant is a constant challenge,” said photographer and co-owner Mark Hammon. “In recent years, we’ve addressed it by curating our offerings, focusing on customer service and diversifying our business.”

“NFA is actually six businesses in one 7,000-square-foot space,” explains Mark’s wife Debbie Wolff, an artist who bought the store in 2001. “We sell art supplies and do custom picture framing for individuals and corporations. We also sell gifts, including toys, cards, books, candles, and fun-and-funky, laugh-out-loud cool stuff. We do fine art reproduction and giclee printing. We offer art classes, and when our classroom is not being used for demos or teaching, we host meetings of local art and photography groups. We have a free art-book lending library, and a 300-square-foot gallery with shows that change every 30 days.”

It’s a busy place in a busy neighborhood. Six years after purchasing NFA, Debbie moved it into a building she bought in an up-and-coming part of town. Midtown Reno has been revitalized by “a group of original, inventive, courageous and like-minded entrepreneurs,” says Today, NFA is one of 250 businesses there that range from restaurants, bars and boutiques to gyms, salons, and wellness centers.

With a growing 14-person, all-artist staff, NFA is preparing for the next 50 years. In a recent interview, Debbie and Mark explained how.

Which side of your business is the most profitable?

Mark: Our frame shop with its mix of walk-in business and corporate clients, but it varies from season to season. The retail side becomes stronger during back-to-school and the holidays.

Our newest department, fine-art printing and art reproduction, dovetails with our framing shop. It has expanded our range of customers to include photographers and professional artists, traditionally a challenge for us to reach. It functions more as added value to our frame shop, but we are actively attempting to grow it into a standalone department.

Debbie: NFA began as a frame shop and added art supplies during the graphic-design and paste-up heyday. I purchased it from its second owner with my husband at the time. A few years ago, Mark bought out my ex-husband. He brought with him fresh insight, IT support and management skills, and his creative abilities as a photographer and an artist. He started the printing department.

Mark: We position our frame shop to offer a quality product with high-end options at an affordable price. We frame a wide range of art, from family heirlooms and high-end reproductions to original art.

Our other departments expand the reach of our brand. The gallery attracts a whole new group of people – some of whom didn’t know the store was here! Artists invite their contacts to our openings, and some have attracted as many as 150 people! We estimate that more than 500 people come here each month to see the show.

So you don’t have a “typical” customer.

Mark: We attract people who make and love art, want to learn to make art, who appreciate art, and who like creative things.

Back-to-school is a big season for us. There is the University of Nevada, Reno, in town, along with Truckee Meadows Community College. We work with the teachers to accommodate their class lists. We’ll set up tables in the store and lay out the products from the teachers’ syllabi so students can easily find their supplies. In some cases, we build kits so that students can purchase supplies for the class all in one bag.

Debbie: The student art market in Reno is small but we support it every way we can. For instance, we judge the community college’s student art show every year and give out store gift cards as prizes. Our outreach endears us to the local college art community and is a great form of advertising for us.

Mark: We also offer a student discount, a teacher discount, and a school discount for large orders.

The market encompasses more than schools and colleges. We extend discounts to people who take and teach classes here in our classroom, and at the Nevada Museum of Art and at small nonprofit and for-profit venues. When we look at it in its entirety, the student market is significant and we continue to try to grow it.

You mentioned a holiday season.

Mark: Yes, we have made headway into creating a holiday season at NFA. Debbie has built up a list of vendors whose unique, funny and creative gifts and toys make our store a destination for people seeking unique items for family members and friends. They take up about one-third of our main sales floor, and we have seen a major uptick in shoppers who come in just for them. It is not unusual to hear people in our gift section laughing out loud at the things they have found.

We increased the number of toys we sell, too, since the local Toys “R” Us went out of business. What we sell has a creative bent – Debbie’s goal is to carry things the big box stores do not. We are in the early stages of attracting this new market, but we are getting known for it already.

What are your bestselling art materials?

Mark: Nevada Fine Arts carries nearly 20,000 SKUs. We have core brands – Strathmore, GOLDEN, M. Graham, Daniel Smith, Sakura, MTN, Derwent, Arches, etc. – but we really sell variety over a large amount of any one brand. It’s breadth, not depth. We also strive to curate in lines that aren’t available in big-box stores.

What’s selling well right now?

Mark: It is hard to pinpoint new lines that are doing well without some analysis, but recent additions like Derwent Inktense Pencils, Posca Markers, and Sennelier Abstract Acrylics are popular now.

Our product ideas come from a combination of trade shows and vendor reps. Several reps have taken the time to learn our store and they recommend lines that work well here. We also listen to our customers, and we pay attention to internet influencers.

Does NFA sell craft products?

Mark: NFA is an art store and frame shop at its core. There’s a lot of competition in the craft category here in Reno, so we draw a pretty distinct line between art and craft. Mixed media and assemblage kinds of art make that line fuzzy, so we carry things like Mod Podge and other adhesives and mediums, plus specialty papers, dyes, and craft paint. Additional items that cross over include paint pens, alcohol inks, and marbling paints.

We embrace the growing mural-painting trend in the area, and we work hard to support tattoo artists, graphic designers, sign painters, pin stripers, and marketing departments. We carry Mack brushes, 1 Shot paints, spray paint, drafting supplies and a variety of mounting surfaces.

Debbie: After I bought the building, we decided to collaborate with a local muralist and his friends to paint large-scale murals here. It started something in our city, where there are many more murals now, and mural tours.

How about competitors – who are they?

Mark: We consider big-box stores and e-commerce sites competitors, and there are other specialty frame shops in town. Our highly curated selection of diverse products distinguishes NFA from other stores, as does our highly trained staff.

Recently, we have taken a harder stance against manufacturers who we believe have unfair selling practices. Some companies do not use the same pricing structure to sell to small retailers as they use to sell to large, online retailers. This is evident when I see product at or below the wholesale price being offered to us. It makes us look bad and, as a result, we have either greatly reduced those companies’ product lines here, or eliminated them completely.

Debbie: To differentiate themselves from competitors, small businesses need to think creatively, especially when it comes to promotion. For instance, the mural side of our building has been featured on TV, in tourism books, and on billboards and ads for Reno. It is not a traditional way to advertise, but it has been “the gift that keeps on giving.”

What are your plans for the next 50 years?

Debbie: We will continue to do cool projects – I love that aspect of our business. In the past, we partnered with the Nevada Museum of Art to photograph historic fine art, which was reproduced for coffee table books. We’ve collaborated with banks and hospitals to curate and find art, and then print and frame it. One project involved as many as 135 different pieces at a time. We sometimes work with artists to create huge lobby pieces.

Mark: As with the addition of our art reproduction and printing department, we will continue to be aggressive at identifying what is changing in that market, what our artists need from us and how to make the experience of buying art supplies more enjoyable, convenient, and productive.

There is no denying that the internet will continue to shape the way we connect, instruct, and interact with our customers. Nevada Fine Arts is looking to identify and grow these tools to better serve our community. We are currently well represented on Facebook, Instagram, email and with our website, which needs a refresh, but we are also looking at new online venues and tools to continue to grow our presence and add new levels of convenience for our customers.

Mark and Debbie are artists, and as photographers they document Burning Man, the huge annual art event in the Black Rock Desert, just two hours away from Reno.

“Reno is the gateway to this weeklong festival,” says Debbie. “Our involvement with this event has brought business to Nevada Fine Arts – another interesting and unconventional way we let people know we are here to serve our community in a creative way.

“Recently we were hired to document and photograph the Elko, Nevada, Mural Expo,” she continues. “More than 40 artists painted 60 murals in a week. Our distributors and manufacturers were very generous – they provided supplies for the goodie bag we gave to participants.”

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