Scott and Linda LaFontsee, owners of LaFontsee Galleries, celebrate a milestone in the artistic community by throwing a party and showing West Michigan what a 30-year commitment looks like. GR|MAG spoke with Scott LaFontsee about the gallery’s journey so far.
GR|MAG: Thirty years. When you say it out loud, it has a weight to it. When you reflect on it, how does the gallery’s 30 years in business feel to you?
Scott LaFontsee: Linda and I have been talking about that. It’s hard to wrap your head around. Thirty years is a big number. It feels great to know the things we’ve been working on have been successful.
GR|MAG: Take me back to where you started and what the Grand Rapids art scene was like at the time?
SL: The city was vastly different. There were hardly any galleries. Art at that time wasn’t what it is today. People didn’t have an appreciation, understanding or awareness of it. This community has grown up in the arts in all ways—in every area. Thirty years ago, if I wanted to hear jazz, there was one place to go, now you could hear it every night of the week.
Back then, Linda and I had three goals. Our first goal was to offer a place where artists felt like they could show and display in a professional setting. Our second goal was to have a place where the public felt like art was for them—nothing pretentious but to make it friendly we used to have art talks and rub shoulders with the artist and we still do these artist forward events. The third goal was to employ people in the arts. For some people, it was their first real job out of college in the arts. Those three goals are still the same today.
GR|MAG: How have you grown since inception? How has the city grown? I’m sure it’s a mutual process.
SL: We grew up as Grand Rapids grew up. We took the best work we could find, and we would show that—landscape or abstract—it was the power of the work, not the subject. We were more interested in helping artists find a place that could be theirs and to have a place for the public that felt like it could be for them, too.
ArtPrize has done that on a monster scale, 20 years after we’ve been doing it. I don’t know if ArtPrize could have done it then. It’s that circle of the community, artists and staff. It takes all three of those things. That’s why we chose the party name, “collective.” It’s a collective of those three efforts for 30 years.
GR|MAG: And you moved around a little bit too, right?
SL: The Underground Studio started in my basement for one year. Then we bought a tiny building on Grand Street and we were there for six years. It had 500 square feet and room to hang one piece of art. We really wanted a gallery space, so we moved to 820 Monroe Avenue and that was a classic gallery for exhibitions and education. We added a gift and homeware shop. People would come to that and to their surprise, be in a gallery all of a sudden!
In 2011, we moved back to East Hills (five blocks from where we started). We love the neighborhood. It’s diverse ethnically and economically and 833 Lake Drive is much larger and gives us space. In that same year we bought the building, we opened a second gallery in Douglas. As a business, we’ve grown now and carry more than 70 artists and have 18 employees. We’ve added corporate services, consulting and delivery and installation and custom printing and have become a full-service gallery.
GR|MAG: In your 30 years in the gallery business, what is the single, most enjoyable thing about working with and surrounding yourself with artists?
SL: The relationships! People that feel deeply are willing to go their own way. Working with artists and seeing people put themselves out there, it makes you realize artists are brave and it’s a very hard path. You take it because your soul says this is what I’m meant to do. Most artists create art whether there’s a place to show it or not. It’s who we are.
GR|MAG: Let’s talk about the party you are throwing to celebrate. What are some of the highlights?
SL: We’ll have someone spinning music and we’re building a photographic timeline and putting together videos of artists and their relationship to the gallery. Most artists will be attending. We’ll be giving behind the scenes framing and printing tours and demos.
GR|MAG: Looking forward, what do you want for the future of the gallery?
SL: The truth . . . we’re focused on my clients. What we need to do is keep our clients, artists and staff happy. The rest of it will fall into place. When we look forward, we’re trying to print more of our artists. We do a fair amount of P.O.D.—print on demand. This works especially for when a business client needs artwork for their lobby, conference area or employee room and they love a painting but can’t afford the original. We print one for them on their demand.
GR|MAG: What does art do for the world? Is it a healer? A teacher? Is it a way to talk to each other?
SL: It’s all those things. When 9/11 happened, over the next week attendance at the gallery skyrocketed. People were coming in every day. They were telling us they needed a place that felt safe or a place that felt like home—a place that had beauty. That explains it. Look at other art institutions after an election—same thing. People are looking for stability. They go to art.
At 833 Lake Drive, we are right on the thoroughfare of the neighborhood. We have a lot more traffic that aren’t buyers, groups of elderly just coming to look at art, families and kids come, people take their lunch break there. It’s slowly working that people feel like art is for them. And our community is better with more galleries, not less. I want you to spend your money on art, not diamonds or a Mercedes—those are my competitors. It’s what other people spend their discretionary money on.
GR|MAG: Imagine painting the story of your 30 years. What colors come to mind? What emotions?
SL: Linda is a gallery artist. My wife, she works harder at it then I do. She’s so committed to it—every day. She and I are a team and when I think of our 30 years in business I think of a big abstract painting. It’s filled with all kinds of colors, some quiet on the canvas and some loud. It’s a combination of so many people, artists and the community.
The LaFontsee Galleries party is Feb. 9, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The Collective: Working Together for 30 Years show runs through April 6. The party is free, handicap accessible and for all to enjoy. Learn more about the event on the gallery’s Facebook page.