I owned and managed an art gallery in Burlington, VT from 2005-2010.
Review of Pine Street Art Works Published in Art Map Burlington. September 2008. Written by G. Blake Mcphail
When Liza Cowan lost her studio lease and a former factory space on Pine Street became available--commercially zoned and too large for a single artist’s studio-- the artist/entrepreneur came up with a vision for a retail gallery “literally, within twenty-five seconds.”
Cowan spent her youth in New York City surrounded by art. Her parents made it a priority in the family’s world. Cowan describes an early education that makes today’s primary school art programs sound tragically anemic by comparison. Her family also has a long history in retail and business. Today, Cowan melds these influences into the unique venture that is Pine Street Art Works. A portrait of her businessman grandfather hangs above her desk by the door, where Cowan can often be found posting to her blog and greeting customers.
Selling her own art had necessitated developing extensive business and marketing skills, and Cowan realized she could offer these skills to other artists. She had always been fascinated by, and good at, business and retail, having worked in postcard and ad specialties, designed window displays, and served as president of the Woodstock, New York Chamber of Commerce.
Following what Cowan calls a “career-altering” course in marketing photography, she had an epiphany: her chances of making a living as a fine art photographer were slim. Although this was devastating, during the course she also realized an important strength: her ability to understand, evaluate and critique art.
Thus, Pine Street Art Works was born out of “discouragement, self-evaluation, and real estate.”
The result is inspired, an emporium of one person’s eclectic taste that is personal and specific, yet also wholly inviting. This accessibility may be due to the contents, which blend aesthetic gold and consistent quality with a sense of humor (20th-century technicolor advertisements, circus posters, antique toys, paint-by-number paintings, Flashbags, and pottery table settings are some offerings), but possibly more important is Cowan’s explicit goal of allowing visitors to feel comfortable.
“It should be fun to walk into an art gallery,” she says. Having seen her share of snobbishness in gallery settings, Cowan feels that an arcane set of knowledge about art shouldn’t be a prerequisite. Visiting an art space is certainly a learning experience, but anyone should be able to walk through the door and learn in an unintimidating environment. Walk through the door they do, with Pine Street Art Works drawing visitors from all over the world. This is, of course, partly due to a strong web presence, but the Liza’s passion, ambition, and wide-ranging knowledge and taste don’t hurt.
The Pine Street Art Works space mirrors an original vision that has evolved somewhat. Separate but cohesive rooms, one of which resembles a rambling studio, are delineated by brightly colored walls that don’t extend all the way to the ceiling; mannequins in the windows wear saucy art-inspired ensembles, and a dressmaker’s dummy occupies a corner across from a stack of antique hatboxes. The gallery showroom resembles a living space--your cool older cousin’s city loft, maybe--filled with contemporary furniture by local artists, including Kirk Williams, Kat Clear, and John Marius. All of these elements underscore Cowan’s vision within an environment driven by the original factory space.
Many exhibition artists are found on the internet; some are acquaintances and friends; and some come to her through word-of-mouth. For the numerous artifacts populating her former factory space, Cowan attends auctions, digs through yard sales, accepts items on consignment, and displays her personal collection of ephemera, amassed over a lifetime. Acknowledging that certain of these last are not for sale, Cowan points out that Pine Street Art Works is, in a way, like a museum. Then she says, with a smile, “I like to say the place is like a museum where everything is the gift shop.”
Cowan, who expresses a strong desire to teach, learn and communicate, offers art with a distinct lack of pretension, generously inviting the public into a world where “pop culture is every bit as important as fine art culture.”