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Nicole Marsh/MEDILL

Susan Seavey and Rachel Goodstein browse some of the artwork at Fortunate Discoveries.


Lincoln Park gallery’s twist on business a fortunate discovery

by Nicole Marsh
March 14, 2013



Nicole Marsh/MEDILL

Cindy Flaherty-Hutchinson gives advice on how artists can get their name out there.


Flaherty-Hutchinson started the new Lincoln Park-based art and design retailer Fortunate Discoveries Inc. in April last year with an unusual business model.


While a traditional retail outlet owns all of the product sold at its location, Fortunate Discoveries only owns the space and rents to various artists and designers, collecting a percentage of their sales.

From a customer’s perspective, having several artists and designers in one place means more selection.

“You can just keep looking and find new things,” said customer Susan Seavey. “This gives you a very wide variety of art, and it’s not all in one category or medium.”

This is a good deal for the artists too. According to Peter Gill, the communications director for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, one of the biggest concerns in retail is overhead cost.

“You have to have enough space for your stock, so anytime you can share that overhead cost it’s a good thing,” Gill said in an interview.

Individual artists and designers can customize their micro-gallery spaces any way they want. For example, Nora del Busto, a fashion designer who rents space at the company, painted her corner and added her business logo on the wall.

Photographer and digital illustrator Dominic Sondy has artwork in several online venues, including Zenfolio and Art.com, but prefers the intimacy of Fortunate Discoveries.

“As much as I am an online kind of guy, I don’t think artwork really shows as well online as in person,” Sondy said. “You can’t see the detail.”

Sondy also thinks the competition can be tougher online just because of volume: “There are places online, but the trouble is you’re one of a zillion people. You can go through those galleries forever.”

Flaherty-Hutchinson, along with two others, is in charge of maintaining the gallery and selling the merchandise, although individual artists are welcome and actually encouraged to talk to potential customers about their work.

The company collects rent from the artists and designers every month and also gets 10 percent of their sales. Rent for wall space starts at $150 per month, and retail booth spaces average from $215 to $425. The business model allows the company to have a steady income without taking on the inventory risk.

Because the company does not actually own any of the artwork, its profit is not dependent on whether the art sells. That being said, individual artists may come and go depending on how successful they are, but Flaherty-Hutchinson actually thinks that can be a good thing because customers like variety.

“The whole idea is for the designers and artists to be successful, and it’s not always the case,” said Flaherty-Hutchinson. “It’s not a negative when there is something different that’s here as far as when the artists change out.”

Customer Rachel Goodstein agrees, “I like to see variety. That’s why I go to art galleries every Friday.”

Currently, the gallery has close to 40 artists and designers, mostly from the local area, ranging from metal smiths and jewelers to fine artists. Chris Heck, whose company is called Midwest Mantiques, transformed a colander and some old pipes into a lamp. George Swanke, who is known for making beautiful jewelry out of water buffalo horn and brass, has a following in the area, said Flaherty-Hutchinson.

“This is very high quality work,” said customer Goodstein. “There is a lot of interesting, innovative things.”

“There’s such a big variety and there are so many items to pick from,” said Sondy who has been displaying his artwork at Fortunate Discoveries since November. The artist likes “the concept of having jewelry and clothing and all the crafts stuff as well as just wall art.”

Fortunate Discoveries is also starting to have repeat clientele. Flaherty-Hutchinson attributes the company’s success to its website and social media venues, such as Facebook and Twitter. The company also has a newsletter, which it updates regularly.

“My manager is responsible for maintaining the Facebook, Twitter, blog and updating the newsletters and getting the word out there that way,” said Flaherty-Hutchinson. “And doing it locally with the Lincoln Park Merchants Association, I think, is really critical as a collaborative effort.”

Flaherty-Hutchinson has also thought a lot about alternative means to get people in the door. The gallery introduced First Thursdays, which invites customers to sip wine while perusing the art every Thursday evening, and is considering offering art classes to get people in the door.

Flaherty-Hutchinson sees the company’s biggest challenge as marketing and promoting the business.

“Getting people in the door is ongoing. I am toying, contemplating whether or not print advertising is obsolete,” she said.

Another big challenge is weather. Fortunate Discoveries relies heavily on foot traffic, and with bad winter weather, customers are less likely to be ambling down Armitage Avenue.

“When they first opened it seemed like there was more of a buzz, and I just think it’s the weather,” said Suzanne Parrot at a recent First Thursdays event. Parrot has some of her paintings displayed in the gallery. “Nicer weather brings people out obviously.”

In general, clothing and jewelry tend to be the most consistent in terms of sales, according to Flaherty-Hutchinson. Not surprising since the typical customer seems to be a mature woman.

In terms of Fortunate Discoveries’ sales, the company is just coming up on its one-year anniversary.

“I am not swimming in the dough at this point,” said Flaherty-Hutchinson, who opened the business after her two sons started get older. “We are still considered a start-up. It will take a while to really be considered established.”

Nonetheless, customers and artists both agree that Fortunate Discoveries is good for the neighborhood. They say it’s a sign that Armitage Avenue is on the rise after vacant storefronts plagued the street during the economic downturn.

“I think it’s great for the neighborhood. I think it needs more places like this,” Parrot said.