CALL IT A ONE-STOP ART SHOP and gallery, with works available from more than 100 artists, framing and restoration services, custom commissions and installations—all delivered by an expert staff, most with decades of tenure.
But don’t call it a shop for Southwest art alone, says director Bob Malenfant.
When Southwest Gallery opened its doors in 1967, the owners chose a name that reflected the store’s location, not the art that would become so popular a decade or so later. “Our name was selected before Southwest art became known as a style,” he explains. “We carry a large variety of art and have the staff expertise to help people start a path to a collection.”
Employee service ranges from four to 53 years, the latter belonging to
Paul Walden, artist-in-residence and a restoration specialist, who has been with the company since its inception. Malenfant’s daughter, Michelle, who is 19, started helping out in the shop at age 7.
Offerings span the 19th to 21st centuries and include realism, Western art, impress-ionism, contemporary art, Southwest art and Texas landscapes. Mediums include painting and sculpture. An in-house fram-ing studio handles all types of art, whether or not it was purchased at Southwest Gallery. Customers are encouraged to take pieces to their homes on approval, to live with the art and make sure it suits their desires.
“It’s a fun place to work,” says Malenfant, who has been with the company for 37 years. “With 100 artists and six different styles, there are new pieces coming into the gallery two or three times a week. The ever-changing inventory makes it fun for the customers and fun for the staff.”
Another highlight of the work is the relationships the company has built with customers who are at a point in their lives to acquire art. “We’re dealing with people who are at a high point in their lives, with many ages up to 80,” he says. “They’ve educated their kids and have started to collect art. It’s a clientele that is exciting to deal with.”
Southwest Gallery is also home to the longtime art glass gallery Kittrell/Riffkind, which was acquired by Southwest in July 2015 and moved on-site in November of that year.
“It is a great complement, as paintings, sculpture and art glass go together so beautifully,” says Malenfant. “Many of their customers have become great Southwest customers now.”
Southwest Gallery occupies 16,000 square feet of showroom space, plenty of room for leisurely browsing and consulting, especially in the transition to reopening the economy safely during the pandemic. The gallery was closed for six weeks this spring and has now reopened in accordance with state and local guidelines.
“We want to accommodate our customers’ needs and demands,” he says. “We’ve gone to great lengths to make a clean and safe shopping environment.” This includes increased sanitizing, steam cleaning, and cleaning air conditioning units and filters, in addition to also wearing masks and maintaining 12 feet of social distancing when possible.
The shutdown also encouraged increased innovation for a team that is already accustomed to responding to customers’ needs. For example, in-home services already include installation and consulting on wall placements as well as commissioned work that involves sketches and renderings. The staff is continuing to work more with technology that places the art in any room setting, as well as using conferencing software to connect with clients.
As in so many businesses that depend on developing relationships, there’s a balance to figuring out what makes the customer feel safe and supported during the pandemic, especially as social distancing practices and preferences vary.
“We are working on ways to increase our online presence, especially since a lot of people are not going to be comfortable going to an art show for many months to come,” Malenfant says. It’s a challenge for his company, which is used to holding 10 art shows a year. For each, the artist would create 15 to 20 new paintings, and the gallery would hold an opening afternoon gathering of more than 100 would-be collectors. Due to the new protocols, Southwest Gallery is considering more FaceTime and Zoom sessions with artists. Clients may also prefer in-home appointments, where they have more control of the surroundings and can enforce their own practices.
Whatever the path forward in these business-as-unusual times, Malenfant believes that art is needed now more than ever.
“In dark times, people need to make their lives brighter and better, and art is one of the things that does that. Introducing a beautiful new painting in your home just makes you feel good.”
Freelance writer and editor Connie Dufner is a proud Texan transplant living in Washington, D.C. She is a former editor for Modern Luxury Dallas and The Dallas Morning News who has been covering interiors journalism since 2001.