Sarah Jones: Demystifying the Business of Art

Originally published in part in CreatedHere Magazine Issue 13 “Working Art”, September 2020

Sarah Jones, photo from a 2018 Harbour-themed project.

Ten years ago, academic pursuits led Sarah Jones back to Saint John where she would soon become a widely recognized and celebrated professional artist, curator, and gallery owner. 

During the final stretch of her Master’s degree in Art History at Queen’s University, Sarah Jones moved back home to finish writing her thesis about Maritime folk art and its relationship with museum and gallery spaces. She always had what she refers to as a “small studio practice” alongside her art history career, but it was only when she decided to rent a studio space on Germain Street that her career as an artist took off.

Sarah Jones, Courtenay Bay No. 2, oil on panel, 5″x7″, 2019.

Sarah is now well known for her loose depictions of streetscapes and industrial skylines in Saint John.

“I never had a grand vision for my art practice”, Sarah explains, “When I decided I didn’t want to pursue a PhD, I realized I felt a need to connect with my community in Saint John. I felt there were exciting things happening here and I wanted to be part of it and contribute in some way”. 

The Business of Art

Sarah acquired essential business knowledge in her role at Economic Development Greater Saint John (EDGSJ) running their youth entrepreneurship program. While coordinating this program, she learned alongside the young entrepreneurs who took the workshops. She became familiar with how she should keep track of expenses and organize her finances in a way that made sense when she took them to an accountant. She leveraged this knowledge to open a studio and gallery space on Duke St. where she created and sold her work with the help of her brother, Caleb. In December 2018 they re-opened Jones Gallery in an impressive space on Charlotte Street. They carried with them the business skills they had earned at Duke St., now to the greater benefit of other artists and art appreciators.

In their observations of the gallery industry, Sarah and Caleb Jones wanted to do it differently. “We decided the industry needs gallerists that believe in their audience, adapt to change, invite the people under thirty into their spaces, and represent younger artists.”

They also saw an Atlantic-Canada-shaped gap at Art Toronto (Canada’s international fair for modern and contemporary art), which inspired them to start representing artists of our region on the international stage. Jones Gallery now represents 12 Canadian contemporary artists working in painting, sculpture and installation-based practices.

The current Jones Gallery location, 1 Charlotte Street.
Sarah Jones and her brother, Caleb Jones, at the opening night of their new gallery (1 Charlotte Street), December 7, 2018.

Advice for Emerging Artists

Sarah has noticed that many artists struggle with administration, and finances in particular. “Artists are basically small business owners. My advice for emerging artists is to get comfortable with money: keep good records, take any training opportunities that are available—such as the ArtsLink CATAPULT Arts Accelerator—and treat your art practice as a career or profession. That means not letting yourself miss deadlines, being strict with studio hours, and having a professional presence.”

Sarah stresses the importance of artists getting comfortable writing about their work while remaining flexible to the situation. “We need to communicate with other arts professionals but we also need to communicate with the general public. Adapting our words to our audiences is not dumbing it down, it’s simply recognizing that in non-arts spaces we are speaking with people who are not in our profession.” 

Marketing is also a significant part of a commercial art practice. “In the marketing and promotions for Jones Gallery, especially on social media, we have three goals: to delight, to entertain, and to educate. If a post does not delight, entertain or educate, we don’t share it. There has to be something special about the experience, it has to add something of value to people’s lives.” 

Sarah believes that marketing is about telling a story that your audience can connect with, and many of her projects pull the audience right into the narrative. She has often used walking routes as an engaging entry point into her work. Most recently, Sarah presented A Survey Project, a series of 100 paintings that following a route around the Saint John Harbour, through the South End, and concluding at Courtenay Bay, “a compendium of Saint John’s urban and industrial landscape.” The second iteration of the project, SP2 | North End, will be presented in November 2021.

“Something like this is easier for people to get their heads around than something more conceptual. Thinking of projects where the marketing can be very participatory, simple, engaging and fun, works well.”

Sarah Jones, A Survey Project no. 2, oil on canvas, 12″x12″.

A few other creative initiatives that Sarah has implemented are a quarterly painting subscription program (surprise original small works by mail for a flat fee) and limited-time special offers of free small works with each purchase from the gallery. The purpose of these efforts is to encourage first-time art collectors. “We’re always trying to reduce barriers to purchasing and we are trying to build a new generation of people who like art and are comfortable with art.”

Sarah Jones, Dark Waters, mixed media on canvas, 48″x48″, 2019.

Adjusting the Gallery Experience in 2020

Jones Gallery had to quickly adjust its gallery operations and programming in the Spring of 2020 in order to continue reaching their audience during the global pandemic.

“The main hurdle for us during COVID-19 was how do we convey a sense of physicality to the works in a digital setting when people can’t visit the gallery?”

They began sharing videos of pieces in the gallery being held and turned to show the artwork in three dimensions. Sarah also produced “daily isolation broadcasts” and shared blog posts and videos answering common art world questions, including topics such as when and how to frame a work of art, how to hang a painting like a pro, and tips for buying artwork online. Throughout the year Sarah has also continued to share her Art History Lectures online. “It took us a while to adapt because we didn’t have all the technology required to make it happen. It took some practice too, getting used to delivering a talk to a camera instead of an audience.”

Recently Jones Gallery upgraded their window display to allow visitors to enjoy artworks from outdoors. Their Gallery Sounds initiative is an innovative way to enhance the art-viewing experience while observing safe social distancing practices.

The Gallery Sounds project on Charlotte Street.

Despite these challenges, Sarah remains captivated by her work. “It feels like this wonderful puzzle that Caleb and I are working on all the time. It’s a puzzle of our own making; it’s so challenging at times but when we can make it work it feels so good. There’s nothing quite like it.”

Sarah Jones in her studio. Photo by Sean McGrath. 

Over the past decade Sarah has established a multi-faceted arts career grounded in good business practices and smart marketing tactics. Showing her East Coast roots, she does not keep her knowledge to herself. The Jones—both Sarah and Caleb—labour to lift up a whole community of professional artists. ▪️

Sarah Jones (BA, MA Art History) is a visual artist, art historian and curator. She has participated in solo and group exhibition across Canada and abroad, and her work is held in the public collections of the University of New Brunswick and the New Brunswick Art Bank. Jones is a recipient of numerous grants and awards, including funding from ArtsNB and Canada Council for the Arts. Jones is based in Saint John, New Brunswick. In addition to her own practice, she is the curator at Jones Gallery and teaches art history occasionally at University of New Brunswick.

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