Making it in Big Sky: Creighton Block Gallery
By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – From the gallery’s name to the diverse collection of contemporary and traditional art it showcases, Creighton Block is committed to honoring the cultural richness of the West. Colin Mathews and his partner, Paula Craver, first opened their gallery in Virginia City, Montana, in an 1867 stone building listed on the National Historic Register as a part of the Creighton block section of town. The name seemed to fit, and they kept it when they relocated to Big Sky in 2010.
As part of this ongoing series, Colin Mathews shared his thoughts with EBS on what it takes to make it as a small business owner in Big Sky.
Explore Big Sky: What has been the key to your success?
Colin Mathews: The keys to our success have been twofold—a commitment to bringing professionally renowned artists into the gallery; and a continual focus on the tastes of our Big Sky clientele in design, palette, and subject matter.
EBS: Do you remember your first customer or first sale?
C.M.: The first painting we sold was a landscape by Tom English entitled “Blackfoot Autumn.” Several days later we had our first multiple-painting sale to Susan Noel. We held those paintings for 11 months while the Noels’ Spanish Peaks home was being finished.
EBS: What are the biggest obstacles to operating a small business in Big Sky?
C.M.: The seasonality of demand. It can be very difficult to make rent—which has a resort premium over other Montana locales—in months when you have no sales.
EBS: How has the business landscape changed since you started out?
C.M.: When we started in 2010 the economy was still deep in the throes of the recession that started in 2008. Few new homes were being built and few existing homes were changing hands, which meant that there was very little new wall space coming online. With growth in real estate sales has come a marked increase in the number of paintings and sculptures we can sell in a year.
EBS: What is it about Big Sky that compels you to stick it out through the hard times?
C.M.: Our commitment to the artists who have entrusted their work to us; the promise of Big Sky’s continuing growth as a world class summer and winter resort; and the wonderful caliber of people whom we sell to, rent space from, and who work with us in the gallery.
EBS: What is one of the most memorable moments you have had as a resident/business owner in Big Sky?
C.M.: I was delivering a trailer filled with art to a home in the Yellowstone Club in midwinter. Backing down a hillside driveway and unable to see the edge of the driveway due to the heavy snow, I jackknifed the trailer into deep, soft snow. If I were delivering in the Hamptons, I would have been banned from the township in all likelihood. Here, the homeowners put on their boots, grabbed shovels, and helped pull my ox out of the ditch. Best clients on earth.
EBS: What was a business idea that didn’t work?
C.M.: We opened a second gallery space, for contemporary art, the same year that the YC changed its regulations to permit contemporary architecture and design in homes in the Club. It took three years before our contemporary space began to pay for itself.
EBS: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?
C.M.: Hang in and [don’t] give up.
EBS: What advice would you give to small business owners just starting out in Big Sky?
C.M.: Make sure you have a large enough operating capital reserve.
EBS: Where do you see your business in 10 years?
C.M.: In the hands of people who have helped get us this far and who are taking advantage of the opportunity we created by being in time to catch the wave that is Big Sky’s future.
EBS: Where do you see Big Sky in 20 years?
C.M.: I see Big Sky in 20 years as a mature resort community with a flourishing music and visual arts scene, a great public school system, a still-wild ecosystem, and a population that includes some of the most interesting thinkers and doers on the planet.
EBS: Would you do it all over again?
C.M.: Even though we are still a small boat on rough seas working hard to stay on course, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Challenge keeps one vital, young and human, and we are lucky to have that experience.
Creighton Block Gallery – by the numbers
• Staff: 2 fulltime, 1 half-time
• Years in business: 8 years in Big Sky, 2 years in Virginia City
• Longest serving employee: Karen Davids, 7 years