The Art Exchange - Celebrating 15 Years
Time flies when you’re having fun. It sure has for Al and Karen Stewart. The proprietors at The Art Exchange in Wortley Village, Al almost forgot 2012 marks 15 years in business for the gallery. Luckily Karen was there to remind him.
While the gallery and the couple might be closely associated with Wortley’s artistic community now, the venture started out a couple of years before they met when Al rented a space downtown on Albert Street. After five years or so, the lease was up and with rent set to go up, he started looking around. As luck would have it he didn’t have to look too long before Wortley chose the Stewarts.
“We had spoken to a real estate agent who got back to us instantly,” he recalls. “The place we have now hadn’t even come to the market. She had just happened to be talking to someone who knew and everything just fell into place all on its own.”
The business has changed in other ways too. While it first focused on framing and facilitating art exchanges between parties, artists kept making requests to use the real estate on the gallery walls to show off new work. Stewart obliged and today he deals mainly with established, senior artists.
But when he was starting off in 1997, he was just happy to have a business that would let him be a dad.
“I did this to be able to raise my children. I needed a home-based business to raise my two young kids when I started,” Stewart says.
For Stewart, the career crisis came after splitting with his first wife. Had he continued to work as a superintendent for a construction company — as he had done for many years — he would have only seen his kids every other weekend, an unpalatable option for him.
“I didn’t have kids to be a babysitter, I had kids to be a dad,” Stewart says. “So I knew that no matter what it took — I didn’t care if I was a million dollars in debt — I had to have a home-based business so I could have my kids my half of the time while they were growing up.”
So falling back on an old love affair with art — he’s been collecting since he was 19 — Al decided to give it a try as a business.
Living above the store he got to hang on to the parenting job he prioritized. Stewart would often do homework with his kids in the store after school, tuck them in at night and then go back to work downstairs.
“I got to go to all the soccer games and recitals and all the things at school. I got to raise my children like a real dad,” he says.
Now his son is working on a carpenter’s apprenticeship and his daughter is set to start at Western next year. But he has no plans to slow down.
“Now it’s 15 years later and my kids are grown up. But (the business) is self-sustaining and it’s something I can enjoy doing for the rest of my life.”
It doesn’t hurt that he gets to do it with Karen as well. While she was working as a purchasing agent when they met, she’s become fully entrenched in the gallery too, handling the business side of things.
“Luckily so,” Al says, “because she’s invaluable — she does all the things I just can’t do.”
While they admit working with one’s spouse can have its ups and downs, Karen says the two have managed to balance well.
“It’s nice to have control over your own time,” she says. “We have the ability to play off each other. He can go out and see an artist at any time and I can go out and do what I need to do… You end up working a lot, but when it’s time to shut down you can say tomorrow’s another day.”
In celebration of the 15th anniversary the gallery is launching the first Annual Square Foot Show, which will run through July and showcase over 300 works by more than 125 artists. The show includes prints, drawings and paintings, each sized 1 ft. x 1 ft.
The largest show The Art Exchange has ever staged, the work will be shown in two locations — 247 Wortley Rd. at Tecumseh and 56 Wortley Rd. at Bruce. The official opening night is July 6 and will include refreshments and opportunities to meet the artists.
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