We basically started off as a second-hand bookshop called ‘Dollar Books’ in 1979. My father started the business, it’s family run and owned. We gradually expanded into different lines, to selling new books and stationery, and then we saw a real emergence of artists in the area wanting art supplies. So we went into art. My dad was very proactive in trying new things. He noticed a lot of artists in the area asking for things, and there weren’t any art supply shops in Newtown. We just started selling it and it just became more and more popular. We kept expanding.
What was the motivation behind starting the art school?
My dad started that and he just thought it was a really good fit, because we’re an art shop and we had studios upstairs we’ve been renting out to artists and for different reasons. He just had this idea — cause he likes to have lots of crazy ideas and he’s always inventing things? So he’s like, “Yeah, let’s run an art school”.
When he originally started it, he just actually convinced a couple of our staff who were artists to start running classes. We advertised to some more art teachers, and we put on a few courses. They were very cheap back then when we started — we used to run 7-week classes for $150! We’ve been running the art classes for about 12 years now.
How did you get involved in the family business?
Being family, I was born into it. My brother, who also works here, he looks after the book side [and I look after the art side].
I never did originally see myself as always working here, but when it came to the time when our parents sort of retired, it was the kind of business you can’t sell. We either had to keep running it or close it. We didn’t have the heart to close what my parents had worked on for so long. It’s been good. Business has been going on for so long that it runs by itself now.
I think about it sometimes. Thinking I could have done something else but the thought of it closing down tomorrow? It would be like my family home being closed down. I’ve grown up in this business and when I come to work, it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like going to my mum’s house. And I think for it to close down would be really heartbreaking.
Where there any major changes you’ve had to make coming into the business?
When my brother and I took it over, we did a big renovation. We just got to the point when Newtown was getting a little trendy and cool. We’re like, “We can’t keep having the shelf looking so old.” Haha!
So when we came in, it was about 2009, we officially said, “Right, we’re taking over and we’re renovating.” So we had this massive renovation which nearly killed us, having to empty the entire shop and reset it all!
But since then, that was the major change to sort of bring us into the modern era. And I think that that sets us apart from other companies. Because we are family-run. We’re very flexible and good for our customers. We give sort of a level of service you don’t see in a lot of shops anymore. All the staff that work here are really passionate about their jobs and really good with customers. I really believe in customer first, and bending the rules. If you make someone happy, that’s going to benefit you in the long run.
Any particular struggles you’ve had throughout the past years?
We’ve always been a pretty busy shop and Newtown has just become more and more popular. We always listened to the trends and listened to what customers wanted. We don’t often put things in just based on what our supplier tells us what they want us to sell. We go very much on what our market wants.
What about the art classes?
We used to just run beginners classes. So beginners drawing, beginners acrylics, beginners oils. And it was the same thing that would run each term. It was going really well for a long time, but all of a sudden in the last couple of years, enrolment really started to drop off. We were finding that we just weren’t getting repeat students. And obviously because we couldn’t offer other than beginners classes.
So now every five weeks it’ll be a different course. And each course builds on the previous course. So you can keep on re-enrolling and you’re learning something new and you’re extending yourself each time.
Are there any successful student stories you’d like to share?
Oh yes, we’ve definitely had a few students that have gone on, continued painting and have their own exhibitions. One of the students was April White and she has her own studio. She’s pretty much a full-time artist and she started in one of our mixed media classes.
Another one is Justin van den Berg and he also started in our mixed media class and went off to go on his own. He’s had quite a few exhibitions as well.
Does anyone in the family dabble in art or anything creative?
My mum does. She’s always been quite creative. She’d often do pottery, sewing and in the last 10 years that’s she’s turned more into painting. She likes testing all the products we have in the store.
I like painting and life drawing too. I was also really into film and photography.
Any business in the art industry can be tricky. What advice would you give for someone who plans to run one or is running one?
I think you can’t go wrong with doing your market research. Find out what people want, supply what people want. I think too many people open businesses because they have this idea of what they want and they want people to buy into that idea, instead of actually giving people what they’re looking for.
And that’s what we’ve always done. I’ve never said, “I’m going to sell blue hats because they’re cool.” And everyone’s going to buy these blue hats, you know?
What do you see in the future for Art on King?
Well I think we’ll just keep going. I believe we’re doing a service to the community. We’re not about trying to franchise or take over the world, we’re just happy to be doing what we’re doing. And we’ll continue as long as people are happy to support us.