A local gallery with national business savvy

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Grand Hand Gallery shows and sells fine craft, primarily by Minnesotan artists.

Ann Ruhr Pifer shows more passion for her work than the average art gallery owner.

My job is to try to turn my artists into rock stars.

Sitting at her desk in the back office of Grand Hand Gallery on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, Ruhr Pifer proffers tea poured from a pot by Dick Cooter, whose work she sells. It was her love for his pottery, she says, that got her into this business.

I had been in banking for 15 years, but wasn’t that excited about it. I was a big admirer of Dick’s pottery, but he was relatively unknown. I kept giving him advice on how to better market himself, and finally he said “Ann, I just want to make pots.” So I decided if I had so much passion for it, maybe this is what I was meant to do.

Ruhr Pifer used her business and marketing experience to create a sales outlet in the cities for artisans from around the state. And her experience has paid off; since its opening in 2004, Ruhr Pifer has expanded Grand Hand twice. While the recession has forced many galleries to shut their doors, and others are reporting losses of 30-60% , she says her gallery has only seen “slowed growth.”

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Grand Hand owner, Ann Ruhr Pifer

While Ruhr Pifer doesn’t like to distinguish between “fine art” and “craft,” she admits that selling wood carvings, pottery and weavings comes with its own particular challenges.

High art galleries get a lot more media coverage. I think that’s in part due to the term “craft,” because I think it makes some people think of macramé plant hangers. So I think for some journalists it seems like a risky topic to take on. And in general I think it’s just an under-appreciated sector of the art world

Items for sale at the Grand Hand are typically much less expensive than those in a fine art gallery. As a result, Ruhr Pifer says her business is “halfway between a fine art gallery and a Target;” she sells one-of-a-kind items, but she has to do so at a very high volume in order to break even.

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Warren MacKenzie, Nancy Gipple and Kinji Akagawa at champagne brunch for American Craft Council conference attendees, October, 2009

In addition to its main room, the Grand Hand Gallery also features a gallery space dedicated to highlighting the work of particular artists, and providing a more in-depth look at their particular craft. Ruhr Pifer says it’s just another means of promoting the artists.

We wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t want to help our artists succeed.

Ruhr Pifer keeps busy getting national attention for her artists, either through advertising or by bringing Smithsonian “craft study” tour groups to town. When the American Craft Council held its annual conference in the Twin Cities, she helped organize a tour of local art centers and studios.

In conjunction with the conference, Ruhr Pifer organized a particularly high profile exhibition, featuring the work of potter Warren MacKenzie and sculptor Kinji Akagawa, along with their wives, who are both prominent fiber artists.

Ruhr Pifer says she couldn’t be happier that the ACC has since moved its offices from Manhattan to Minneapolis.

It’s great for Minnesota and great for the council, too. I would say the Twin Cities is the leading center for craft in the country. There’s no other concentration of working artists and organizations like the one we have here. We have Northern Clay Center, Textile Center, Highpoint Center for Printmaking, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Those are all places where people can go to learn a skill. They are incubators for working artists.

Ruhr Pifer is also helping organize “American Craft Week” set for October, which is meant to serve as a tribute to the American craftsman.

We have wonderful things that are still being made by hand in the United States. Metal work, ceramics, – and there’s a lot of national, cultural history going into them. So I hope that we can serve to raise the appreciation and awareness of these artists.

Grand Hand Gallery is located at 619 Grand Avenue in St. Paul.

  • A “wife”

    Do those prominent fiber artist wives have names?

  • Marianne Combs

    Sure thing. Their names are Nancy MacKenzie and Nancy Gipple.