SANTA FE GALLERIST ANDREA FISHER’S
business model serves her artists and her community
ART BUSINESS BY NANCY ZIMMERMAN | PHOTOS BY PETER OGILVIE
Even in the best of times, running a successful gallery is a tough job. With everything from the weather to the economy to the prevailing zeitgeist affecting profit margins and buying patterns, it’s always a challenge to get it right. Throw a stubborn pandemic and political turmoil into the mix, and you might get chaos . . . or, in the case of Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery in downtown Santa Fe, you might get inspiration. Fisher has transformed her love of Native Southwest pottery into a thriving business by focusing on the well-being and success of her artists rather than solely on the bottom line, and in the process has become one of the preeminent sources for Native Southwest pottery in the country.
If there is such a thing as preordained destiny, Fisher committed to hers early in life when, as a 10-year-old growing up in Pennsylvania, she began crafting ceramic figures of dogs to entertain herself and exercise her creative muscle. At the time, of course, she had no idea that her affinity for the medium of clay would eventually become her livelihood, nor that it would morph from affinity to specialty. All that would come later. After decamping to the West Coast in the late 1960s to study design at UC Berkeley, in 1974 she headed to New Mexico, first to Los Alamos and later the Pojoaque Valley, where she settled into and restored an ancient adobe home (circa AD1350) as she launched her post-divorce life.
“I’ve always loved pottery,” Fisher says, “and I played around with it quite a bit, but I doubted I could make a living at it. So I looked for other ways to be involved. I heard from a friend that the Wheelwright Museum needed board members, and it seemed like a good way to connect with the Native art forms, so I applied. Around the same time I also heard that the buyer at the Case Trading Post in Santa Fe was retiring, so I decided to apply for the job.”
She got both positions, and thus marked the beginning of her in-depth education in Native art forms. Fisher remained with the Case Trading Post for eight years and, entranced by the timelessness and sophistication of the designs of the pottery in particular, she immersed herself in the medium and learned as much as she could about the materials and methods employed by the many artists she was meeting in the course of her job.
Fisher’s fascination was well placed. Pueblo pottery has enjoyed a unique status in Native life through countless generations. More than mere utilitarian receptacles used for storage and cooking, the ceramic vessels for centuries have functioned as chronicles of daily life as well. The symbolic designs carved into their surfaces represent wind, rain, feathers, geographic features
and other aspects of day-to-day existence that reflect the environment and resources informing the Native experience; contemporary potters incorporate the ancient symbols into new designs that speak to current conditions and challenges. Long before there was a written language, pottery thus served as a kind of official record of events and conditions, fulfilling quotidian needs as well as ceremonial and aesthetic ones. The ancient methods of collecting the clay and dye plants, hand-shaping the pots, and firing them in the open air have been handed down through the ages, such that contemporary potters share a direct link with their ancestors that imbues the act of making and using pottery with spirituality and connection.
Fisher’s deep respect and appreciation for the beauty and cultural significance of Native pottery led her to launch Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery in 1993. “I didn’t want to include drums, jewelry, or textiles,” she says. “I just wanted to concentrate on the pottery, and only the kind produced using traditional methods and materials, which underscores the continuity of the culture and way of life.”
Fisher’s initial inventory consisted of pots from her own extensive personal collection, but it has grown exponentially over the years and now includes works by more than 500 artists. “In the beginning, I had to seek out the artists who do quality work, by which I mean pleasing shapes, a flair for design, beautiful coloration, and fidelity to the culture,” she says. “After 29 years in business, they now seek me out, so I see a large variety of work.”
She’s particularly gratified that many of her artists will bring in vessels made by their grandchildren or other young potters they know. “We really welcome the kids,” Fisher notes. “I sponsor the Southwest Association of Indian Artists award for kids because those are my future artists.
Fisher’s current inventory includes many of the biggest names in Southwest pottery past and present, among them the legendary Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo, whose black-on-black pottery, crafted in collaboration with her husband Julian, helped to renew and reinvigorate traditional pottery. Other notable names include Fannie Nampeyo, Rebecca Lucario, Blue Corn (Crucita Gonzalez Calabaza), Virgil Ortiz, Dextra Quotskuyva, Tony Da, Helen Cordero, and Richard Zane Smith, among hundreds of others. She also champions new talent, carrying the work of young potters and providing them with an opportunity to hone their craft and sell their wares.
While the past couple of years have been unusually challenging for galleries everywhere, Fisher has managed to maintain a thriving business despite the limitations imposed by the pandemic. “I’ve always preferred in-person selling to the internet,” she says, “because a small photo can’t possibly convey the scale and beauty the way seeing the work in person can. Buying art online is not like buying a pair of socks or a lawnmower. But we were closed during the lockdown and our market was basically gone, so we decided to do a few different things.”
The first was to revamp the gallery’s website to make it more comprehensive, more attractive, and easier to navigate, as collectors eschewed in-person visits to the gallery in favor of online commerce. She also trimmed the displays at the gallery to create an airier, more curated look that facilitated browsing. A particularly successful initiative was a series of videos Fisher launched in August 2020 to showcase individual artists and offer intimate glimpses of them and their work. Fisher’s son Derek, who is a partner in the gallery, earned himself the nickname of “Derek Scorsese” by helming the project, doing all the directing, filming, and editing himself.
“I wanted to provide the artists with the opportunity to sell their work even with everything in lockdown,” Fisher says. “The films are unscripted and range from five to seven hours in length. Because we didn’t have a script or time limit the subjects could relax a bit, and they spontaneously started telling stories of life on the Pueblos. It was fascinating and so human, so universal in many ways,” says Fisher.
The films also covered demonstrations of pottery making, which were live-streamed, and the events were interactive. “We used a split screen, and people would call in or email us if they had questions or wanted to buy a piece,” she explains. “If any pieces were left over, the gallery bought them, so the event would always be successful for the artists. We sent out emails to our clients announcing the events, and word spread. We got around 11,000 viewers.” The 19 videos now live on the gallery’s YouTube channel, where they continue to attract interest.
Fisher also looked for opportunities to serve the public along with her artists. “I was so outraged to see long lines at local food banks,” she says, “so I emailed my clients and promised we would donate 10 percent of sales to the Santa Fe food bank as well as all the rural food banks. The promotion went on for a week and was so successful we extended it for another week. It was a win-win: we sold a lot of pottery, the artists did very well, and the purchasers got some great pottery.” All and all, they provided nearly 30,000 meals. By focusing on the needs of her artists and her community rather than exclusively pursuing profit, Fisher ironically has achieved what all gallerists hope for: financial success and longevity.
What started as a business has become a true calling, and Fisher’s expansive approach has allowed Native potters to share in her success as her business has grown. “Their success goes hand-in-hand with my own survival,” she says. “I believe tradition is important, adding continuity to our lives. It’s essential that we keep the Native pottery tradition alive.”