Mariposa Gallery Crafts Funhouse Feel, Personal Touch

by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, August 23, 2010

Color.

When you read the word, what vision flashes before your eyes? Is it a specific shade—perhaps red or bittersweet orange—or a mosaic of formless, multi-hued nebulae?

If you’ve visited Mariposa Gallery in Nob Hill, you probably picture the gallery.

The pieces on display at Mariposa form a textural tapestry of Baja-inspired pigments and folk art-infused tones. Owners Liz Dineen and Jennifer Rohrig have created an aesthetic reminiscent of a playground or funhouse, full of exaggerated shapes and lighthearted gestures, even when dealing with the macabre.

Paintings, ceramics, metal works, fiber arts, jewelry and mixed media, ranging in price from $30 to $5,000, all have a place inside Mariposa’s walls. Ninety percent of the work shown at Mariposa is from New Mexico, and it’s been that way since the very beginning.

Mariposa opened in 1974 in Old Town. The four original owners soon dwindled to two, and after a couple of decades, that dropped to one. In 2005, the last remaining original owner, Fay Abrams, sold the shop to two of her employees, Dineen and Rohrig.

The graphic artist and art history graduate, respectively, took a year to decide whether to take over the business, which had moved to Nob Hill in 2000. Their love for the gallery won out over their apprehension about owning a business, and they signed a contract to buy Abrams out over five years. They used personal finances as a down payment, and made monthly payments to Abrams from the business’ revenue. The contract was paid in full this summer, making the business finally and completely theirs.

“We both love and adore art so much,” says Rohrig, who, when asked to name her favorite piece in the gallery, retorts, “You wouldn’t ask a mother to choose her favorite child!”

Dineen and Rohrig maintained most of the gallery’s attributes when they took it over, but changed a few things. Primarily, they began showing fewer artists. Now, they only show work they absolutely love that fits with their aesthetic. That still amounts to about 100 artists at any given moment.

They bought the gallery a couple of years before the recession hit. The two don’t want to give exact numbers, but they say finances started to dip in the last quarter of 2007.

These days, figures are better. They still haven’t caught up to 2006 revenue, but 2009 revenue was about $600,000.

Mariposa has battled the recession by using e-mail to keep in touch with clients. When a new work comes in that they think someone would like, they snap a picture and send it to the client. That often leads to a sale, and it fits the gallery’s philosophy, which includes personal connection.

“Yesterday, we probably had four or five customers in the gallery at once,” Rohrig says. “And we knew everyone personally. We take the time and energy to know our customers.”

Minutes after Rohrig says that, a middle-aged man holding a small dog walks in to talk to the owners about his mother’s funeral. Half an hour later, a woman stops by to chat about her upcoming trip to San Francisco.

“We joke about it being ‘Cheers,’” Rohrig says. “People care about us, and we care about them.”

Mariposa also offers layaway as an option. If customers can’t afford to pay the full cost of a piece of art up front, they can put it on layaway for three months, and make three equal, interest-free payments. Many customers are “perpetual layawayers,” who put something new on layaway as soon as they’ve made the final payment on their last item, Dineen says.

The movie industry has also been a boon to the gallery during financially challenging times. Art from the gallery has been bought or rented for the sets of “Breaking Bad,” “In Plain Sight” and The Book of Eli. Mariposa’s film industry clients came by word-of-mouth—after one discovered the gallery, others in the tight-knit community followed suit.

A few celebrities also have visited the gallery, including Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, who bought wrap presents at Mariposa for each other after filming Sunshine Cleaning, and Christopher Walken, for whom Dineen gave a private tour in 2007.

But the gallery’s biggest asset is its artists. Dineen and Rohrig don’t just love art; they love artists, and they treat the makers of their wares well. Artists take home 50 percent of sale prices, and if Dineen and Rohrig offer a discount to a customer, they incur the cost, not the artists.

Debra Colonna has shown with Mariposa for 18 years, since the previous owners discovered her at the New Mexico Arts and Crafts Fair. Colonna makes jewelry out of precious metals and stones, such as oxidized silver and diamonds.

She made jewelry full time for a couple of decades, but about four years ago, she decided to scale down. She went from showing at 15 galleries to showing only at Mariposa.

From sharing advertising space with artists to calling them to tell them about the look on a customer’s face every time one of their pieces sells, Dineen and Rohrig make Colonna feel valued.

“They’re full of integrity,” she says.

Mariposa has been recognized with numerous awards, such as “Best Gallery” in Niche magazine, an honor voted on by artists.

“Learning how to run a business can be painful,” Rohrig says.

But five years after she and Dineen started, they feel like they finally know how to do it.

The past five years were about learning, says Rohrig, adding, “The next five years feels like fun and expansion.”