Art of the Deal

Kathryn Townsend’s business model combines real estate with her creative passions.

January 10, 2013

The Connection Between Art and Real Estate

My real estate brokerage is also an active art gallery. There is a natural relationship between fine art and real estate. People make emotional connections to particular pieces of art just as they do to particular homes or home styles. What they buy typically makes a statement about who they are. We often use art in staging a home to make it more appealing, and buyers sometimes purchase a new piece of art from our gallery for their new homes. Ever since I was a child, art has defined me. I drew and made pottery—I really liked working with my hands. I majored in psychology in college, but I took graphic arts classes as well. After graduating in 1991, I wanted a career that gave me flexibility and the potential to control how much money I made. I decided to go into real estate. I think I was influenced by the big, old house I grew up in and came to love. For several years, I worked in various offices in Connecticut, but I disliked the corporate environment. I find it difficult to work amid cubicles and fluorescent lighting. My goal was to launch my own company before I turned 35.

Doing It My Way

My husband and I married in 1999 and were living in Darien, Conn., which is an expensive area. We are avid sailors, and we wanted to live near water but have a lower cost of living. We moved to Portland, Maine, to start a new life. I worked for a large regional franchise for a couple of years and got my broker’s license. I opened my brokerage in May 2002. We decided the least risky way to start my company was to buy a multiuse property that would provide some rental income. We found a four-unit, circa 1850s building near the Portland Museum of Art and renovated it. I took the first floor for the brokerage and gave it a homey decor, with comfortable seating and lots of antiques. Portland has a huge arts community, and I decided to participate in the First Friday Art Walks every month. We invited local artists to display their work, put on a fabulous spread of wine and cheese, and had live music. Depending on the weather, between 80 and 200 people showed up.

Downsizing for a Changing Market

By 2010 the business environment had changed, not because of the recession but because of technology. I’m incredibly techy, and my agents are as well. They were working from home with smartphones and laptops, and I was alone or with one person at a duty desk in 1,600 square feet of space. So we moved the  office across the Casco Bay Bridge to the waterfront community of South Portland near my home.  

Now we have a 700-square-foot space in a popular town square, and we continue to feature local artists. Through the big picture window in front, passersby can see artwork, photographs of listings, and, in winter, a burning fireplace. Since relocating here, we have done about six art shows and other events such as a craft show and Halloween costume party. I know the shows help sell real estate, but it's a soft sell. I meet people at every show, but someone has to talk to me about real estate first. I don’t bring it up. My business plan isn’t just about selling real estate. It's about being part of the community and helping people out.

Moving Forward

I'm planning to make recruiting a priority in 2013 and build up to 20 full-timers. But I've been fine with having mostly part-timers. I don't think success always means you have to strive to make $200,000 a year. My advice is: Think outside the box, and don’t be afraid to rewrite what you think a real estate office should be.