Lily Pad West | Celebrating Five Years

This October, Lily Pad West celebrates five years in Milwaukee with an anniversary showcase featuring new work from thirty-seven artists. In honor of those five years and the two individuals who made it possible, this week’s Artist of the Week will feature owners and managing directors Alan Perlstein and Terry Hamann.

It brings me great joy and pride to be celebrating Lily Pad West’s fifth anniversary this coming October. In the fall of 2016, my wife Terry and I became part of the Milwaukee art scene, a thriving community of artists and collectors who have welcomed us over the past five years. We made it our mission to bring great art from around the world to this Midwest city, educating tomorrow’s collectors and making fine art more accessible to all. We are forever grateful to the clients who have supported us over the years, the artists who have filled our gallery with beautiful painting and sculpture, and to our incredible staff, who together have become the Lily Pad family. We look forward to celebrating this October.

Alan Perlstein

An Interview with Alan Perlstein and Terry Hamann

Describe your background prior to opening Lily Pad | WEST.

Terry: After graduating from Illinois State University, I did what any theater major does: I moved to New York City. I never made a living off theater because that’s a tricky thing to do. I worked a little bit, but I never made a living. Instead, I worked in media at the United Nations Peace Conference. That was probably the political balloon of my life. And then I had a moment between working at the UN while pursuing a career in theater when I said, “I have to make a living!” So, I started to take courses in Psychology. My time at the UN fostered a great interest in peace studies and how people became dedicated to changing the world through peaceful means. I was curious how that applied to decisions they were making and decision-making in general. 

To be seriously considered for a doctoral program in Psychology, I had to take statistics (Editor note: Terry calls it “sadistics”). In this class, I was introduced to a professor who inspired me. In this very quantitative course, this man was talking about life and meaning and the phenomenology of existence, and I thought, “This is for me. This is how I think.” It turns out he’d gone to school at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and his teaching style– phenomenology– was the underpinnings of the school. So, I sent in my application. I was accepted, and after being out of school for fifteen years, I went back to get my doctorate in Psychology. Alan and I were together at the time. He was still back east, and I was in Pittsburgh, and I remember thinking, “this isn’t going to work.” But it did work for eight years before we got married.

I never had any intention of opening a gallery– it’s like a fluke. The thing that got us started on gallery work, in particular, is one day, I was talking to a woman who ran a gallery in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Like me, she was doing her doctoral dissertation in qualitative research. I had just finished my dissertation and understood the hours upon hours it takes to work with a subject. So, naturally, I volunteered my sweet Alan to be her one male subject. And that’s how we met Wivi-Anne and became so interested in art.

Alan: I met Terry 42 years ago at the greater Hudson River Revival. Pete Seeger was making pancakes for Terry, myself, and six hundred other volunteers. I know she said to her girlfriend that she could marry that guy, brightest, and that guy was me. I was very blessed, yet it took me about eight years to get smart enough to do that. I went from being an economist, a welder shipfitter, a CFO, and then to a general manager throughout my career. I had my own consulting company for twelve years. I worked in four major shipyards. I ran a very successful clean energy nonprofit alongside Mike Lovell, now President of Marquette University. We began with eight companies and a budget of a couple hundred thousand dollars that today has over one hundred companies and over two million dollars annually. We started helping to grow jobs by twenty and added 650 jobs to the city of Milwaukee over the last seven years. Although it was my vision, with the support and drive of Mike Lovell and our team, that vision was made possible. When I retired in 2012, I continued to support shipyards and help them grow their business by winning lucrative proposals. Around that time, I decided to open a gallery in Wisconsin, and I’ve been very happy about it ever since.

How long have you worked in business management?

A: Since 1979 I’ve been in one way or another managing businesses. I hired a thousand people in 1980. I overshot the mark and had to fire two hundred people. That kind of stunk, but it taught me the valuable lesson that you have a special responsibility as a leader: you have to own mistakes, try to fix them, and leave things better than you found them. If you commit to continually improving, not doing it all yourself– I learned a long time ago that I’m pretty smart but not the smartest light bulb in the box. I try to surround myself with people who love what they do, are really smart, and want to have fun.

When did you start Lily Pad | West?

A: We opened the doors on Lily Pad West in October 2016– five years ago this month.

Why did you decide to become a gallery owner? 

A: When we moved to Milwaukee twenty-two years ago, the few high-quality art galleries in the city were beginning to close either due to retirement or the inflated price of real estate relative to what they paid decades prior. Terry and I agreed that there wasn’t phenomenal art like we experienced buying at Lily Pad Gallery in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, over the previous twenty-five years.

T: We wanted to make sure that the art culture within the city of Milwaukee could survive. At the time, we were witnessing what was happening in the city of Detroit. The Detroit Institute of Arts was selling off works because they didn’t have a large enough support base from patrons in the city. So, I was watching this humdinger of a town dump its art on the streets, and I said, “We can’t let that happen here in Milwaukee.” We opened Lily Pad West to help educate people about art and how it can fulfill your life. I mean, yes, it decorates your wall, but it fills your soul as you wander through the week. Your wall is always there.

What was your mission at the start of Lily Pad | West?

A: To introduce a stable of seventy artists to a new venue in the midwest that they wouldn’t naturally think to be a great channel to market high-quality art. Most importantly, to show that Milwaukee is a vibrant, growing city, and that part of that growth is having great art.

What services or products do you offer? 

A: Our most important service– bringing seventy great artists to Milwaukee. We also help people plan. We look at art as a long-term commitment. Very few people can afford to buy a car all at once, and we think the same way about paintings. We self-finance our artwork so that art and new art collectors can find their way into the Milwaukee marketplace. We feel it’s imperative to support the next generation of collectors because those collectors will, in turn, support our current population of seventy artists and, hopefully, selectively introduce the gallery to the emerging pool of next-generation artists.

How do you advertise your gallery?

A: It’s been surprising. Online advertising has been a godsend during COVID. We survived by maintaining a solid online presence, thanks to our staff, who keep our website current with vibrant, accessible pieces. It’s made a big difference. We utilize major national venues that publicize our artists’ work, like Artsy. We are also in several periodicals that carry our ads and featured articles about the gallery, both locally and nationally. We think that combination of online and print-media presence, as well as the gallery’s best selling feature– the team that supports it– makes us unique and different.

What made you choose your gallery’s location?

A: I’m from New York. I consider the Third Ward our version of Greenwich Village here in Milwaukee, and the Fifth Ward is SoHo. Greenwich Village and SoHo are where the art scene is, so it is an exceptional place. Additionally, being on Broadway has sentimental value for me being from New York. The Third Ward is the centerpiece of Milwaukee’s vibrant and ever-growing arts center, and we’re very blessed to be in the heart of it.

T: The galleries were closing around here left and right, and in fact, that was one of the first things that somebody popped in the gallery said to me. “Thank goodness somebody’s opening instead of closing a gallery.” I thought, “Okay, there will be enough people who think the same way.” It’s still hard. This is not easy money. We don’t just sonder in on a given morning and just sit around. It may look like we’re just sitting around sometimes, but we don’t. We work all the time, and if we’re not working, it means something is drifting. It’s a lot of work, constantly.

What are your gallery’s goals?

A: To make Milwaukee a flourishing channel for quality art, to help it continue to grow because great cities only stay tremendous and maintain a young population if there are things that attract them. If there are great sports– Go Bucks!– if there is great theater, and if there are great Arts. We wanted to support that vision of Milwaukee, and conversely, we wanted our artists to go beyond the East and West coasts to see the Midwest as a demanding marketplace for quality art.

T: Oh, Alan has a goal. I don’t know if it’s my goal. He wants to be the best in the Midwest. I think our artists are already the best. For me, it’s whether we can find and sustain the clientele to support the artists. It’s always about the artists and how to inspire them and nurture them and keep them working. What people don’t realize is that our artists paint every day. It’s not just once in a while they get up, do a painting, put it on the wall, and ask for this much money. They work every single day. They are continuously thinking and living for their art. What are my goals for the gallery? Sustenance. The work our artists create is food for the soul. I want someone to take a painting home from the gallery, put it on their wall, and be full.

What made you choose to start a business in this industry?

A: Twenty-five years ago, I bought my first painting, and that’s when I fell in love with art. I didn’t move to Milwaukee to open a gallery– I came here to run a business that sells equipment to the United States Navy that’s produced in Milwaukee and Connecticut, but when I saw so many galleries closing, and I knew we had a channel to great artists’ work, I thought it was the way that Terry and I could help the city of Milwaukee as it moved up the cultural food chain. As the city became a destination, as it is now, it needed great art, and we think Lily Pad Gallery has great artists and great art for the city.

How much of your gallery’s business is attributed to your top customers?

A: I think every business has an 80/20 rule. I mean, 80% of your business is generated by 20% of those who are really interested in and focused on your product. I’m not sure if it’s that exact percentage, but that small core that supports your gallery is what drives performance. That’s been my experience in almost every business I’ve worked. It was true in shipyards when I worked in my nonprofit, and I think the same holds for galleries. 

What changes have you made to your business strategy over the past few years?

A: If you had taken a look at the original Lily Pad Gallery twenty years ago, you would have seen all representational art. But as young collectors have pushed and influenced the way art is going, Lily Pad has transitioned toward a beautiful blend of abstract, contemporary, and figurative art. Somehow it all works well together here, and I’m very proud of how far we’ve come as a gallery.

How did you come up with the name for your gallery?

A: My son would say I was pretty stupid. We called ourselves Lily Pad West because we were west of the gallery out in Rhode Island. If I open another gallery in San Francisco, it would be called Lily Pad Gallery really far west. It wasn’t the brightest name. We debate changing the name, but there is a brand connection that there are pluses and minuses. 

How would you describe Lily Pad’s workplace culture?

A: I know what I want it to be. I want it to be where people feel that they can make a difference, reach out and have the comfort to make everybody welcome to the gallery– not just a rich jamoke but anybody who walks in who wants to learn about art. I want our staff to be able to bring our vision and knowledge to clients. I want our team to feel that they grow with the gallery. I want them to aspire to own a gallery someday, run a gallery someday, and be the head conservator of galleries– whatever it takes, but to see this as not just a retail job that pays the bills but as something that the staff does feel supportive and committed to. I hope that’s the culture that we embodied here. 

What is unique about Lily Pad | WEST? 

A: For one, the building itself is phenomenal. It’s a unique blessing to have a 1904 former Fanny Farmer Chocolate Factory, before that women’s hosiery factory with fifteen and a half foot ceilings with Cream City brick as the backdrop for your artwork. I think the space is beautiful. We hang our gallery salon-style but in a way that doesn’t feel like a meat market. We display a lot of work which gives people options, but it’s not overwhelming. I love our space and think it makes us truly unique.

T: I’m not familiar with other galleries. I do know people walk into other galleries and never feel comfortable. That’s not the case at Lily Pad. Obviously, I want to sell paintings because it sustains the artists and their families, but we want to make people feel welcome. This is our home. Feel free to look around, have a nice chat, maybe a glass of wine, and experience the art.

How would you describe Lily Pad’s success so far?

A: I’ve been told it takes five years for a gallery really to take hold. If I look at our mailing list, if I look at our customer base, if I look at the number of paintings we sell every year, I think we’ve had the growth that says this gallery is on a trajectory to be very successful. We’re still a young gallery. We’re constantly learning and adjusting. I’m certainly not trained as a gallery owner. I started as an economist turned welder turned manager and now gallery owner. If I think about our success in the combination of crawl-walk-run, we’re probably in the walking stage. We’re definitely out of the crawling stage, and we are anxiously looking forward to running. 

How have you expanded your customer base?

A: If you look at or diversity of clients each year, you’ll see a combination of repeat clients– of whom we are very blessed to have– and an equal number of new clients. That’s really what you want. You want to have a strong following of dedicated collectors and to recruit tomorrow’s collectors constantly.

How do you measure success at Lily Pad | WEST? 

A: If our artists are happy– if they feel we represent them well, that we continue to grow our client base, that we pay our bills- -those are always important– and that more and more people see this as the premier gallery in Wisconsin. I believe we’ve evolved to one of the top three galleries in the city, if not state, and I look to build upon that. 

What is your favorite part of being a gallery owner?

A: Walking in the door every day to see great art and be surrounded by a team I’m blessed to have.  We have unique skill sets between Emma, Kitt, Kim, Terry, and myself that I wish I could say I was smart enough to recruit, but I just believe in fate. Growing the gallery is also amazing. We started with forty-seven strong artists five years ago. We recruited another twenty-three great artists and filtered out one or two that could be better represented elsewhere. I hope we continue with a successful track record of growing and building more collectors.

T: People and their stories. Everybody has stories. I love to tease them out. I think [Alfredo] Palmero’s skirts are all about the stories of people intertwining and wiggling around and interlocking and loosening and floating through the space.

What do you hope people take away from visiting the gallery?

A: I want people to feel that Milwaukee can support the Arts, that it’s a generous town that is still learning but has a rich history of supporting the Arts. And I want tomorrow’s and that t generation will realize that they too can live a life that has beauty around them. It’s difficult, and the economy has been challenging. However, I’m hopeful that this city, with its strong technical base and its rich history of manufacturing, will still generate tomorrow’s collectors to support the Arts.

T: It has been a hard couple of years, but we’re still kicking. We’re still supporting one another. There are people in our collective life who are still making art. Everything in this exhibition hang was completed in the last year. This gallery is now. In a terrible time of existence, when everything feels so disheartening, I hope people leave the gallery feeling enhanced– feeling like they found the joy.