Weighing in on Westport: A Conversation with Ryan & Melanie Cronin
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
I’ve known Ryan and Melanie Cronin for a little over a year; and in the time, I’ve learned one thing: expect the unexpected.
A couple months ago, I walked into the New Paltz-based CronArtUSA headquarters (nestled in the effortlessly endearing Water Street Market) where Melanie, CronArtUSA CEO, sat behind the checkout counter. She looked up from her computer and asked bluntly: “How would you feel if we opened a second location?”
CALCULATED RISK: AN ARTISTS’ COLONY
Thus began the journey to CronArtUSA’s brand new location: Westport. The charming Connecticut town happened to us by chance; then again, that’s a large part of the whole CronArtUSA business model: as Melanie calls it, “calculated risk.” As the opening of the new space drew closer, I pestered Ryan and Melanie about doing an interview together. I wanted to chat about expanding the operation; what it’s been like scaling a locally-minded, artistic enterprise to a new demographic (in some circles, Westport is celebrated as an “Artists’ Colony”); but above all, check in on how it’s been maintaining the familial foundation of CronArtUSA. Beneath the layers of budding entrepreneurship, skilled business moves, and spur-of-the-moment strategic planning lies a family whose only modus operandi is to stick together-- and stay grounded.
Because this expedition to a second location (in a different state) set geographical boundaries, Ryan, Melanie, and I opted for a digital conversation: thanks, Google.
Blake: You did it: the CronArtUSA Empire is happening! I remember when you first used that word: empire.
Melanie: Hang on just a minute, we’re sort of “open/closed here” right now.
Two customers have entered the store. I can’t see them because I’m staring at a computer screen. I wait and listen to Melanie talk to them, get their story, ask them questions about who they are. It’s genuine: nothing put on. Then they depart...
Mel: Okay, sorry. Hi.
Blake: It sounds busy already.
Mel: We’re just doing it, you know?
Blake: So, wow, holy cow: it’s your first week. You already have traction. When you put the last bit of the gallery in place and stepped back, what were you thinking?
Melanie: I stepped back and thought, "Wow, I'm exhausted!" In a week: we built out the new space and staged it, finished a series of school murals, and prepped for Ryan’s trip to Africa with Go Doc Go. I've never seen anyone work harder than Ryan these past couple of weeks. We’ve been together for 26 years, and I’m so amazed by him. I also couldn't help but relish in the fact that we opened our first space 3 years ago on Memorial Day Weekend.
Ryan: --in New Paltz--
Melanie: --in New Paltz, NY-- then fast-forward three years later to opening the second location on Memorial Day Weekend, in Westport, CT. It feels right.
Ryan: It made sense to have another space. It’s somewhat of a natural progression: as an artist and business partner, for the brand. I like the idea of multiple locations. It’s part of our mission: accessibility. I didn’t expect it to happen-- it caught us by surprise, but in the big picture, it makes sense.
Blake: So expect the unexpected?
Two more customers enter: teenagers. Melanie gets up immediately, “Hey, how you doing?” -- soon followed by, “We’re glad you’re here: we like kids; especially kids who like art.”
Blake: Ryan, while she tends to them, I have a question specifically for you, the artist. How has the transition from the first gallery to the second been?
Ryan: I think because it feels right to expand, I’m staying open. I say somewhere, somehow, we go for another one. Keep the momentum rolling. The concept is kind of creating itself as we go: my identity in my work is making a really natural evolution.
Blake: I feel like your work is very much developed out of that frame of mind: “see something, think, respond.” It’s really refreshing. You don’t, at least for the rest of us to see, force anything. In these moments, do you feel sort of like your painting “Show Pony” all over again?
Ryan: Absolutely. But I understand that I have to assume that role sometimes. I don’t like it all the time, but I respect it and appreciate it. That’s growth.
The second pair of customers depart; Melanie returns.
Melanie: Hi again.
Blake: Oh, hi. I’ve always admired the familial aspects of how CronArtUSA operates; it feels like this second gallery brought your family together somehow.
Melanie: When we were deciding to open the second gallery, we thought it was important to bring the kids into the decision. In our first meeting about the space, we brought our kids and encouraged them to voice opinion. Opening Westport has had a big impact on their accessibility to us-- but true to form, they have stepped up as team members.
Blake: You gave them a choice in their livelihood.
Melanie: It really goes back to the “another state” thing. When we’re in Westport, we’re committed to being here. We have to make sacrifices-- ultimately to better our family. Our role as parents means taking care of them, and we want them to respect what we’re doing, and to learn to respect calculated risk.
Ryan: All of my work-- the entire brand-- is about being fearless.
Melanie: If we can show our children how to be fearless-- wherein you make decisions that let go of the outcome and sit in the moment-- then we’ve done our job as entrepreneurs and parents. Ultimately, this is for our family.
Blake: Mel, you and I have been chatting about patronage recently. On the blog next week, I’m going to investigate modern artistic patronage-- and how it’s affecting artists across the country. In the meantime, I’m curious to hear both of your thoughts on the Westport community, which appears to be full of bonafide art patrons.
Melanie: People keeping asking us, “Why Westport?” It’s a community with deep roots in cultivating artists, with a history as an artists’ colony. It’s been really awesome: the community here walks in and says, “What’s going on here? Tell me about the art and the artist!” We love it.
Ryan: I was able to develop my entire catalogue in New Paltz, in Ulster County, one of the highest “artists per capita” regions in the country. That was my launch-pad. Now, my team, friends, fans, and family are encouraging us, nudging us: Go do this.
Blake: What’s the end goal with this second CronArtUSA location?
Melanie: Expand our tribe. I love meeting people who connect with what we do. It feels like adventure to me. I love hearing about what other people are doing. As an entrepreneur, I also love seeing the new location through a fresh set of eyes and diving into the unexpected. I'm really excited.
Ryan: This is a chance to do what I always ultimately have wanted to do: share my work, with as many people as possible, be accessible, and give people an opportunity to think differently for a moment.
Blake: Thanks, you two. Brava.
Melanie: No, thank you.
Ryan: Thanks, man.
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