Independent Influence: Austin’s Preacher finds inspiration in its in-house art gallery

People browsing the artwork at Austin's Preacher Gallery

Welcome to Independent Influence, a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies across the country. This week we're featuring Austin-based agency Preacher and the art gallery that its founders built within the agency.

When Mother New York alumni Rob Baird, Krystle Loyland and Seth Gaffney founded Preacher in Austin, Texas three years ago, the trio were well aware of the fact that the city was quickly establishing itself as a hotbed for creativity.

So while the three were excited to venture out and open up their own creative shop in the growing city - a move that proved to be a boon considering the agency has since then racked up work for clients including Crate & Barrel, Samsung, Tommy John and Venmo - they initially had reservations about opening up an art gallery within their new digs. Despite wanting to support artists in the area and give them a space to showcase their artwork, they didn’t want to appear as though they were just a bunch of Madison Avenue execs trying to weasel their way into to Austin’s burgeoning creative community.

“I didn’t want to come back to my adopted hometown where I went to college and feel like we were just jumping on the bandwagon of everybody that’s moving to Austin,” said Preacher co-founder and chief creative officer Rob Baird, who went to The University of Texas at Austin before holding creative roles at agencies including BBH New York, Arnold Worldwide, Fallon and Mother New York.

That's when they decided to meet with Jason Archer, a college classmate of Baird’s who had spent the years since college working in Austin as an animator and artist. Since Archer had become quite familiar with the arts scene in Austin over the years, Baird wanted to get his thoughts on how local artists and creative types would react to an art gallery housed within an ad agency.

Luckily for Baird and his fellow co-founders, Archer assured them that the city’s artists would likely be receptive to the concept since many of them are constantly on the lookout for spaces to show off and sell their work. And because Preacher planned to let artists keep 70% of their sales, with the agency only keeping 30% to help “keep the lights on,” Archer said that the added perk of being able to keep the majority of sales would certainly be appealing to those looking to sell their work.

“We kind of ran the idea by him in the start, and it just blossomed from there,” said Baird.

Building an art gallery from scratch

With a plan firmly in place and Archer on board as curator, Preacher’s co-founders began making their dream of opening an ad agency - and a permanent art gallery - a reality.

The building that eventually became Preacher’s home had previously been a nightclub that Baird said “needed some love and rehabilitation” when they first found it. While they were cleaning out the space and determining what the layout of the agency would be, they discovered a neglected area that they quickly realized would be a perfect place to set up the gallery, especially since it had its own street entrance that would make it easily accessible for patrons.

“The area that’s now the gallery wasn't even used as part of the nightclub. It was just kind of this decrepit space with a lot of debris. We couldn’t even see how far back it went,” said Baird. When the agency hosted its first gallery show at SXSW in 2014, which showcased the work of numerous artists, the space hadn’t yet been fully renovated. In order to make do with what was available, they wheat-pasted prints and hung pieces on drywall to show off the work of Preacher Gallery’s inaugural artists.

Working with local designer David Clark of Kartwheel, they were eventually able to transform the space into a modern gallery by restoring its high wood beam ceilings and combining new white walls with some of the building’s older elements.

Since then, the Preacher Gallery has showcased the artwork of more than 50 different artists in both solo and group formats. Since none of the founders had any gallery experience before opening the Preacher Gallery, they were averaging about five to six shows per year during the agency’s first few years as they worked to find their bearings and get into a rhythm.

Now in their third full year of running the gallery, Baird said they’re finally starting to get the hang of it and are currently on track to a host a total of 10 shows this year, averaging about one per month.

“The first couple years, it certainly was not every month,” he said. “[Now] most of the time we go from show to show, so usually the walls don’t sit empty very long,” he said.

For every show, Preacher hosts both opening and closing receptions open to the public where anyone can come browse the artwork, mingle with the artist or artists, and enjoy live music, food and drinks. Baird said hundreds of people usually turn out to the gallery opening shows and that sometimes a “good chunk” of the work sells that first night. Throughout the month, Preacher also normally hosts intermittent happy hours for people who might not have had the chance to come out to show’s opening.

“We easily get hundreds of folks coming through for each of the openings, then a nice steady crowd for happy hours and closings, often with people coming back to purchase art they first saw at the opening or heard about but weren't able to attend,” said Baird. “We try to make both the opening and closing really special.”

Becoming a mainstay

Since opening its doors roughly three years ago, the Preacher Gallery has certainly become a staple of the agency’s culture. Despite the fact that Preacher has doubled in size since last year, Baird said he refuses to sacrifice gallery space to make more room for the agency’s day-to-day operations.

“I’d rather us sit on top of each other and operate the Preacher Gallery than have to start using that space for actual daily work. It’s just been too good to us,” he said.

The gallery has also managed to attract some big names of as of late: this month it is featuring the artwork of actor and skateboarder Jason Lee, who is exhibiting a series of photos he took throughout Texas earlier this year on a 1951 camera. At the closing reception later this month, Lee will give a talk and demonstration on the series, which is part of a forthcoming book by him called A Plain View.

“The Jason Lee show was a pretty special one for us because he'd moved to Texas from LA and fallen in love with rural West Texas and the Panhandle,” said Baird. “He’s been taking these absolutely stunning large format photos alongside highways and deserted main streets and farms. The work is gorgeous but has a real thought-provoking edge of what is beautiful and what is worth remembering. The audience response was incredible.”

While the Preacher Gallery has proved itself to be a popular destination among Austin’s creatives, Baird said that both local and national clients have expressed interest in exhibits as well.

“Some of our Austin-based clients are regulars at the shows, and we've had our out-of-town clients make a point to be in our offices for certain show openings,” he said. “A lot of times we'll have a big, late-afternoon meeting in the main conference room we call The Chapel, which spills right into the gallery. We'll wrap it up, open the big doors, and take the whole table of clients en masse to get a drink and take in the show together.”

Internally, the Preacher Gallery surely provides the agency’s staffers with inspiration and the opportunity to meet and network with other creative people in the city. While Baird admits that he worries employees could end up taking it for granted, he hasn’t seen any slowdown of excitement yet; in fact, he said that staff attendance at the shows has been “great” and that many of the people who work at Preacher are committed to growing the gallery and making it better.

“It’s really become a source of pride for the employees that we have these connections to all these creative people,” said Baird. “It’s opened us up to the rich creative community that we always knew was here that I don’t know if we would have met and been able to be a true part of if we were just making advertising. I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of folks here that know us and have been great friends to us that don’t even know exactly what it is we do during the day when it’s not a gallery show. That’s totally fine. I love that actually.”

Independent Influence is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

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Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is a reporter at The Drum covering creativity and advertising. Based in Philadelphia, she primarily covers independent agencies and B2B marketing. She also oversees The Drum’s “Independent Influence,” a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies. During her time at The Drum, she has covered industry events including SXSW, ANA Masters of Marketing, 4A’s Transformation and C2 Montréal. She is a graduate of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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