When she was 12 years old, Shanan Campbell Wells met a woman who glittered, and she knew she wanted to grow up and be just like her. That woman wasn’t a movie star; she was a gallery manager in Santa Fe.
“I thought she had the coolest job in the world. She was so pretty and sophisticated,” Wells said.
That day, a 12-year-old girl set foot on her life path and has never strayed from her journey.
Sitting in a large leather chair in the back room of Sorrel Sky Gallery, Wells tells a story that started four years ago on Main Avenue in Durango. The walls behind her are deep chocolate brown, a 3-foot by 5-foot canvas oil painting of a Native American woman in dance regalia by artist Mike Desatnick hangs next to her, and behind her is a bronze sculpture by Denny Haskew. Wells, a slender brunette whose mahogany eyes are filled with drive and passion, sips a frozen coffee drink and talks rapidly about her life.
At 16, Wells, who is the daughter of jewelry artist and former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, took a job at Toh-Atin Gallery answering phones and filing. The next summer, Jackson Clark put her on the sales floor, and she worked at Toh-Atin while attending Fort Lewis College, where she created her own major in art marketing and management.
After a brief detour working for the Smithsonian and Franklin Mint, Wells returned to Durango and eventually went back to work for Toh-Atin, this time as manager. For seven years she managed the gallery and Toh-Atin’s Art on Main and ran its wholesale jewelry and rug business.
In October 2001, Wells said, “It was like a brick hit me that it was time (to open her own gallery).”
Ten minutes later, she gave notice to Jackson that she was leaving Toh-Atin to open her own gallery. She went home that night and wrote out a budget. By week’s end, she had negotiated a lease on the space. Sorrel Sky opened April 5, 2002, during the weak post 9-11 art market.
“When things are meant to be, they are just not that hard,” Wells said. “What I realized is that I had been working on it for 20 years.”
What she didn’t count on was the Missionary Ridge Fire that destroyed not only the mountainsides and homes, but also Durango’s tourism.
“I just kept saying it can’t get any worse than this. I knew if I could survive that summer, it would always continue to grow and grow,” Wells said, recalling the struggle to make ends meet; the depletion of her life savings; the credit-card debt and loan against equity in a spec home she and her former husband built. “But I never let my staff know how scary it was or about my fear.”
Four years later, Wells said her business has probably tripled, not only in sales, but in size, inventory and artists represented. “We’ve changed and evolved,” she added.
In tandem with working as a gallery manager and owner, Wells also is an art consultant who landed her biggest job to date, the new Mercy Hospital, because of her unrelenting drive.
“It took me five months to get the job. I sent proposal after proposal and letter after letter and called and called. It was a lot of work to get that job, but I got the job and three years later I finished the job.” Wells said.
The work paid off. She’s had six consulting jobs as a result of that one job. And now she’s formed a new company, SCW Art Consulting.
“We pick art for the art collection, not to match your sofa. We don’t want it to blend, we want it to enhance the space and make it feel special like artwork does in your home, where it is thoughtfully placed and it has a reason,” Wells said. The “we” on her team include Lindsay S. White and Jules Masterjohn.
At SCW, Wells works with a business from the ground up, developing a theme based on the corporate identity of the business.
“It’s a lot more intense than throwing some paintings on the wall,” Wells said.
And the new venture is about to explode. Wells has a dozen proposals out and is confident she will land some of the jobs that range from small medical offices to banks to other hospitals around the country to major full-scale developments.
While she is a bit uncertain at the moment, Wells has a consummate faith in her journey. Her fears for the new business are different than those she had when starting her gallery.
“I was dumber then,” she said with a laugh. “I know how hard it can be and how scary. I know what it’s like to be a business owner. I’m a lot stronger now and a lot less tolerant and way more cautious. But I know I’ll figure it out.”
firstname.lastname@example.org Leanne Goebel is a freelance arts journalist from Pagosa Springs
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