|(Melissa Inez Walker - left, Amber Lowe- center, Melissa Ralston - right - photo by Stephen Davis)
When did you first realize your passion for the arts?
I fell in love with art in high school. My sister was in a photography class and a few museum shows. It was a new experience for me and made quite an impact. When I was 15 I took the same class. Our teacher was fantastic and really pushed his students to be creative. He also took us on field trips to museums and showed us lots of art books. My love for art blossomed from then on.
Where there any pivotal moments in life that made you decide to become a gallery director?
After college from NM I moved to San Diego. I came here to work as an art installer for the Museum of Contemporary Art both in La Jolla and downtown. It was a satisfying job, including getting to handle and install artworks by one of my favorite artists, Frida Kahlo, among many others. Next, I worked with photographer Philipp Scholz Rittermann who taught me a great deal about the commercial side. Then, I lucked out and was hired as the assistant director of Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla. I already had an extensive business education from my Dad, but I learned the business of selling art from Joseph.
At the time I was also an active artist working out of a studio downtown. It wasn’t ideal and the other tenants rarely used their studios. When a building came on the market in downtown Escondido I thought it was the perfect time to take a risk and purchase the building. My boyfriend Sam (who shortly after became my husband) and I transformed the dilapidated building into 14 very private studios and a gallery.
Are there any specific ways in which you hope to make an impression on the art scene?
I hope to have already made an impression. I try to treat both my clients and artists equally well. A huge amount of my business comes from referrals from my existing clients so I like to think it has been a successful collaboration.
I have done several large outside shows (all either commissions or pre-sold out shows) at a nightclub in Vegas, SDAI in San Diego, and CCAE in Escondido. These have been a few of the highlights of my career.
How is running the gallery different today from how it was back in 2004?
It is far more exhilarating today. When we opened in 2004 buying art online hadn’t become popular. Fast forward to 2011 and the gallery really started to take off. I remember selling many people’s first purchases to them in 2012 - 2014 and it was their first ever online art purchase. Now, it is very common and a good portion of our sales are national and international. Working with so many artists and clients around the world has been one of the most rewarding experiences.
What do you find most rewarding about gallery directing and curating?
The most satisfying part is working with people - both the artists and my clients. Artists, like art collectors, share the same passion in life and are always so gracious and down to earth. They are the ones who make it the best possible career choice.
What are some of the challenges that you face?
My husband Sam passed away from cancer in 2018 after a 14 year marriage. That has been my most difficult challenge. It was great to have a partner to share the responsibilities with, but more importantly to discuss the future with. He was the only other person who loved the business as much as I do. I have a great staff, but it doesn’t make up for the loss of both my life and business partner. It especially hurts to think that he doesn’t get to see or enjoy all of the new additions I have added since his passing.
Are there certain qualities that you look for in artists in deciding whether they will be pleasurable to work with? And on the contrary, any areas for improvement artists should be aware of?
There are so many fantastic visual artists, but as I am working closely with all of them our personalities need to be compatible. I love to work with artists who are savvy about the art market, but also respectful of my time. I pay artists quickly. If an artist misses deadlines or delivers short on the amount of works we agreed on I likely won’t work with them again. It is also always appreciated when an artist helps to market the show.
Do you have any specific do’s and don’ts for artists looking to submit their work to you?
Never approach gallerists during receptions - that is when we make money. I am also never a fan of artists showing up unannounced. My time in the gallery is limited and well planned out. If an artist is interested in a gallery they should send high quality images via email along with info and prices about the pieces. Also, don’t be disappointed if you don’t hear back. I get lots of great submissions, but with a limited amount of time in each day I often don’t have a chance to respond.
Do you have any plans for Distinction Gallery beyond what it is today?
In the last 2 years I added 3 studios, an art bar, another restroom, as well as remodeled our kitchen and lounge spaces. I have promised myself that I will take a break on projects and just enjoy the space. After all, it’s my home away from home and as my husband said “Reminder to all... Life is short... Make the best of it”.