Katie Shaw didn’t know what to think when artist Duncan McDaniel brought her a pair of sculptures he’d made from Solo cups on the day they were installing his exhibition at Red Arrow Gallery. Shaw has owned the gallery for more than a decade — first in Joshua Tree, California, and then, since 2014, in East Nashville. Still, she’s reluctant to call herself an expert on art, and while the stacks of multicolored, disposable cups intrigued her — she calls them tentacles or hydras — she wasn’t sure how to talk about them, let alone put on price tags.
“I was glad once we installed them,” Shaw says over juice at Urban Juicer, just down the street from her Gallatin Avenue space, “but it’s a funny thing, pricing Solo cups on metal rods with white podiums.”
Shaw had faith in her artist’s vision, and didn’t hesitate to get the work on 1st Dibs, an online market for art and antiques. It paid off: McDaniel’s Spectrum Tower 2 sold to a collector in Canada less than a month later, for just under $2,000. By the time the exhibit ended, Shaw had sold four more of McDaniel’s works.
That’s one of the strengths of Red Arrow Gallery, and, by extension, Shaw herself: She’s a born salesperson with killer instincts. Still, that’s often not enough to succeed in the cutthroat world of contemporary art sales. What sets Shaw apart is that she’s strengthened her innate talents by surrounding herself with people she trusts, and artists who push her to think expansively.
“I’m refreshed by her,” says local artist Jodi Hays, who has been represented by Red Arrow since 2016. “She thinks about a lot of things that I don’t. And that’s really the best hope for a gallery — to have someone who understands the work, but who also works hard on things so that I can spend more time in the studio.”
In person, Shaw is warm, and disarmingly self-deprecating. She’s also ambitious, and focused.
“I would love to be able to pay someone a salary [through Red Arrow],” she says, with a determination that might seem naive on someone without her decade-plus experience. “And I’d love for all the artists I work with to not have to have another job.”
She’s come a long way since the gallery opened — literally. The original Red Arrow got started in 2006 in a building marked by a historic, 24-foot arrow that was protected with landmark status.
“It came with the building we were renting.” says Shaw. “It was an easy name — everyone would have said, ‘Go to the gallery with the red arrow’ anyway.
“We had three different locations while we were in Joshua Tree, but it wasn’t what I’m doing now at all. Back then, I didn’t have a roster, I was just sending cards out and making posters. I had a MySpace page instead of a website! [The gallery] had nothing to do with advancing careers or asking for CVs — it was artists that I liked that I was friends with and wanted to show their work. We were open one day a week, we had one opening a month, and I didn’t invest any money in it.”
When she followed her then-partner, musician Tim Easton, to Nashville, she decided that Red Arrow was coming along for the ride. Finding a location for her space was a mixture of luck and savvy.
“I started going to galleries and seeing what else was available,” she says. “I live in East Nashville, and saw that there weren’t any [white-box] galleries operating out here. I’m good friends with Jem [Cohen], who owns Fond Object, and when they opened up there, a space became available next door. I thought, ‘I’m innately a business owner. Let’s just do this.’ It’s part of what runs me — having something to be passionate about and to share.”
The gallery opened in Inglewood’s Riverside Village in 2014, the same week David Lusk Gallery opened in Wedgewood-Houston and OZ Arts took flight in West Nashville. It was a good week for Nashville’s art scene.
“I say that I’m strategically in East Nashville,” Shaw says, “and I want to be here. We have people who are buying houses here and developing here, but the old money still doesn’t see us.”
Shaw has, at times, wrestled with potential art collectors who don’t know what to make of Red Arrow. It’s something she speaks of bluntly, as if she’s a musician struggling to break from country to pop. “That original space was so small, and collectors would stop in and immediately it was so evident that they were judging the work based on the space. But when we moved into the new space in 2016 it changed.”
That new space — a high-ceilinged home at 919 Gallatin Ave., in what could best be described as a creative compound that also includes Nashville fashion designer Amanda Valentine’s studio and textile company Electra Eggleston’s place — is an ideal setting for the kind of work Shaw gravitates toward. Red Arrow represents a diverse roster of artists that includes collage artist Lester Merriweather, gritty, street-art-inspired abstract painter Daniel Holland, and elegant artists who experiment with color, like Hays, Amelia Briggs, and Vicki Sher. A garage door opens up the gallery space, which lends the otherwise boxy room a breadth of open air and natural light.
Shaw knows how to market her work, and her experience doesn’t only include Red Arrow.
“I’ve had the same job for 18 years — selling computer software for mainframes,” she says. She’s quick to explain what a mainframe is, likely used to meeting blank stares from attendants making small talk at one of her openings. “They’re the big computers,” she says, “that run companies or grocery stores or schools. I fell into that job while I was managing a restaurant in Ohio when I was in my early 20s.”
That might seem like an unusual background for a gallerist, but to Shaw, it’s given her the skill set to meet her artists at a level they might not have access to otherwise.
“I know about selling software, and I can talk to you all day about it, but I don’t know simple things, I don’t know how to code. So I love selling art — it’s stuff that I can see. I’ve always gone with art I respond to. I don’t have a formal arts background. I love abstract work for that reason — it’s subjective, and you can think what you want to think about it. But now, I don’t just sign an artist if I like them, I’m thinking about how we can work together to have a long-term career. Those are the artists I tend to work with the most — the ones that I can connect with on an emotional level, have a passionate response to their work, and that we’ve had successful sales.”
But why art? Why focus on something as emotionally and sometimes financially taxing as selling contemporary art? Shaw says that’s something that’s only clarified recently.
“My mom was an artist,” she explains. “And I finally realized when I was looking through her portfolio recently that that’s why I feel so lucky to be able to do this.” Her mother died when Shaw was still a teenager, and her likeness is tattooed on Shaw’s arm in the Art Nouveau style of Alphonse Mucha.
“I believe that she’s been watching after me and being a guiding force. Making that connection was really special. It’s crazy, but I swear it hit me out of the blue. I was thinking of what I would think of her work, if my mom would submit to my gallery, I wondered, ‘What would I think of it?’ The charisma and magnetism of artists, that’s why I’m attracted to it. That’s why I do this.”
And she’s not stopping any time soon. In many ways, Red Arrow is only getting started.
“I’ve finally gotten the nerve to curate. I mean, the word ‘curator’ is so silly and overused, and I feel weird calling myself that. But I’m getting better at creating something out of what they bring me. I’m really collaborative. And I want more of it. There’s got to be enough to go around.”