Blue Skies Gallery looked a lot like a pipe dream when it opened in a small, out-of-the-way space in downtown Hampton in 1990.
Customers and artists alike had to climb a steep, seemingly endless flight of steps to get to the shop on the second-floor of the old Hoffman building. And when they opened the big heavy door at the top of the landing, what they found was a tightly packed sales room not much bigger than the stairway.
Twenty years after that ambitious opening, however, the original group of 40 artists — including about a half-dozen founding owners — get to have the last laugh on their doubters.
Originally not much more than 500 square feet, Blues Skies has grown more than 10 times in size — and migrated all the way to the center of the downtown business district after moving to two successively larger locations in the 1990s.
It's also managed to stay afloat during the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, doing well enough that the owners and members are staging a 20th birthday party this Saturday.
"We're committed to keeping this gallery open," says Jim Dees, an owner-artist since 2005, who reports "a very profitable December" and surprising strength in January after "kind of a flat year."
"But we wouldn't be here without the dedication and quality of our member artists. They're the ones that keep this place running."
Such enterprise was the key to the gallery's early success when a small band of talents looking for greater stability fled a struggling nonprofit artists cooperative in Yorktown and set up shop in Hampton.
Anchored by such noted figures as painter Gloria Coker of Hampton, fiber artist Lynn Sward of Virginia Beach and the late paper marbler K. Franklin Spoor of Newport News, the group of about 40 artists brought not only an attractive range of work but also a new approach to operating a gallery.
Member artists joined the co-owners in running the store by working behind the sales counter, designing and creating the shop sign and helping organize monthly shows. That lowered the gallery's costs, making it easier to offer reduced booth fees and sales commissions.
"That was the real difference," says Williamsburg artist and past owner Jean Harrison, who has shown her wearable fiber creations at Blue Skies since its start.
"We weren't always sure who was supposed to be doing what at On The Hill — and here the artists had total responsibility for seeing that the gallery made it."
Other factors contributed to the gallery's longevity, too, including the number and diversity of the artists it can showcase.
Some 65 artists display their work in the more than 5,000-square-foot shop, grabbing the eyes with everything from Harrison's progressive wearables to painting, photography and ceramics as well as glass, metal, wood and jewelry.
"I believe the variety and scale of what we offer here has been an important part of the gallery's success," says Hampton painter Nancy Kearney, a member and co-owner since 2005.
"We're very fortunate to have a building like this — where we have space for so many artists."
That critical mass of talent has made Blue Skies one of the downtown business district's most prominent and durable retail attractions over the past two decades.
By far the largest proportion of its customers are destination shoppers rather than passing foot traffic, says Dees, a Hampton man who regularly brought friends and relatives to the store before retiring, taking up painting and becoming a resident artist 5 years ago.
Though about half of the artists form a core group of long-term veterans, another 20 percent consists of newcomers selected by a monthly jurying process. The aim is to enrich the mix with new, high-quality work yet also ensure good matches with the older talent, Dees says.
Over the years, the highest price for individual works has climbed into the low 4-figures as the gallery has grown. But most sell for much less — and some small items still go for under $20.
Such relative affordability may be another key to Blue Skies' success, especially compared to its recent disappointment with a high-end satellite location at Peninsula Town Center. And even when they don't buy, customers come to admire and look — providing the artists with another kind of satisfaction.
"Our motivation isn't primarily to make money. It's to have beautiful place to show our work," Dees says. "So this has become more than a store for both our artists and customers. It's a place you want to be."
News to use What: Blue Skies Gallery 20th Anniversary Exhibit, Sale and Celebration Where: 26 S. King St., Hampton When: Monday-March 15, with a public reception at 4 p.m. Saturday Cost: Free Info: 727-0028/www.blue skiesart.com