Secrets of a Groundbreaking Gallerist:
How Leslie Combemale Became Hollywood’s Art Champion
Imagine that you grew up loving movies and art—and the artists who made them; And as an adult you wanted to hang out with all the cool people who made moves and art and loved this stuff as much as you do. Oh, and you wanted to make money and be your own boss while doing it. Your days would be jammed with Jedi—and animation, art, aliens, elves, Batmen and Catwomen.
Sounds as impossible and fantastical as one of your favorite movies? Well, Leslie Combemale is living the dream! Finding out how she started her own business doing what she loves. It may inspire you to do the same!
DIXIE: Leslie, you have built for yourself what many girls would consider a dream job. Describe your business, your brand (!), and what you do.
LESLIE: I have owned ArtInsights Animation and Film Art Gallery for 22 years. We sell original art used to create movie posters and animated movies, as well as the concept art that was created in the making of the movies themselves. I also write nationally syndicated film reviews as Cinema Siren. At ArtInsights, a bunch of artists that actually work with the movie studios sell art through me. For example, I recently sold the original art used to make the Blade Runner and E.T. movie posters. In terms of branding, I think since I was part of one of the first galleries that sold animation art and opened the only gallery that specializes in selling original film art, my name and my gallery’s name is known for finding the best and rarest original art from cartoons and movies.
I basically help people embrace their inner movie geek in every way I possibly can, by helping them find great art that represents their favorite movies (both old and new) and teaching them about film through interviews with directors and artists. As Cinema Siren, I also help people to find a new favorite film through my reviews.
DIXIE: What led to your starting your own business? What steps did you take?
LESLIE: When I first got out of school, I started working for one of the first galleries in the world that exclusively sold animation art. In order to move on to sell and acquisition the best art, I felt I had to learn all I could. I was voracious. I was and am extremely passionate about movies, and about art that had a purpose—as animation cels and movie campaign art does. I started getting to know artists and animators who have since passed away. I realized I wanted to be the one to decide what art I promoted. I could see that there was no one promoting or selling the kind of art I loved, so wanted to own my own gallery. I found great artists I could trust, worked to find people inside the movie studios I could trust, and learned absolutely everything I could about Hollywood and film art. Everyone I did business with trusted me, and told me if I started my own gallery they would support it, which they have to this day. As for money, I kind of jumped first, and trusted the net would be there, so to speak. In small business, that doesn’t always work, but with vision, enthusiasm, knowledge, and business savvy, It absolutely can. I’m proof.
DIXIE: What was the biggest surprise you found in starting and maintaining your own business?
LESLIE: I am most surprised that people believe small business and owning a retail gallery is not that hard to do. In the building where my gallery resides, there is a space across the hall from me that has had 12 businesses in the time we have been there. In retail you absolutely have to love people, and you have to be an eternal optimist. I was also surprised that until I was in my early 40s everyone always thought my husband (who is my partner in the business, but works largely behind the scenes), was my boss. You’d think in the 21st century people wouldn’t still think that way, but they do.
DIXIE: What was the biggest challenge you found in starting/having your own business?
LESLIE: Again, one must be an eternal optimist. In my own business, the numbers aren’t always about a specific increase in sales. Some years are way better than others, but it is absolutely essential to keep moving forward and changing. Each risk, in terms of new artists, new ways to promote and expand awareness of film art, has made a huge positive impact on the gallery, but it’s always like jumping without a net. Owning an art gallery is a bit like having a racehorse or a wine vineyard. It is largely done by people who don’t have to succeed financially. In our case, we started with nothing, so I can’t afford to make any big mistakes. So far I haven’t—or maybe I’ve turned a few on their ears!
DIXIE: What do you plan to do to develop your business in the future?
LESLIE: I’ve got big plans, but I always do! The web has many avenues to introduce the kind of art we sell to new collectors who don’t know they even have access to it. I’m also expanding my writing as Cinema Siren further, because it is such a love of mine, and it has led many collectors to the gallery through reading my reviews. There are other plans, but they are top secret as of now.
DIXIE: What are your business goals? What specific, concrete steps are you taking to achieve those goals?
LESLIE: I want to expand my gallery beyond its walls in a really big way, and change the way movie art is perceived by art collectors and the industry as a whole. I am working on specific business opportunities with people who have a lot of power in Hollywood. I am getting help from people with much more experience than I have, to aid me in the parts of my business where I am the weakest.I am writing out a very specific five-year plan with lists of who I need to talk to, where I need improvement, what parts of the buying public I need to better access, and exactly where I want to be and what I want to have achieved by then.
DIXIE: You’re on fire! In closing, tell us what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
LESLIE: First, I wish I had been more trusting of my own power. I think it takes many of us as women a long time and many experiences to allow ourselves to celebrate what we know, and trust in what we can achieve. Second, I’ve always been a bit of a “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” kind of business woman, and I wish I could have learned earlier to ask for help. We don’t have to do it all ourselves! Lastly, I’d stop giving away so much information to competitors. I’ve always believed there is room for everyone, which is a beautiful way to approach much of life, but in my business, being first and being inventive is essential to success.