Bob Briscoe and his wife Mary purchased property in rural Stark, Minnesota in 1987. Once he was set up with a home and studio, Bob started an annual fall sale. Four years later he got together with other area potters and started the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour (www.minnesotapotters.com), which just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Bob also maintained an active art fair schedule.
Then, at the age of 69, it was time to move. Briscoe ended up selling his property, including the studio, to a potter over 30 years his junior, Matt Krousey. But how does an established production potter with a long-term investment in his home and studio sales (which draw over half a year’s income and a devoted audience) not risk losing everything by selling and moving? Is it possible that this transition can be a “win/win” and not an end to one’s career?
I (KM) recently caught up with Bob Briscoe (BB) and Matt Krousey (MK), and spoke with them about the transition and their thoughts on the future.
KM: What was the impetus to sell?
BB: My wife and I always planned to move to the city when we were older. About four years ago we decided it was time to actually do it while we were young enough to enjoy what the city had to offer.
KM: When you agreed to talk about this transition, you said it was important. Why?
BB: I hope it stimulates other potters in their 60s and 70s who are wondering about life changes—it doesn’t have to be negative. There is a financial planning part and an emotional part. Most potters’ assets may be tied up in real estate. To tap that asset for retirement, or to afford slowing down, you might have to sell it.
When we decided to sell, I thought. . . . Is my career going to die? Am I going to be able to start a brand new studio? I went through some mental withdrawal for about six months. After a lot of conversations and soul searching, my wife, Mary, and I agreed that it was important to us that our home and studio have a future with a new generation, that it not be sold to a stranger. If possible, we wanted to see the place remain a location for the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour and other pottery events. Mary made a spreadsheet: month-to-month costs, the value of the property, and what the income opportunities are with each sale. We came up with what we believed was a fair price, crediting the value to us of keeping a pottery studio. My biggest concern was. . . . could I find a potter I liked and whose work I respected who would take the risk?
KM: What risk? Isn’t Matt walking into financial security?
BB: Well, there are always risks. There are two established events that have been happening on this property for years, but things can change. And it’s a lot of work. Actually, until ten years ago, the fall sale was better than the Tour for me.
MK: The timing was perfect. I didn’t know they were selling when my partner, Tamino, and I were looking for rural property to buy. When we first saw the numbers, we felt that we could make it work, even though it was a bit more than we had initially decided to spend. The property had the infrastructure I eventually wanted and we figured the estimated income from those shows meant we could jump in. I could not have done it without Tamino; her regular income as a nurse makes this possible.
BB: We did a contract for deed, which is great. Mary and I didn’t have to deal with investing a huge chunk of money and now have money coming in each month.
There was also a question about whether the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour would accept my leaving and Matt taking my place. There are very strict rules in our tour about adding a host, but this was not adding, it was exchanging. From the time Matt and I agreed to the concept until he took over was a three-year transition and the other tour hosts unanimously accepted this plan. Since the sale of my property to Matt, Connee Mayeron (another host on the Tour) has sold some property to Ani Kasten, another talented young potter. Kasten is also participating in the tour. I love the fact that we are nurturing a renewal of an event that we’ve worked on for 25 years.
KM: Bob, you often advocate that potters fight a fear of scarcity: not enough buyers, not enough money, not enough resources to support all of us. But this is coming from a man who has cultivated a studio sale audience over 25 years. How did you mitigate risk and find more in this agreement?
BB: Part of our agreement was that I would be invited to the spring and fall sales until I didn’t want to come any more. Any risk in income is mediated by participating in those two shows. I expect my sales to drop as a guest participant as opposed to the host. I think there is a built-in empathy in sales for people that are hosting. I think this will quickly become Matt’s show.
MK: The idea of continuing to provide the environment that Bob and Mary created in this location is amazing. I remember meeting them when I first started to help wrap pots at the Tour about eight years ago. It was like joining a whole new family; my best friends are people I’ve met on this property. It was exciting when Connee sold her place to Ani. I enjoy having someone else to talk to that is on a similar adventure.
BB: And hosts don’t have to sell their home and studio, they could transfer their role as a manager to a younger potter and still participate as a guest. Another transition is that Matt now has a studio right next to his house. Now, I am commuting 45 minutes to my studio. I used to be able to just go cover my pots in my underwear. It is a handsome thing to have the studio that close!
MK: This experience has been transformative. Now I can work when I am taking care of our daughter; you’d be amazed at the quantity of handles you can pull during a nap. Mostly, it is an honor to live in this space, truly humbling. You can feel Bob’s laughter and positive energy around every corner. I even found a grade-school report card of Bob’s under a shelf (it said he was “talkative and a hard worker”). I now have such a large studio I feel no limitations. Who knows what’s next?
KM: And Bob, did you find what you were looking for?
BB: Yes, once I decided to continue to be a potter, everything fell into place. I found a rural building, remodeled it into my studio, and. . . . lots of people thought I was an idiot. But, it was cheap, I could afford it, build a kiln room, and my carrying costs on a monthly basis are a few hundred vs. thousands in the city.
Now I have a commercial building by the Mississippi river and a new apprentice. I will look to establish a sale in this area. Hopefully, some day when I am done making pots, I can sell this studio to another potter and keep things going.
the author Karen McPherson is the former Sales Gallery Manager at Northern Clay Center, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she worked with both Matt and Bob in various capacities. She now works and maintains her own ceramic studio in Estes Park, Colorado. For more information, visit www.karenmcphersonclay.com.