With a background working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a Master’s degree in Art Education, Kathryn Waggener McGuire, our NJMOMpreneur of the week, has an eye for talent and museum-quality exhibits. While overseeing art education for emerging artists in Montclair, she took note of the talented artists who had extensive collections of work but no gallery spaces in the area to showcase them. That lack of opportunity inspired her to open Clerestory Fine Art, a “museum-quality exhibition venue” where cultivated artists exhibit their works and adults and kids come together to learn about art in a comfortable and gorgeous setting. We sat down with this mom of three boys to talk about the inspiration for opening a gallery, how the push to pivot during COVID led to a new partnership and business venture, and the local open-air places where she and her family spend their downtime.
Please share a little history on what town you live in, what made you move there, and what you love most about it.
I live in Montclair with my husband, Timothy, and our three boys. Coming from NYC, I very consciously wanted to live in a town that had its own life and identity, not just a sleepy Manhattan suburb. After visiting a friend who had recently moved here, I was charmed by the town. The Montclair Art Museum and our excellent public library were huge motivations for choosing this location, as well.
What is your background, and how did it lead to the launch of Clerestory Fine Art?
My professional background is as a curator and museum educator. I received a curatorial internship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art directly out of undergrad. I ultimately worked with Special Exhibitions and Communications in the Education department of the Met while pursuing my Master’s degree in art historical research and museum education. I ended up publishing research and curating independently for a few years when my boys were little, eventually co-directing Studio Montclair’s Incubator for Emerging Artists. During that time, I met many talented artists in the area, sitting on large bodies of very sophisticated work, but stunted by a lack of exhibition opportunity here in New Jersey.
What makes Clerestory Fine Art unique from other galleries?
Instead of just being a commercial gallery, I wanted Clerestory Fine Art to feel like a mini-museum meets art consultancy meets community center all in one. Our entire first year featured solo exhibitions with accompanying catalogs, providing a deep dive into the artists and their respective bodies of work. Each show transforms the space, and there are often free musical performances, poetry readings, comedy nights, or silent discos to go along with it. It is a social place meant to dismantle elitism in the arts and gallery scene. Before COVID, Clerestory was known for very crowded, enthusiastic events. Everyone feels comfortable here—our audience varies wildly, and I love that both children and adults from all walks of life enjoy coming here.
How do you decide on which artists to show?
I work with artists very closely, often for a year or more, in advance of curating an exhibition. I make sure to conduct multiple studio visits whenever possible to truly get to know and understand the evolution of their work. I am very committed to building a community of support. All of my artists now know one another and support each other. In general, I look for large-scale work with a signature aesthetic—they are incredibly different and solid in their unique voices.
What is the best thing about running your own business? What is the most challenging thing about it?
The best thing is never compromising my vision to show work that pushes boundaries. I feel that too many opinions cause people to doubt or “play it safe.” I’m not interested in safety—I’d much rather see a radical exhibition that strikes people. It’s also a good thing to have the ability to adjust my schedule. I get to see my kids and work in the same town where I live, but as a sole proprietor, I often have to respond to work calls at home. The toughest part is disconnecting from work at home.
How have you had to pivot due to COVID?
Not running events has been a tremendous shift and was very disheartening at first. However, in the push to pivot, I’ve worked on several new projects. I ran an “Art For Good” campaign raising money for local charities early on, followed by teaming up with Mary Scotti of 73See Gallery and the Montclair Center Business Improvement District to launch “Fresh Air Montclair” where we curate art in vacant storefronts. But the best of all is that I started a new art consulting agency— 4 Flavors of Art. We’re four women with different roles in the art world, and we pool our resources, artists, and collector network. We came together to sell art in private outdoor gatherings over the summer. We found we had an incredible love for one another and formalized this new business in the fall, opening a stunning exhibition space in Upper Montclair at 204 Bellevue Avenue. This second location and partnership allow me to curate and conduct programming safely outside. We’re all mothers to both humans and dogs, and working with a group of hilarious, brilliant, maternal women creates a business rivaling the forces of nature—it’s such a gift.
What are some of your favorite local businesses?
Just Kidding Around is a privately owned toy store on Bloomfield Avenue. The owners are very involved in supporting other businesses in the community; they have unique toys and are the kindest people. The General Store at Cornerstone Montclair is an old-school style general store in Upper Montclair. It’s the perfect place to pick up treats, games, and beautiful hand-made products. & Son on Church Street is a great place to find something unique. As the name suggests, it’s a mother and son duo who have created a concept store that’s dog friendly. They have the funkiest, stunning custom furniture, cool housewares, and are entirely welcoming.
What are some of your favorite things to do in NJ with your family?
A family favorite is the Van Vleck Gardens, a hidden gem open every day of the year, from dawn to dusk. My kids love exploring the gardens and playing hide and seek amidst the beautiful mature trees. They offer great kid’s art and gardening classes, too. We also love hiking in Eagle Rock Reservation. We have three dogs, so taking them for hikes at Eagle Rock, which is so close to home, gives a beautiful sense of being in the mountains. My oldest son does a nature camp each year and has become adept at building fairy houses in the woods. The Montclair Art Museum speaks for itself—MAM was one of Montclair’s primary draws. Their curation always provides excellent experiences for both kids and adults alike.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever got and want to pass on to a fellow NJMOMpreneur?
Hire a good accountant and trust your gut. Before opening my business, I had the privilege of participating in a woman’s entrepreneurial think tank run by Kacy Erdelyi, former owner of Joyist cafe in Montclair. There was tons of sage advice from women who’ve opened businesses, and one of the most simple pieces of advice they shared is to get started with excellent record keeping. It saves all the headaches come tax time and gives a clear view of where to redirect your financial priorities.