Malton Gallery Owner Takes a Risk

After a long time renting space in Hyde Park, Sylvia Rombis has invested $1 million in building and owning the new Malton Gallery, an airy and modernist building on Edwards Road across from the Rookwood Commons shopping/office complex. It opened this mon

Jun 17, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Sylvia Rombis, who for 36 years has operated Malton Gallery, has coined a term for the current slowdown in the art business: “sympathetic austerity.”

Many of her customers still have the money to buy the kind of accessible, often-colorful fine art — “contemporary” in that she primarily features the work of living artists — that she sells for as much as $10,000 a painting. Nevertheless, there is resistance during this deep, steep economic recession and she has seen business dip.

“They see people around them losing jobs, or their spouse is losing a job, so they cut back,” she says. “But I hope the love of art transcends everything else going on. When things are bleak, you want something beautiful in your life.”

Rombis has a very good reason for such hope. After a long time renting space in Hyde Park, she has invested $1 million in building and owning a new gallery, an airy and modernist building at 3804 Edwards Road in Oakley. It is at the intersection of Edwards and Edmundson roads, across from the Rookwood Commons shopping/office complex.

It opened this month, brightening a patch of the busy street that is otherwise home to some old-fashioned (and old) domiciles. It's immediately become one of the most impressive-looking stand-alone galleries in the city, with its glass-and-metal exterior promising a new experience to passersby. Inside, the 25-foot-high ceiling and built-in kitchenette/refreshment area are attractive.

There are also three flat-screen TVs facing the street and another larger one inside, showing images of works by the approximately 100 artists she represents. (Beginning in September, she will have dedicated shows.) To the building’s rear, there are a compact sculpture garden, wide steps to a lower-level storage area and a parking area. (Sculpture is an important part of her business.)

All around it’s a handsome building, especially the red accents on its exterior. But it’s not the kind of new business one expects to see opening in the middle of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

“Absolutely, this is scary,” Rombis says of her investment in the gallery, created by Cincinnati’s KT Design Group. “But to me it’s a sound business decision. I’m trading a lease for a mortgage."

For the last five years, Malton Gallery has been on Hyde Park Square. Rombis has had a loyal clientele but was looking for ways to grow her business. She was renting a space without parking, set back from the street.

"We're destination-driven, and I needed a more visible location," she says.

So she purchased a rundown Victorian home and lot and began going through the design process, which included seeking a zone change. Things were proceeding smoothly until last September, when the financial meltdown occurred. She has not broken ground, but already had invested $300,000. There was no turning back.

Rombis emphasizes she is still selling art, though not as much as when the economy was flush. And shehas made concessions to the soft market. Even as she opens her pristine new gallery, she has cut back on staff and expenses.

"Occasionally I mop my own floor, brush my own toilets," she says. "I used to have a full-time person just to do my technology; now you're looking at that person. But in a way, it's empowering — I know I can operate this business on my own."

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CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]