Q&A: Dearborn’s Black Box Gallery owner Ray Alcodray on embracing creativity and structure

You’d never guess Ray Alcodray was an engineer in a past life. Well, until you start asking the downtown Dearborn Black Box Gallery’s owner about the business model of running an art gallery. Then his love of processes is impossible to miss.


Black Box Gallery (3700 Monroe) in Dearborn, however, is a reflection of his time working in creative spaces. Alcodray grew up acting but stopped in his late 30s to pursue directing and producing. In 2011 was inducted into the Dearborn Theatre Hall of Fame. All the while, he spent his days as an engineer for Ford, and later a data analyst in the IT field. Neither set of coworkers knew the wiser.


“I didn’t go to work talking about theater, and I didn’t go into the theater talking about work,” he said. “I was using both sides of my brain. I was technical and I was creative; I didn’t have to pick one over the other.”


Metromode recently sat down with Alcodray in the gallery after its June shutdown to understand more about how creativity has guided his path.


The following interview is edited for brevity and clarity:


Q: What you do prior to opening the art gallery?


I've got a couple engineering degrees, so I worked a long time for Ford early in my career, but finished at some of the tier-one suppliers, and did about 20 years of information technology in the end of my career.


Q: You don't strike me as an engineer.


Yeah. It doesn't surprise me. I've always been in the creative space since I was a kid and did a lot of theater growing up. I started out as an actor and I did that into my late thirties. I started out as an actor and then after probably 20 years of acting, I started directing and then I started producing


I was using both sides of my brain; I was technical and I was creative and both of those went forward. I didn't, I didn't have to do one over the other. I just kept both going. So a lot of people who knew me in my technical career never knew that I acted or directed or produced. And a lot of people who knew me in my artistic career had no idea I was an IT guy or an engineering guy. I didn't go to work talking about my theater and I didn't go into theater talking about my work. So even people who knew me for a long time didn't know I was doing both of those things.


The people who know me know that I, I'm very process-oriented, and I like to have plans and I like to have structure, but the creative side makes sure that the structure is a framework and it's not overly prescriptive. So it's enough to keep the vision on track but allow creativity. That's what I do.


Q: How has all of that influenced what you're doing now with the Black Box gallery?


That's a great question because the people who didn't know that I did all that stuff, and then I opened up this art gallery, a lot of artists are like, why did you open up an art gallery? Like, are you a painter or you know, what do you, and I'm like, nope, just want it open up an art gallery. They don't know about my creative side. So even artists that I'm meeting now are confused. Why did this guy open up an art gallery if he's not a visual artist?


But that's the thing--I don't look at art as just painting. I look at art as all forms of art, whether it's theater, music, dance, poetry, you know, 3D, ceramics, whatever. It's all art to me. So that's part of what drives the business model here--the breadth of art. So that's how this space I think is different than most galleries that you may walk into.


Q: What is the business model of the gallery? How do you make money running an art gallery in Dearborn?


It's very difficult and would be anywhere. A gallery can succeed more easily in New York as there are a lot more people with big funds to buy art in their prime. It's culturally, you know, something to do in New York or LA or even Chicago. But the rent for that art gallery on that little, storefront somewhere in the middle of New York is huge. So they need that culture and they need those art sales just to pay their rent, let alone, you know, survive as a business. Here I own the properties, but that doesn't mean I have zero rent. I still have a mortgage, I still have some overhead, but it is manageable.


The business model, to answer your question, there are three core components to this business model. One is coffee, which is a price point of $2 to $5. We have retail art that can be anywhere from $8 to $150-$200 bucks. It's all local art by local artists. And then you have the gallery, which is more fine art, which can run anywhere from a couple of hundred bucks to several thousand dollars.


So the model is a mix of price points that allow all of them to contribute revenue to the business. On a daily basis, I sell more coffee and croissants than anything. So the mainstay is coffee and then the mix of retail and fine art sales is the next contributor to revenue.


We're a commission art gallery 60 40, 60 for the artists, 40 for us, which is actually pretty fair and reasonable. If you go out to the east coast or the west coast, it's going to be 50, 50 in some cases it's 70, 30. So we are kind of very Midwest reasonable in our commission structure, and artists find it fair. We find it fair. So we're good with it. That's where we're at right now


Q: You also have programming in the space. Can you tell us more about that?


One other component of the business model is programming. We do musical events that are separate but related. So next month we have a show called UPside Down, which is upper Michigan artists showing in Michigan.. And I'm bringing in a performer, a singer-songwriter who is from the upper part of Michigan, a semi-professional, trying to make that breakthrough, Jeff Karoub. But he's coming in on one of the nights in August to play an hour or so set for us. So that's an example of programming that we'll layer in some of that programming.


Q: Are most artists from Dearborn or Metro Detroit?


I would say most are from Metro Detroit, you have Dearborn artists in here right now, but we have artists from all over. And even on the watercolor side, some of these artists are from around Michigan. They're not even near Detroit. We've had international shows where we've had artists from and as far away as China. But the primary source of our artwork is Detroit Metro Detroit.

Black Box Gallery is currently exhibiting the Michigan Watercolor Society - Past and Present Chairman’s Exhibit through August 3rd. The opening reception for the gallery next exhibition, UPside Down, is August 9th >>>.

Read more articles by Timothy J. Seppala.

Timothy J. Seppala has been covering the human side of business and technology as a freelance reporter since 2008. He calls Dearborn Heights home and would love to hear your story. Follow him at @timseppala
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