May 30, 2020 Supporting Manhattan-area entrepreneurs, businesses, events

Artillery to Art Gallery: Strecker Nelson West

The narrow, wooden stairs creak expectantly as patrons make their way upward into the Strecker Nelson West Gallery. At the top of the stairs, Alyn West clasps her hands together in front of her red cardigan, pleasantly nodding a greeting to patrons as they enter. Tucked behind the receptionist desk, Kevin West peers over black-rimmed reading glasses into the computer screen as he assists a patron in an art purchase. The bright afternoon sun illuminates the front half of the gallery, overlooking Poyntz Avenue through a wall of windows. The couple’s dog, Madi, winds between gallery guests, happily welcoming newcomers before temporarily finding a resting place in a warm patch of sunshine on the hardwood floor.

Kevin and Alyn West appear at home in the warmly lit gallery, pointing out the improvements they made in the last two and a half years of their ownership and sharing favorite pieces tucked into a corner. Yet just a few years ago, if you had asked Kevin, a retired Army artillery officer and battalion commander, if he and Alyn would buy an art gallery, he might have been surprised. But, Kevin West’s military service prepared him to be adept when the plan changes. “At times during deployments, from what you are trained to do and what you’re actually doing, it’s not even close.” He elaborates, “We had to secure power plants, grain elevators, we had to conduct dismounted patrol and we were artillery so we were not trained to do that. We did it reasonably well.” He adds, “We had no idea any of that is what we would do.” 

Looking back, Kevin notices the environments in which he experienced the most satisfaction in his work tended to be places still in the formation process and without established infrastructure, requiring his every ounce of skill and creativity. “Four out of five of my deployments were brand new theater. There was more of a sense of accomplishment in the first four deployments because you could see tangible results from what you could do.”

Photo by: David Mayes

Kevin West joined the Army in 1989, and shortly after, deployed into the Desert Storm conflict in 1991. But not before he met Alyn. “In 1990, she was going to KU and came out to Manhattan with a friend, who was dating one of my friends,” says Kevin. “We started dating and after we married, she went to Delaware to complete a master’s in art history from the University of Delaware, while I went to Captain’s Career Course.” And so began the life together of a career military family, with West spending exactly 20 years and five deployments in the Army before retirement in 2009. Following his first tour in Iraq, West recalls, “I spent the ‘90s in Europe, and I got Bosnia and Kosovo over there.” Then 9/11 happened. “After 9/11, all the assignment rules changed. I had two tours in Iraq between 9/11 and my retirement in 2009.” 

At a high top table along the gallery’s wall of windows, West, in a blue and white paisley button-down shirt and jeans, sits atop one of two stools, each a work of art itself. The winter sun warms the brown stripes of hardwood, as Madi finds herself a heated spot between the slanted shadow, blinking the light away and settling in for a short nap. Noting the unseasonable warmth of the day, West draws the blinds. 

West remembers how, in 2008, his decision to retire quite literally struck him. “I had a freak softball accident one year before I retired. I shattered my left clavicle and dislocated my right knee so I got a ride in a helicopter.” He laughs, “I turned 41 on that lifeflight down to Wichita. My leg was sideways, and I knew that it was probably time to retire.” 

Despite leaving active duty military service, he was not ready to leave the service of his country and the military culture he had come to appreciate. “I got a phone call a month before I gave up battalion command for a position at Division. I’ve had a couple different positions there, but currently I am the chief of force integration, which isn’t what you would think.” He explains, “I coordinate equipping and testing support and force structure changes. We do the things that have to be done whether or not [the soldiers are] at home. When the cannons were making all that noise two years ago, that was one of my projects.” He laughs, “I’m also the informal historian because I’m old, and I’ve been here for 18 years.”

A few years into his work as a civilian, West again felt the desire for change. “About five years ago, I was watching TV one evening, and I decided I could be more productive than drinking beer and watching ball games every night. I enrolled in the personal financial planning master’s program at K-State.” He adds, “This was a key way station on the way to the gallery.” After finishing his master’s in the summer of 2016, he planned to eventually transition to work as a financial planner. And that is when plans changed again. 

A Gallery for Sale

Warm, gray winter light pours through the balcony window of Jay and Barb Nelson’s cozy flat high up in the Wareham Apartments. The wall of windows renders interior lighting unnecessary, even on a morning in January. As the walls of the apartment feature art pieces favored by the former Strecker Nelson gallery owners, the panoramic view from the balcony is its own work of art, featuring several key landmarks of the Manhattan skyline. At a wooden table tucked into the corner, Jay and Barb Nelson, both in artists’ signature black, sip coffee in colorful ceramic mugs and recall the decision it took them nearly a year to make. In September 2016, they finally concluded it was time to retire and sell the gallery. The only problem was they didn’t expect anyone to buy it. 

Jay recounts the nearly impossible feat before them at the time. “It’s totally rare to be able to sell a gallery. They usually close.” At the end of September 2016, The Mercury featured a piece about the Nelsons’ intent to sell the gallery. Kevin West remembers returning home one afternoon to a stack of newspapers, and the gallery feature instantly stood out. “We had been on vacation in Colorado for a week, and when we came back, I went through a stack of The Mercury, and there was an article that Jay and Barb were going to sell the gallery. They wanted to be out by the summer of 2017.” He gestures across the room to Alyn. “She and I looked at each other, and said, ‘We could do that. You know, art, and I can figure out the money stuff.’ But then we talked ourselves out of it.”

Photo by: David Mayes

Despite the magnitude of the decision to purchase an art gallery, the idea stayed with Kevin and Alyn. “The next day we were at Coco Bolos, and several carafes of sangria later, we realized this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and decided to do it.” He adds that his financial planning education was the clincher in their decision. “Had I not had the financial planning background, understanding how the taxes work, how money can be freed up and some of the things we can do to generate up-front funds, we would not have felt comfortable.”

From his breakfast table, Jay Nelson hoists his coffee cup in the air triumphantly, “It was a natural fit for Alyn. They approached us, and we were thrilled.” He smiles, wearing his grateful relief all over again. “It was fortuitous for all of us that they bought the gallery.”

A 21st Century Art Business

After the purchase of the gallery over two years ago, Kevin and Alyn brought fresh ideas and vision to the space as they imagined what they wanted to see develop in art and business. Some things, however, remained the same. When they bought the gallery from the Nelsons, the Wests made the unique decision to simply add their name to the title. “They kept the Strecker name because she started it, and it’s an important thing to honor her,” Barb Nelson sets her coffee cup down thoughtfully. “Alyn and Kevin care about the history and are honoring that history.”

Kevin walks proudly through the gallery, noting one by one the visible improvements he and Alyn made since their ownership of the gallery. He explains the hanging system they installed, drawing a line with his finger parallel to the metal strip supporting cables, on which hang the individual art pieces. Behind each painting, the walls in various warm grays provide a nearly invisible backdrop on which to display their artists’ work. 

“When we purchased the gallery, we painted the walls with more neutrals to get every color in the gallery on the same palette. We didn’t want the color to dictate where we could hang something. Then, over a period of time, we realized we should always have some place in the gallery that has something approachably priced for ‘emergency art.’” Alyn laughs at the phrase, joining Kevin as they walk through the gallery, picking up the pace as they reach the collection of pieces deemed “emergency art” toward the back of the space. “There are a lot of ceramics, watercolors and smaller paintings on the north end of the gallery. We made a decision to show different types of paintings so there is something for everyone.” Alyn West adds a story about a recent “art emergency” in which a patron made a last minute art purchase as a gift for his wife. She smiles, recalling that she had to overnight the piece out of state in order to keep her patron out of marital trouble. 

Some of the improvements Kevin made to the gallery were less visible, however, but perhaps even more impactful on the gallery as a business. Although a starkly different setting than combat, West’s love for an environment with minimal infrastructure and the right amount of chaos set him to work. “Right away, we knew we needed a major technological upgrade. The system had been set up in the mid-’90s, and I spent about two weeks deconstructing the database and pulling the information I needed out.” He explains that selling their art online was initially a cumbersome process. “The point of sale was not tied to the inventory or the web, and to get a piece onto the website, there were multiple stops to get it done. We use a program now, Masterpiece Manager, and it’s much simpler.” He walks to the back of the gallery, opening what appears to be a closet door, revealing paintings carefully wrapped and placed onto carpeted shelves. “We installed professional shelving in here. It’s all organized now,” he beams. 

Photo by: David Mayes

Over their morning coffee, Jay and Barb Nelson gush about the progress Alyn and Kevin bring to the gallery. “The inventory was a mess,” Jay Nelson laughs, recalling the organization methods he and Barb utilized under their ownership of the gallery. “He organized that inventory so it is useful. Now Alyn is selling online, and the systems Kevin developed are essential to that. He has enabled them to be a contemporary, modern company. They have advanced the gallery. It has not gone downhill.” 

“He organized it and made it work!” Barb snaps her fingers with a flourish. “They have both taken the idea of owning the oldest commercial art gallery in the state of Kansas and taken it forward. I’m glad they moved it into the 21st century. That was really important. I’m really proud of them.” 

As Kevin and Alyn West establish not only a thriving gallery, but a successful business, they are eager to include upcoming generations in their love of art. The couple plan to target younger patrons by including a variety of artists, pieces and price points in their inventory. Kevin considers aloud the question they are still answering. “How do we develop that and get a connection, get them with the artists, get them thinking about a piece? We are in our early 50s, and we want those in their 20s and 30s to come in and enjoy and collect. We want to get the next generation of collectors to see the value and want to do it.”

Sarah Siders is a freelance writer, author and coach who specializes in leadership and healthy relationships. 

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