By Katie Zakrzewski and Mark Carter
Garbo Hearne opened what is now Pyramid Art, Books & Custom Framing and Hearne Fine Art in 1988 as Pyramid Gallery.
With her husband and business partner, Dr. Archie Hearne III, Hearne wanted to provide an authentic platform for Black artists and authors to showcase their talents through literature and the arts. Over the years, the business grew from showcasing popular prints and art from local and regional Black artists, as one of the first businesses in the River Market, to offering literature, custom framing, art appraisal services and even secondary art-auction services.
As the business grew, so did its need for more space. In 2009, the Hearnes built Pyramid’s present home at Wright and Chester in the historic Dunbar neighborhood. Hearne said Pyramid evolved and expanded its reach, even beyond the United States, to provide a platform for artists.
Hearne spoke with AMP about the challenges of building a business and the importance of the arts in building communities and economies.
AMP: What obstacles did you face in launching and then growing your business?
Hearne: Initially, the launch of a new business can be intimidating because you don’t know what you don’t know. Understanding tax laws and maneuvering real estate was quite a challenge. Because we chose a niche platform, there was not a template to follow for development.
We had to be creative and educate ourselves on each industry and develop collaborative relationships. Each time we moved, we reinvented ourselves. We developed our brand and market for Black art and literature by celebrating Arkansas talent, as well as a focus on bringing regional, national and international talent to Arkansas to expose our patrons and vice versa.
We have a loyal client base and loyal employees who work with us, not for us. Our gallery bookstore manager has been with me for 31 years. Our custom picture framer for over 25 years. We have interned over 10 college students who I would like to believe have grown because of their time with us.
AMP: What specific challenges did you face as a female Black business owner?
Hearne: The challenges of being a Black woman and a young mother in business were huge. I think all small businesses have the same issues as it relates to starting a small business. I think there are prejudiced people in all walks of life, and that will always be in existence.
My challenges have been keeping up with technology and navigating through four industries. Access to capital to expand was an issue when I wanted to build a gallery on 14th and Daisy Bates in 1990. We had exhausted our personal funds and turned to local banks for assistance. Doors were closed immediately because of our lack of history and belief in our business model/strategy.
We chose to move to the River Market to expand our reach. Although we could not own the space, we were able to build out a space to fit our model. I remember the building manager telling me that he was shocked that I outlasted him in the Museum Center when he retired nine years later. He said he and the guards took bets on how long we would last. Even our insurance agent said it was unlikely we would survive due to our business model of promoting Black culture.
However, we have proved the naysayers wrong. This was the best decision we could have made. Our customer base expanded, and mainstream Arkansans appreciated our focus and embraced the artists and authors with patronage and support.
Our move to the historic Dunbar neighborhood was also another good move. Investing in our community and owning real estate after 20 years of existence made good sense. Combining our respective businesses and controlling our surroundings has been another learning curve.
AMP: Is lack of awareness a major obstacle?
Hearne: The internet has changed the way we promote our business and has given us a much wider reach. Instant communication through social media is keeping us relevant and innovative and is alleviating some of the overwhelming cost of advertising and marketing. Staying ahead of the culture curve and the ability to adapt has also been instrumental in keeping the business in tune with modern demands.
Marketing is always a challenge. Awareness of who we are and what we do, word of mouth and quality customer service keeps us in the game. We have developed our brand regionally and nationally by presenting at art and book fairs, allowing us to fulfill our mission of staying relevant and innovative in each industry we serve.
AMP: Have things gotten better for Black- and minority-owned businesses? What more could be done to help promote them?
Hearne: There is always room for improvement. Our lack of knowledge of our culture has stymied our growth as individuals. Not knowing the past and understanding how things went wrong has been a detriment to society.
It is our duty to educate ourselves and learn about all cultures. Being an independent bookseller is a responsibility that I don’t take lightly. Providing relevant books in all genres is very important. Having the classics and helping patrons building personal libraries, as well as keeping abreast of new titles, is quite challenging. Building solid art collections that are aesthetically pleasing and increasing generational wealth for our patrons is always a challenge. Meeting clients looking for emerging, mid-career and master artists keeps us on our toes.
Spotlights on Black businesses such as this one is quite helpful, but helping educate minority-owned businesses on how to access capital is important. Navigating and integrating into the mainstream is the only path to success.
AMP: As a small business owner, how would you assess the overall business environment in Arkansas?
Hearne: Arkansas is a good environment to grow and excel. The cost of living is relatively low, unfortunately as are wages. Arkansas is centrally located, which makes travel relatively easy and also to receive supplies to do business. It is a training ground for young people to learn and grow, although most eventually desire to leave.
Minority business numbers remain below the average in the South. The business of who you know and how much you know remains important. The creative economy in Arkansas is elevated due to the arts. Arts and technology have been most influential in surviving the current pandemic, with Arkansas creatives stepping up and remaining active.
Recognizing this factor and supporting arts education in all disciplines must become a priority in order for the state to continue to progress forward culturally and economically.
AMP: How have you weathered the pandemic?
Hearne: The pandemic has been difficult to navigate and continues to be a cause for grave concern. We remain cautious and thoughtful for our staff and our patrons. We have shortened our hours of engagement and have stringent COVID precautions that we ask our clients to adhere to.
Walk-in traffic is significantly reduced, and all events have been virtual for almost a year. Our online presence and virtual programming have kept us relevant. Isolation has caused our clients to read more and look at their environment and make some changes.
Income for 2020 was reduced by up to 50 percent, but we remain steadfast and have taken advantage of assistance given to small businesses. Regardless of the pandemic and the struggling economy, I believe that art and real estate hold their value — and art is more pleasing and easier to take care of than real estate! It is our goal to continue to have a positive cultural and economic impact in Arkansas for years to come.