Influx of New Yorkers Fuels Growth of New Milford Art and Frame Gallery

NEW MILFORD — When Greg Mullen opened Gregory James Gallery and Framing in 1996, he rented a small shop on Bridge Street in downtown New Milford.

A few addresses later, Mullen’s store now occupies a 3,200-square-foot, newly remodeled space on busy Route 202, also known as Park Lane Road.

The store, which opened in mid-July, is perfectly positioned to appeal to both year-round visitors and the growing horde of urbanites moving to Litchfield County. But the gallery’s steady growth is also a testament to Mullen’s strong reputation in the New Milford area, earned through an acumen for expert framing and a keen eye for fine art.

“I started as a framing shop and was part-time at first,” said Mullen, who grew up in New York but moved to New Milford during his high school years. Mullen’s parents were artists: his father was an artist and filmmaker, while his mother was a musician who also taught cooking classes.

Mullen himself was technically inclined. After several starts in his career, he ended up working on a team for Nestle remodeling the company’s facilities. The work was steady and somewhat creative, but Mullen grew restless. So, he completed a framing course and worked part-time at several local frame shops.

This lead to Mullen’s decision to open his own store. To avoid the financial hit that would come with leaving a permanent corporate role, he initially worked part-time in his shop. He would work all day for Nestle, reach the store at 5pm and work late into the night.

The business grew, and two years after opening its doors, framing and art became a full-time endeavor for Mullen.

Increased business

The new location is the gallery’s fifth home and the first building Mullen has owned. It’s three-quarters of a mile up Route 202 from his last store he rented. This old building was put up for sale, prompting Mullen to look for larger, permanent quarters.

Mullen’s new space is about 800 square feet larger than the previous location. This larger footprint will be especially useful for art exhibitions that Mullen plans to relaunch this fall. This will mark his first public exhibition since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

“The state shut me down for three months in 2020 because my business was deemed non-essential,” Mullen said. “Then, as soon as I opened my doors again, the traffic picked up and hasn’t slowed down since.”

Much of this new traffic comes from newcomers to the area who have moved to New Milford and surrounding towns from New York and other urban settings. An unprecedented surge in home prices and strong home sales have greatly boosted his framing business. Art sales made up half of his business, the other half was framing. Framing now makes up about 75 percent of his business.

“All these new buyers are decorating their new homes, which increases sales,” he said. “Some of them are very large homes, so now I often frame some very large pieces of art.”

As an example, Mullen held up a 48-by-96-inch abstract painting that fits neatly on one of his workbenches. In his favor, Gregory James Gallery is the only frame shop for miles around. A store a few miles south on Route 202 went out of business about five years ago, although a sign still hangs on the building.

These days, most new businesses come from word of mouth, referrals, Google searches, and positive online reviews. It marks a sea change from the late 1990s, when Mullen bought newspaper and yellow page ads to get noticed. Today, Google is making search hyper-local—meaning customers find it on their own computers or phones.

“The framing shop in particular is very much a convenience business,” Mullen said, meaning customers want service providers that are close to home. Mullen also maintains a Facebook page and uses a local public relations specialist to promote the store and its work.

The art

Customers often arrive with their own unfurled sails in tow, when Mullen really shows off his talent. Each edge of the canvas must be slowly—and painstakingly—stretched over a frame built specifically for the dimensions of the painting.

Mullen points out that even in the most skilled hands, using a poor quality stretch frame will not produce the quality results that Mullen wants. For this reason, he uses a line of well-made stretch frames made in Canada.

The art gallery features the work of approximately 15 to 20 artists, most of whom live and work within a 100-mile radius. Local landscape painters are always plentiful, but there are also some contemporary and abstract paintings.

The late Voldemar Neufeld has been described as the gallery’s signature artist. The store features more than 50 originals by Neufeld, who specialized in linocuts and watercolors of New York and New England scenes.

Another established artist is Frank Metz of Roxbury, whose work specializes in semi-abstract pastel landscapes and water scenes. Also on display are works by contemporary artist Jorge Silveira, who uses scraps of garbage to compose his works. But Mullen is also on the lookout for emerging talent, including a multicolored mixed media self-portrait in ink and acrylic by Greg Orban.

Mullen has also built a strong reputation among local interior designers – bringing in new business for both framing and artwork.

“Art is one of the last things new home buyers will add,” he said. “After they buy furniture and appliances, that’s when they contact me.

“We help talented artists get the support and recognition they deserve and sell their artwork,” Mullen said. “Meanwhile, those who buy the art or come in for framing enhance their homes with things that are beautiful, special and inspiring.” It was a wonderful experience to be at the center of all these creative exchanges.”

Gregory James Gallery is located at 149 Park Lane Road in New Milford; phone 860-354-3436. You can also view some of the store’s art collection at https://gregoryjamesgallery.com/.

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