Arnim's art world, a move from framing pictures to opening a gallery

Arnim Ali over came the pandemic to open Arnim's Art Galleria on Tragerete Road, Port of Spain. He also moved Arnim's Framing Solutions to the same location.
 Photo by Sureash Cholai
Arnim Ali over came the pandemic to open Arnim's Art Galleria on Tragerete Road, Port of Spain. He also moved Arnim's Framing Solutions to the same location. Photo by Sureash Cholai

Framing pictures may be an odd thing to have a passion for, but after more than 35 years in the business, Arnim Ali’s fervour for the profession, as well as art, has not waned.

Ali started Arnim's Framing Solutions Co Ltd, as a side business as he worked doing framing for an art gallery. After 12 years with the gallery, he decided to strike out on his own.

In the 11 years since, Ali has grown his business from a framing shop to an art supply store and most recently, an art gallery – Arnim’s Art Galleria Ltd.

Ali told Sunday Newsday it all started, when he was 15, with the late Peter Kwang.

“At that age, it was a troubling time in my life, and my mentor, Peter Kwang, basically saved my life. Everything I have today is because of him seeing something in me.

“I grew up on the poor side in Diego Martin and hustled to make money. Every Sunday I would go around, looking for work, doing odds and ends, and I used to go wash his car and clean his yard every Sunday.

“He found me to be very meticulous and one day he asked if I wanted to be an apprentice at his framing business, and I said, ‘Sure!’ That was my escape and my beginning, and 30-something years later, this is what I’m doing still.”

He would work seven days a week for $100 a week at Kwang’s shop, On Location. And although Kwang did not pay him much, Ali described Kwang as a very kind man who fed him, dropped him to and from work, and clothed him when Ali allowed it.

Ali was taught to cut frames but he took the opportunity to learn more. On his lunch breaks and during any spare time he had, he would pay attention to the other workers doing matting, cutting glass, and other aspects of framing, and would use the scraps lying around and practice

Eventually, he did it more efficiently and at a higher quality.

“In a very short space of time I became really good at what I did. Basically, I was in demand and people wanted me to come do work for them, so they would have all the materials and I would go build frames for them or cut glass.”

He said he had always dreamt of travelling so he worked as much as possible to make enough money to “go somewhere.” Since his skills were in demand, he worked hard and saved so that his first trip was to Tobago at 18.

Arnim Ali has expanded his businesses from Port to Spain to La Romaine. Photo by Sureash Cholai

During the time he worked at the art gallery, after leaving Kwang, he registered Arnim’s Framing Solutions and continued to do contract work.

“I always wanted my own business. I don’t want to wear no shoes or dress up and go nowhere so you feel I want to go and work or anybody? No. So I always wanted to do my own thing.

“I’m not the kind of person to ask for things but I approached many people invest with me. I so wanted to do my own thing. And everybody turned me down. They said they didn’t think it was a money-making business.”

At the time, his workshop was in Chaguaramas but a friend found him a place a Maraval so, in 2010, he opened his first store. The timing was perfect because a framing business was closing and he was able to buy their stock as needed as well as all their equipment.

“When I opened the store I had my loyal customers, artists, and they supported me through all that time, and that sustained the business. I was able to pay my rent because of them.”

Two years after opening, Arnim’s Framing Solutions started selling art supplies. He believed the art supplies would bring people to the store and they would then discover that he also did framing, and it worked.

“The framing has always been the core business but the art supplies is what catapulted the whole thing to another level.

“I’m about ‘eat little and live long’ so when I came on the market with the art supplies, I knew the struggles that artists go through with material costs so I priced my things at very reasonable prices. What it did was force the competition to drop their prices, so me coming on the market was a plus for the market and the art community.”

Framing exposed Ali to a wide range of art, taught him about its presentation and preservation, and led him to an appreciation of art and a love for abstract art in particular.

Arnim Ali works on installing a frame as part of Arnim's Framing Solutions. Photo by Sureash Cholai

At the store he sold a lot of artwork. If he had a recently framed painting he thought a customer would like, he would show them the work he had on hand and people would buy. As a result, everyone who knew and supported him encouraged him to open a gallery.

In early 2020, he had arranged to rent a space in Newtown, Port of Spain to open the long-awaited Arnim’s Art Galleria, but the pandemic hit. After much deliberation, in August 2020, he decided to open.

Why? Because he does not believe in the virtual viewing of art. He said people can not fully appreciate the details of a piece of art though the lens of a video camera.

Therefore, instead of an opening night, the staff extended the opening for a day. They took appointments for people to see the artwork so as to limit the number of people in the space, and stuck to health regulations like hand sanitising and mask wearing.

“Everybody thought I was crazy for opening the art gallery because I did it in the middle of the pandemic. But it’s just an extension of what I do. There’s nobody in this country who has seen and touched more art than me.”

Even now, he is not just an owner doing paperwork and managing employees. He happily goes to work every day and gets his hands dirty framing. To him, it is fun and he especially enjoys the challenge finding solutions to framing something different, such as objects rather than just pictures.

“The gallery is really a labour of love. It’s about giving back to the art community. It’s an avenue for people to come out and see and enjoy and support art. It’s not just about buying. It’s about coming out and giving the artist who is struggling the moral support to encourage them to keep doing what they’re doing.”

In June 2021, he moved both the gallery and the store to Tragarete Road, Port of Spain, where he said feels like home.

“So far, it has been overwhelmingly successful in terms of the shows. We have been having them every two weeks and we are already booked up for the whole of next year.

“I think it’s because we catered for all genres and all walks of people. It’s about giving artists who did not get a chance with other galleries opportunities and the freedom to express themselves.”

These include unknown or less known artists, as well as established artists such as Sarah Beckett and Jackie Hinkson. His stipulations for showing at Arnim’s are that they have to be serious about being an artist, be able to take criticism, work hard, and intend to continue creating art and developing their skills.

He added that it cost the gallery several thousand dollars to produce one exhibition and sometimes the gallery does not make enough on commissions to cover the cost. Despite that, Ali is proud that the gallery is “working out” and people like it.

In addition, about a month ago, Ali added printing to Arnim’s services. He has also expanded his reach to the southland.

In March, he opened Arnim’s Framing Solutions in La Romaine. Soon after, several artists begged him to open an art space in south since there were no “proper” galleries there, so he did with the first official exhibition opening taking place last Monday.

He attributed the successes to his preparedness which allowed him to grasp opportunities when they arose, his staff of 11, and those who helped and supported him through the tough times.

Although Arnim’s grew during the pandemic, Ali pointed out that art supplies and framing are not essential items and services, so lockdowns were extremely challenging for the business as he sustained “huge” losses.

“It has been some crazy times. The pandemic has been very testing. The first one was bad, but we almost didn’t survive the second lockdown. What people don’t understand with small and medium businesses is that we depend on money that comes in one month for the next month. We don’t have savings and backup like big corporations.

“I was dipping into whatever savings I had, selling paintings, just to survive and retain my staff. That was a challenge but they all banded together and they stood by me and I was able to pay them through it.

“At the end, service is the key. Good service is what keeps your business going and that’s what Arnim’s is really known for and why people keep coming back.”


"Arnim’s art world, a move from framing pictures to opening a gallery"

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