There is a warmth and friendliness that is immediately felt as soon as you step inside Art on Broad.
Whether it’s the stained-glass wind chimes greeting customers as they enter the Broad Street store, or the sparkle of the brilliant mosaics on display, or the shelves filled with beautiful handmade pottery and turned wood, Art on Broad offers Augustans a vast array of local and regional art unlike anywhere else in town.
And there is nothing stuffy or intimidating about this downtown store.
For the past 20 years, owner Kristin Varn’s laughter and welcoming nature has made shopping for artwork easy, fun and accessible to everyone.
“We are here so the artists can be in their studios. That was the whole general premise behind what we do,” Varn said. “We are here to support the artists, so they can sell their work, but they don’t have to be here to do it.”
While very few retail stores have managed to survive in downtown Augusta over the years, Varn’s shop has thrived in its current location at 1028 Broad St. since 1997.
“We actually got started on Eighth Street over by the riverfront back in February of 1991,” Varn said. “Back then, the store was called Augusta Art Exchange. It was down near the Cotton Exchange, where Fat Man’s used to be, and The King George was down there.”
“Man, that seems like a lifetime ago,” Varn added, laughing.
In an unusual turn of events, Varn never expected to own an art store.
“Back in 1991, Augusta Art Exchange was getting started as a consignment shop, and I had gone down there to put some of my stuff on consignment,” she said. “I didn’t know the people who owned it. The owner, she was a stockbroker at the time and had someone running it who was a family member. It didn’t work out and she asked, ‘Do you want a job?’ And I was like, ‘Sure.’ And that’s really how I got into it.”
The timing couldn’t have been better, Varn said.
“It was exactly what I wanted to be doing,” she said. “I was supposed to be doing graphic design, but, honestly, I didn’t want to do that. I took that as a safe route in school so I could get a job. But my heart wasn’t really into it. So, I took the job at Augusta Art Exchange, and I have been doing it ever since.”
When the city of Augusta began selling the property it owned surrounding the Riverwalk and the rent began to skyrocket on Eighth Street, Augusta Art Exchange moved to Broad Street in 1997, Varn said.
“But it wasn’t Art on Broad until 2001, when my husband, Jim, and I started doing the business together,” Varn said. “Jim had worked at the Morris Museum of Art (as the preparator), but he was leaving there, and we just decided to do it together.”
Varn’s husband, Jim Tar, was an extremely talented oil painter and woodworker, who actually designed and built the couple’s home in North Augusta. He was known for his dry wit and his love for family, Augusta GreenJackets games and rescuing dogs.
Unfortunately, Tar passed away in 2014, and he is deeply missed throughout the local community.
But through their love of art and each other, Art on Broad has continued to grow over the past two decades.
“We started out with mainly local artists and grew to have regional people,” Varn said, walking around the store. “And a few of the artists we have in here, we have had since the very beginning, which is kind of cool.”
Local artists such as Nancy Schultz, Caroline Swanson, Lucy Weigle and Judy Averett have been a part of Art on Broad since it opened its doors, she said.
“There are also a few artists that used to be Aiken or Augusta people who have moved away, but we have held onto them because we lay claim to them,” Varn said, chuckling. “Like Donna Proctor, she is in Virginia now, but she is one of our best-selling potters, and she has a tremendous following. She has been fabulous over the years.”
As the years have passed, Art on Broad has grown and become extremely eclectic, offering everything from handmade jewelry to studio art glass to acrylic paintings to pendulum wall clocks that are hand-painted to resemble animals and birds.
“The store has sort of morphed over the years and found its own way,” Varn said. “We did a lot of consignment of different pieces over the years. It probably started out a little bit more on the crafty side and has gravitated into being more fine art. It really has evolved.”
Art on Broad is also known for its excellent custom framing and installation.
“We started framing in about 1994, and, in the beginning, we were just doing it for the artists, but it just kept growing and bloomed into its own thing, and now we offer custom framing for everybody,” Varn said. “Now, framing is a big part of the business. It is like an engine that keeps it all going.”
While the framing business is going strong, Varn also said that one of her biggest selling items is the handmade pottery in the store.
“Hands down, people love functional pottery because it is beautiful and people can use it,” she said. “And they are not afraid to use it because, fortunately, it’s priced where if it breaks, it’s all right. It is art you can use, and isn’t it so nice to use a handmade mug?”
Handcrafted jewelry also is a popular item in the store because it appeals to people of all ages and is another form of affordable art, she said.
“We also sell a number of paintings, but that comes in waves. It is really strange,” she said. “In fact, acrylics are selling pretty hot right now. But we try to bring in different things like the chimes and the turned wood, and there is a local woman making these cool, hand-sewn bags, so it is a little bit of everything.”
Offering that kind of variety has really helped keep customers interested in the store over the years, Varn said.
“In the past 20 years, Broad Street has changed so much,” Varn said, shaking her head. “Unfortunately, we’ve had so many neighbors that have come and gone. In fact, when we first opened up here, The Pizza Joint used to be right next door. It was a good vibe back then. But, of course, Pizza Joint was so popular and kept growing, so they found a much bigger place down the street.”
But a lot of businesses on Broad Street have come and gone since the late 1990s, including places such as O’Donovans Irish Pub, The Dessert Shop, TAP TAP, Blue Magnolia, Cloud Nine, Revolve and Eros Bistro.
“It’s sad. We definitely need some more retail downtown. I think everybody is in agreement with that,” Varn said. “Personally, I think it would be great if there were more clothing places downtown. I think that is a niche that we are missing. Some little, fun boutiques because when people come downtown looking for those kinds of places, I hate to send people away from downtown to go shop for clothes at places like to Surrey Center or wherever. I’d rather them stay downtown.”
Varn also misses the number of local art galleries that used to call Broad Street home.
“I have to admit, I miss the days when Artists Row did the gallery walks and there were 14 galleries down here,” she said. “Those gallery walks downtown were a big deal. At one point, we had buses bringing people coming from Virginia. It was a meeting point, and Artists Row was a destination. Hopefully, it still is, but it would be nice to have some more neighbors doing galleries or retail.”
While there have been a number of changes to Broad Street over the years, Varn is thrilled to see the addition of new hotels and the construction of the $50 million Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in downtown Augusta.
“That is real exciting to see,” she said. “And, I have to say, I’m always impressed that the Marriott keeps a lot of events going on throughout the year. I always see people from out of town who are here for different conventions and conferences. So, we constantly have people coming through. In fact, I think Augusta has a lot more tourism than people think we do.”
With the addition of so many new hotels and businesses throughout the area, Varn said she hopes more people will begin venturing into downtown Augusta.
“Fortunately, we have a lot of loyal customers. We have people who have been shopping here from the very beginning, and it’s wonderful,” Varn said. “But we still have people, believe it or not, who walk in the store during Arts in Heart or something like that and they will ask me, ‘When did you open?’ And I just have to smile and say, ‘Well, 20 years ago in this building. Come on in!’”
For many downtown business owners, that is a difficult obstacle to overcome, she said.
“I mean, there are people who have lived here for years and years, and they have never been on foot on Broad Street,” Varn said. “I cannot imagine that, but it’s true.”
However, there are other residents who grew up on Broad Street and love every aspect of downtown, she said.
“There are some customers who used to come in here when they were in their late teens or early 20s and they would put a $300 item on layaway because they simply loved a piece of art here,” Varn said. “For an 18-year-old to come in my shop and want to buy a painting that they will have to make payments on, I love that. And now, more than 20 years later, they are still my customers. That’s really cool.”
Many of her customers have also become part of her local art family, she said.
“It’s an eclectic group of people,” Varn said. “There are a lot of customers that I know so well that I’ve been in their house to hang stuff so often that I know their taste in art and I can help pick out what they like. I will tell them, ‘Hey, you need to come see this painting because it is exactly what you’re looking for.’ Which is really fun to do.”
Each and every day, Varn loves meeting new customers and helping introduce them to downtown Augusta.
“I have one customer who is military, and I hate that they are moving, but him and his wife are leaving around the end of January, and they have been one of my best customers in the past six months,” Varn said. “And they really embraced downtown. Instead of living on base or buying a house in Grovetown, they bought a home in Harrisburg and they completely redid the entire home. It’s a wonderful place now and he’s going to rent it out, probably to someone in the military, when he leaves. That’s what we need. I mean, they love Augusta and they walk from their home to downtown all the time.”
Watching new people embrace downtown and get excited over all that Broad Street has to offer gives Varn a great deal of hope for the future.
“I wouldn’t ever leave downtown with this business,” Varn said, smiling. “Over the years, I know there have been a lot of businesses that have left downtown, and I don’t blame them because it can be tough at times, but I wouldn’t leave downtown. This store belongs downtown. I really feel strongly about that. This is the heart of the city and the heart of the art community. This is where this store belongs.”