The leap from traditional self-storage to high-end art storage might seem far to some. However, these businesses have a lot in common, including a need for climate-controlled space and premium security. Both can fill a market need. The owners of Acorn Mini Storage in Minneapolis decided to expand their palette of product offerings this year when they opened A2 Art Storage & Services in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The business provides museum-grade storage and related services, with solutions for art of any medium, size, shape and value. Designed for artists, collectors and institutions, the 35,000-square-foot building also provides meeting and viewing rooms. M.E. Kirwan, co-owner of both storage facilities, recently spoke to us about her family’s roots in the community and art scene, and how the new venture complements her pre-existing business.
Tell us your origin story. When did you launch Acorn Mini and what’s happening with the company now?
Acorn Mini Storage was started by my father, Douglas Head, in the mid-1980s with one dedicated self-storage facility in Minneapolis. We now have 15 locations throughout the Twin Cities metro, and we’re the second largest self-storage owner/operator in the area. My husband, Chris Kirwan, is company president. Acorn is always looking for new opportunities to grow, which will hopefully mean expansion into other markets around our region.
What were some factors behind the desire to launch a new business?
Around six years ago, the Twin Cities was identified as an underserved self-storage market. As a result, our area saw a huge amount of development in a short amount of time. The family wanted to continue investing in the Twin Cities, but the increased interest in traditional self-storage made development and acquisition opportunities more difficult and less appealing. We knew we had to do something differently to continue growing in this environment.
Were other ideas considered before settling on art storage?
We knew we wanted to continue in the storage/real estate/property-management space, and we also knew we were going to have to learn something new and more specialized. We’ve discussed many options. Some were more within our existing wheelhouse than others. One we won’t be pursuing is turning self-storage units into recording studios. Other operators have seen success with ventures like that, but we really wanted to stick with what we knew.
Why did art storage emerge as the clear option?
Art storage was an intersection of two areas for us—both our knowledge of real estate and property management and utilizing our deep relationships in the Twin Cities. My family has lived in [this area] for generations. We’re connected to local institutions, gallery owners and private collectors. We knew these types of dedicated-use facilities have been successful in other parts of the country, but the Twin Cities has never been served with a state-of-the-art, institutional-scale and quality facility like this one. I led the charge on the research and setting up the business and have taken the day-to-day chief operating role.
What are the differences between art storage and traditional self-storage?
Art storage maintains many of the same conditions as self-storage—climate, security, pest control, fire suppression, etc., but at a more specialized level. For instance, the storage areas at A2 are set at 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity. We treat for pests on a more comprehensive basis, and our facility is closely monitored. We have comprehensive camera coverage throughout the interior and exterior, and our recordings are backed up to the cloud.
Because A2 operates as a warehouse, there’s a sophisticated database that tracks inventory. We take possession of the art, which means hiring specialty handlers and a registrar who’s been trained in art handling, storage and what that means for different art mediums. This is a very significant departure from the traditional self-storage model where the operator never takes possession of the customer’s personal property.
How does A2 complement your existing company?
With respect to the development, one of our core skills is unlocking value through adaptive reuse of properties with varying degrees of obsolescence. The A2 buildout certainly falls into this category. On the operational side, we were able to easily translate the values of Acorn Mini Storage—security, convenience and value—into this space and industry. We right-sized our rates for the Twin Cities market, and we believe in going the extra mile for our clients to make the experience as pleasant as possible.
We have a team we trust and who act as partners throughout the development process. When we went to them and told them about our plans for A2, they were excited to see our vision through. While art storage has more moving parts than self-storage, it can share many of the back-office infrastructure, such as administration, accounting, legal, IT, etc., so we’re not reinventing the wheel. Finally, Chris and I operate as leaders in the two businesses, which means open, honest and consistent lines of communication. It’s normal for us to be on five or six phone calls a day to discuss details around work or life.
What advice would you offer other self-storage owners who are considering a new business venture?
Our advice would be to research, research, research. We spent two years investigating art storage before feeling confident enough to start looking at facilities. We knew there was an opportunity in the art arena, so we talked with anyone who would meet with us. Then, once we decided to move forward with the business, we completely embargoed knowledge of the project, meaning we didn’t tell anyone for around a year what we were working on.
A2 is a deeply personal business for us. It’s even named for the apartment that we met in our sophomore year of college. We finalized the purchase of the business just a few weeks after the birth of our third child in December of 2019. Then, just three and a half months later, the world was shut down and I found myself taking the lead homeschooling our kindergartener from home. Chris picked up the slack both at Acorn and on the design/build side of A2, but we didn’t decide to move forward with the build-out until our daughter’s school announced they’d return to in-person learning. The next day, we finalized the plans to begin construction.
During this process, which has occurred mostly during the pandemic as we’re raising our three children, we’ve had to rely on each other like never before. It hasn’t been seamless or easy but, it has strengthened our relationship in our business and in our life at home. Together, we feel like we can take on just about anything.