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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Art Galleries

Art galleries today often seem more inclined toward startling the viewer and overwhelming the senses than in selling art, as in Suze Woolf's Fluted Columns on the Colorado.
There is much that has changed about art over the past hundred years. I suppose, without the element of change, we could hardly consider art to, in fact, be art. I consider change to be tantamount to the definition of life itself and certainly an important element in the definition of art. Styles change, media changes, artists change (even within their own lifetimes). Especially in the past hundred years, the very way we think about art has changed. Art has changed from a fairly viable means of promoting social change a hundred years ago into the role of bystander, at most merely reflecting the nature of social change. Artists, especially painters, at least up through the 1960s or later, used to make waves. Today, they do the waving. Film, video, and social media have become the wave of the future. Painting has been relegated to something of a harmless, antique art form best suited for covering cracks in the plaster.
Many urban art galleries have two faces, one on the street, the other online.
Nowhere is this century-long change in the world of art more notable than in the venerable institution of the chic, big-city art galleries which populate the urban enclaves where money is no object. Virtually any artist of any standing at all has a web presence today. Some sell from their web sites; most don't. There are virtual galleries with huge "stables" of prolific unknown artists which have no "brick and mortar" address. And even those which do have a storefront presence maintain restrained, highly sophisticated Websites (as above) used to promote their artists, though rarely do they actually sell their work online. In design and appearance, art galleries today reflect two determinant qualities, the nature of the work they sell, and their geographic location.

The chic, stark, polished, minimalist look of a big-city art gallery today.
A trendy gallery in Manhattan's SoHo district might often appear cool, quiet, spacious, and minimalist, "laid back" to an intimidating degree (as above), handling only the most avant-garde works by big-name or up-and-coming artists. One or two sales a month covers their operating expenses and affords a modest profit. One hundred miles away, hugging the boardwalk of Atlantic city, an art gallery would have more the ambience of a main street, small-town gift shop (as below), featuring seascapes, street scenes, animals, still-lifes and expressionistic figural paintings--a virtual catalog of something-for-everyone eclecticism often quite fascinating while paradoxically somewhat boring.

The something-for-every-taste eclectic art gallery is in upper income tourist destinations.
If this geographic dichotomy seems stark, it bares little comparison to the "then and now" of one hundred years ago. Charles William Dowdeswell started out in London sometime in the 1870s, making picture frames and selling the occasional print to fill them. Around 1880, in partnership with his brother, he ventured into the art gallery business, opening a modest establishment at 133 New Bond Street. A few years later, Dowdeswell & Dowdeswell moved up the street to a more prestigious location (160 New Bond Street) where once had been the far more cutting edge (for its time) art gallery, Le Salon Parisien. There they did quite well for themselves until both men died or retired in the years following WW I. They promoted such British artists as James McNeill Whistler, Jan van Beers, Wyke Bayliss, sketches and drawings by Sutton Palmer, as well as prints by Charles Méyron, and Seymour Haden. Today, only the mention of the American expatriate, Whistler "rings a bell." The rest are obscure, at best.

The art gallery of 100 years ago.
The trade journal British Architect reported: "Messrs. Dowdeswell have...provided a fine gallery about 100 feet long, which consists of three compartments, divided off by draped portiéries, and excellently upholstered with drapery, varied between dark blue, green, and sage green and brown.” It sounds like Scarlett O'Hara's front parlor. Paintings were hung frame to frame as well as being propped up on the floor against the wall or in ornately carved chairs. Featured works rated a brass easel. Lighting, if not by skylight (rare) was largely inadequate by today's standards. Heavy upholstery and drapery ruled the day. Frames, though by that time machine carved, were equally heavy and ornate. It was, perhaps, no accident that the Dowdeswell brothers got out of the gallery business shortly after WW I; for by then, such Victorian trappings were starting to fall away. Art and art merchandizing were changing. The "less is more" concept in art, and by association, art galleries, was starting its long rule, which continues today, often in quite extreme forms.

Hardwood floors, an excess of off-white, and minimal furnishings have replaced the heavy carpeting, draperies, and framing, of 1913; yet art galleries today continue to rely upon prints and photographs as a means to sell costly custom framing.


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