I’m wandering around the galleries of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Scottsdale, Arizona. While a few are papered over from the recent recession, plenty still exist, though traffic seems to be down. As usual, when the electronic doorbells chime, cute gallerinas jump to their feet, walk toward me and say something like, “This is the new Joe Bloggs we just got in. It’s the first one where he’s included buffaloes. Wonderful, isn’t it?” Others, unable to tune into my sophistication, open up with a cheerful “Welcome,” and “Have you ever been in an art gallery before?”
Subtle changes have taken place in these two markets since the last time I visited. Sculpture is bigger. Giclées are hardly mentioned. Landscapes are holding their own. Cowboys are a bit down and abstracts are a bit up. Pueblos are still in. Like natural gas, it looks like figurative is about to uptick and explode. But it’s subjective from gallery to gallery. One young woman tells me “Nobody wants florals these days,” while the girl next door tells me, “We do very well with these florals.”
As usual there are dealers with good eyes and others with poor ones. A fellow with garish and uninformed work on his walls was too busy to say hello. He flipped a “Back in ten minutes” sign on his door and screamed away in his yellow Ferrari.
The rise of the one-artist gallery continues. The artist, when alive, can often be found sitting behind a computer with his wife or current girlfriend. The dead soloists are often in the hands of capitalist descendants with ideals and a bit to learn.
The Russian connection is still strong. The main reason is that many of these hard-working painters have arisen from a vast talent pool and have had excellent training. Further, the Southwest has a tradition of Russian émigrés: Nicolai Fechin, Sergei Bongart and others have paved the way. The current work of many younger Russians and Russian-trained Americans just knocks your socks off. FYI, we’ve put a selection of some remarkable American-sold Russian painters at the bottom of this letter.
There’s not a lot of evidence of an imminent Chinese invasion, but I can feel it coming. Perhaps the Chinese themselves have done themselves in for the time being by having their work over at Wal-Mart.
PS: “American collectorship of Russian painters is maturing. Big collectors from Russia and China are buying here as well.” (Russian art dealer in Scottsdale, Arizona)
Esoterica: Generally speaking, the Southwest is a “pure” art market. That is, it’s largely uninfluenced by gaga media, obscene prices, the museum bandwagon and investment pressure. People actually buy art here because they want beautiful things in their homes. Further, many of the dealers exude an innocent and beguiling love, manifested in their enthusiasm for genuine quality. In good times and bad, they love their jobs. While the best job of all may be making the magic, the second best job may be the effective sharing of it.
The passionate dealers of Santa Fe
by Emily Van Cleve, NM, USA
Thank you for your astute commentary on the gallery scene in Santa Fe. Artists who have not visited Santa Fe in a while will get a better understanding of what’s happening here by reading this letter. I especially liked your thoughts expressed in the Esoterica section. I always appreciate the genuine enthusiasm exuded by many dealers, who love their art and are passionate about sharing it with others. Santa Fe is a special place. Even those of us who create abstract work are deeply affected by its charm!
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Thoughtful treatment in Scottsdale
by Maureen O’Keefe West, Calgary, AB, Canada
I, too, recently walked and viewed the galleries in Scottsdale, Arizona. After looking at numerous art galleries, I paused and entered an antique gallery. A woman came up to me in the shop and presented me with a glass of wine, which is the custom, in these here parts! I slowly walked around looking at all the charming antiques when I spotted a Napoleon clock high on a shelf. I have always loved these clocks so I went in for closer examination. It was made of wood, in the shape of Napoleon’s hat, and in the middle there was a round metal clock with a tab sticking out of it. Curiously, I pulled the tab and the clock fell out and plopped right dead centre in my glass of wine with splashes all around. The noise attracted the two women sales persons in the back with one shouting “Get her a towel.” A woman came running toward me with the towel but unceremoniously plucked up the clock with her bare fingers out of my wine glass and started drying it off with the towel! Meanwhile, the other woman came running toward me and threw me another towel, apologizing profusely and saying to the clock wiper, “Not the clock, the customer, the customer.” I was even offered another glass of wine, which I declined, and waltzed out of the shop just a little non-plussed! Just another day walking the gallery route in Scottsdale!!
Red dots related to house prices
by Gary Storey, Saskatchewan, Canada
In Scottsdale for the Thursday night art walk on Main Street, not quite as busy as usual, but not bad. I spent quite a bit of time in Overland Gallery. They represent Ed Mell, who you would know is likely one of the best established SW landscape artists here. His annual March show opened here on March 17. He has more cubist paintings than usual. I don’t think he is doing as well as other years — my casual observation. Gary Smith shows there as well, but not much action there with him. Overland has Russian and Ukraine artists and they seem overpriced — always have been in my opinion. A friend of mine opened Mainview Gallery and he says he is doing well. Not a big gallery but he usually has a live artist working on Thursday nights — attracts interest. He used to manage Charles Pabst gallery but now has his own. Legacy was dead tonight. Could not see any sold red dots on Michael Coleman’s, etc. Not much action in Scottsdale Fine Art either. My assessment? There is no new house construction in the greater Phoenix area and house prices are at rock bottom.
Dumbing down of America
by Rose Moon, Sedona, Arizona, USA
I’ve lived around the Southwest for 30 years so I’ve seen lots of changes in artists and galleries. In the ’70s it was rockin’ with names like Fritz Shoulders and TC Cannon! and of course Georgia O’Keeffe. I now reside in Sedona, Arizona not far from Scottsdale. I know many excellent artists in the area and only a couple who are in local galleries. A lot of the artists in the galleries are not from the area. Most of us have been rejected enough not to bother trying anymore, and what we see in the galleries are well done decorative pieces that are a big part of the dumbing down of America. A lot of the gallery owners actually know very little about art. The really creative art that is being done goes somewhere else. The galleries show technically well done work that says very little and always stays the same. The museums are another story. Phoenix Museum and Tucson are fun. First Friday, with the new trendy Pop Up galleries in Phoenix and Scottsdale can be very exciting and inspirational.
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A Canadian-Russian dynasty
by Carol Suggitt, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I agree with your assessment about the Russian immigrants’ artistic skills. I was reminded of another earlier immigrant artist, Nicolas de Grandmaison, who was a master trained in Russia and who escaped to Canada via Britain before 1920 and the Russian Revolution. Nicolas was mostly well known for his pastel portraits of our Native Indians, mainly in Alberta. It was an honour for me to sell many of his works. I’m happy to have the trade book of his achievements. Nicolas married another Russian lady, Sonia Sr., artist, who sculpted Sir John A. Macdonald that resides in Victory Park in Regina, Saskatchewan. Two of his five children became fine artists and his daughter Sonia, (my friend) was a well known art dealer/curator of her father’s art works.
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The Russian-Chinese connection
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
The Chinese “method” is deeply rooted in the Russian traditions. The Chinese basically adopted the Russian method of painting. Before that, they had no “modern” style. What makes the Chinese unique is the intense training they receive. Most American students wouldn’t be able to stand the training method the Chinese endure. This is why they excel today. To turn a phrase from the movie, A League of Their Own, “There’s no crying in art.” We Americans always seem to embrace other nationalities more than we do our own artists. This probably says more about our art institutions in general. They leave much to be desired. Furthermore, it explains why so many Americans in the thirties and forties went to France to study art. Without sounding politically incorrect, the Chinese don’t see Wal-Mart as a bad thing. It’s a venue where many Americans do their shipping and the Chinese know about selling. They don’t have their head in the clouds thinking art is anything more than commerce. As for the galleries, they will always be esoteric, egocentric, myopic, centrist, out of touch and in control of what is art.
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Inspiration of Nicolai Fechin
by Carolynn Wagler, Gresham, OR, USA
My husband and I went to Santa Fe and Taos in ’08. I loved the galleries and the quality there. But I especially got the ‘flavor’ of what is going on today from your article. We just happened to get to see Nicolai Fechin’s drawings in his home/museum. They have inspired me to no end. I am an intermediate getting to advanced artist. I teach at the community level for the city of Portland, Oregon and it has really helped me to grow fast as an artist. Thanks again for your great writing posts. I don’t want to miss any of them!
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Finger shopping for inexpensive art
by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA
I’ve concentrated myself on ‘discovering’ new art talent preferably not exceeding $19.99 by shopping on eBay art auctions. I avoid the $.99 cents done by Chinese artists but realize that they are in ‘school’ and if they sell their copy-masterpieces at that price, plus a shipping & handling compensation, they’ve earned better than a day’s wages by their standards while the Western artist still starves at not even minimum wages. Of course we are glutted by art still in museum vaults dating back to the previous to the last century.
My walls are filling up with miniature art called ACEO (American Card, Editions & Originals.) When often enough winning a bid, to boot I receive a great thank you note for supporting the arts. What I mean is that I’m a contributor to the expanding savvy of auction art. In my finger shopping I have stumbled on many Russian art websites and to my dismay their prices are in inflated contemporary dollars and no longer in Rubles… where each painting is worth the equivalent of a week’s wages here in the USA. I admit that their technical level of execution is more often than not masterful.
(RG note) Thanks, Alex. What if everybody did this?
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Galleries — the good, better, and best
I am represented by what I consider a ‘good’ gallery. It is a local gallery that has managed to stay afloat and weather the art market since 1995, has many excellent artists from all over the country whose works they carry, and who give regular opportunity for us to have solo shows (about every 18 months – 2 years). These owners are also very nice people and highly support the ongoing development in the artists whose work they carry. They pay up front when works sell, and they are not demanding in any way at all. The gallery recently had a group showing to celebrate an important anniversary for them. I had been previously asked if I could bring in something new for it and to be in attendance at the reception. I was delighted to be there (and always am!) and the afternoon when the reception took place was packed with people the entire time. It was wonderful. I was able to finally meet and get acquainted with some of the other artists present. Of course, it was also interesting to observe people coming in and commenting on the art.
During the afternoon, a good friend of mine came along with his partner whom I knew but hadn’t seen for a long time. My friend is a well-known, successful artist, represented nationally in many galleries around Canada. He is also a popular artist, quite personable and a very humble one at that.
At one point during the reception I had a chat with my friend and his partner. My friend was quite complementary about my work and the overall showing as well. There were also some other artists represented in this gallery who were their friends and as we walked around, we located some of them to chat with as well. As my friend went off with one of the other artists to look at their work I continued conversing with his partner. The partner said to me, “This isn’t a ‘good’ gallery like the one my partner is in.” I was quite astounded really that someone would say this, especially during an opening reception and particularly when the few of us who are their friends regularly show and do well in this gallery. I felt it was a rather uppity position and an unwarranted rude comment.
I realize that there are other galleries that are in another range that carry the works of long-time, well-established artists. My friend is in one of those galleries, but he has worked very hard to get there. This particular gallery is well-known and has been able to offer opportunities for good artists to get into the gallery scene first-time along with carrying the works of more seasoned artists, many whom have gone on further and have become more recognized nationally and even internationally. This gallery is discerning as to what they accept as I’m sure most galleries are, and the work they carry shows this.
So Robert, what is a ‘good’ gallery? I recognize that the comments made to me are probably just a case of ‘sour grapes,’ and I’m not taking them personally. However, are there distinctions made that signify ‘gooder’ galleries among ‘good’ galleries? Or is this kind of designation just subjective?
(RG note) Thanks, Anonymous. Some galleries are considered more prestigious than others. While prestige is nice to have, it doesn’t necessarily mean much in the long run and you can’t eat it. Often a “good” gallery is simply one that is enthusiastic and honourable. One of my top galleries (and most joyful gallery relationships) is a one-person frame shop that doesn’t even have a Web presence. But she loves my work and has steadily over about thirty years built a significant collector base for me. I think her clientele pick up on her straightforward lack of pretense.
Enjoy the past comments below for About the galleries…
Step into My Parlor
oil painting, 40 x 40 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Liz Napier of Texas, USA, who wrote, “I also noticed this change when we visited Santa Fe. Even looking through gallery public relations I saw abstract art, such a change from the twenty years ago. I’m an artist working with fiber — dyed cloth, papers and everything else I can add — paint sticks, oil pastels, pencil and stitch. I am also physically challenged with PLS — an offshoot of ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
And also Libby Shipman of Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico, who asked, “Robert, what do you mean by ‘museum bandwagon?’ ”
(RG note) Thanks, Libby. In the big centers, dealers activate collectors by activating possible museum placement. Collectors (and dealers) who donate to museums get inflated tax receipts and are candidates for immortality.
And also Cherry Lynn of Victoria, BC, Canada, who wrote, “I want to be able to paint like the Russian artists.”