Sunday, December 26, 2010

Enrichment Through Technology

I hear from all sides the disparagement of technology, at the same time said individual turns on the microwave to heat up dinner and turns on the TV.

Nobody reads anymore. Then why are the Kindle and other electronic book readers doing so well?

Nobody writes letters any more, then why do we produce millions of emails every day.

Some of us remember the Texaco broadcasts with Milton Cross on Saturday afternoons from the Metropolitan Opera. We had friends and relatives across the country who were glued to their radios to hear that week’s opera. So the concept of the simulcast is nothing new but it has gotten a lot better. Not only has video been added but it has been improved technologically and the cinematographer has learned how to use his/her camera to capture the essence of the theater experience; the feeling that you are participating in the original performance with the audience in the theater.

In the last decade technology has brought the arts ever closer to us. The other night we went to the Lensic theater here in Santa Fe to see a Simulcast of Hamlet from The National Theater in London. It was a much acclaimed new production and had received excellent reviews. It was, of course, not exactly a simulcast since I doubt that the play went from 2 AM to 6 AM in London but it was a film of the actual production having taken place in London that evening. The next evening many went back to the Lensic to see a simulcast of Don Carlo from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. We see and hear the audience that is watching the production live, as well, giving us even more the feeling of participation in the actual event.

The next day we went to the inauguration of several new additions to the New Mexico Museum of Art’s website. To my surprise part of the pitch was that you can enjoy the museum without actually setting foot inside the door.

I must admit to having been a little shocked. Whenever I speak to classes or groups I tell them that they have to engage with the original work of art, that reproductions are no substitute. But I do not think that the museum director was suggesting that there is no longer a reason to go to actually go into the museum or the theater for that matter. Then I remembered when Barnes & Noble and Borders started putting coffee bars and reading areas allowing the visitors to linger and sample their wares. The result more people bought more.

Many of us do not have easy access to the original. We may be across the state, the country or in another country altogether. The Metropolitan Opera has a finite number of seats for a particular performance so even if you live across the street you might not be able to get a seat... not to mention that those seats are extremely expensive. Why shouldn’t the family in Timbuktu have access to the arts as well.

The website of the New Mexico Museum of Art offers much of the permanent collection on line with a tasting from all their departments, only a fraction of which can be on view in the museum at any one time. Of course, the exhibitions that are showing at the museum are also on the site with images and teasers about forthcoming exhibitions. What I found the most innovative is the section called “New Mexico Art Tells New Mexico History”. Like all internet sites this one is a work in progress but at the moment there is a section on ‘Ancestral Peoples’, ‘Opening of the West’, ‘Growing New Mexico’, and ‘People, Places and Politics’. This is a wonderful tool designed for use in New Mexico schools to supplement the social studies curriculum, but it can also serve the visitor new to New Mexico or new to an art museum. What a wonderful way for a parent or teacher to prepare a child for a visit. In turn that child will have the background knowledge to make his or her own discoveries.

As technology improves it can bring the art experience closer to us and make the entry to the museum or theater all the more thrilling.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Governor's Gallery

The Governor’s Gallery is a space for changing exhibitions located next to the Governor’s office in the New Mexico Capitol. It should not be confused with the Capitol collection which I wrote about some months ago. You will find that throughout the rest of the Round House, as the Capitol is called.

The Governor’s Gallery has six exhibitions a year drawing about 3,000 visitors monthly. The exhibition schedule is varied and includes a mix of all media. There was one recently on a local collector and another about the WPA which had a major impact on the State. The current exhibition is the annual tribute to the winners of the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the arts. Here we find painters, photographers and contributors to the arts as well as performing artists such as Wes Studi the famed Native American film actor who brought a more realistic view of the Indian to the screen. “Dances with Wolves” is probably his most famous role. Then there is Robert Redford who received the award, not just for his acting and film making accomplishments but also for his work on behalf of young artists, Native American and Hispanic film makers, and his contribution to the preservation of the environment.

The Gallery was started in 1975 by former first lady of New Mexico, Clara Apodaca, wife of Governor Jerry Apodaca. I don’t know about you but I can hear her coming in to his office saying, “Honey, the walls outside your office are so dreary why don’t you get some paintings from the museum and put them up”. Whatever the conversation was it ended up as a marvelous program administered by the New Mexico Art Museum.

The person responsible for the art in the Gallery is hired, after a Nation wide search, by the Department of Cultural Affairs and the New Mexico Museum of Art. In 2006 Merry Scully was chosen for the job, she was uniquely qualified. She had majored in Studio Art and minored in Art history at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and then went for an MFA to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque pursuing Photography and Art History. It was also an opportunity to become acquainted with Santa Fe. Shortly after graduation from UNM Merry became Director of Exhibitions & Galleries at the San Francisco Art Institute. During her studies she had several interesting positions at galleries as well as teaching.

Her responsibilities as curator of the Governor’s Gallery include producing the six exhibitions a year for that space as well as responsibility for any art borrowed by the Governor and First Lady for the Governor’s Mansion, his offices, the Office of the Chief of Staff and the Cabinet Room. Merry has to coordinate the loans coming mainly from the four State Museums but sometimes also from galleries and private individuals. One of the many issues that she has to deal with is that the insurance policy of the Museum covers all art in public rooms but not in private quarters.

This program has its political side as well. I am sure that Merry’s teaching experience comes in handy when there is a change in administration and she needs to assist the new Governor and spouse regarding what kind of art it is wise to show. No one can afford to slight one constituency or another. As an example you have large Native American and Hispanic communities throughout the State. In New Mexico our Administration is about to change and the curator must first retrieve all the artwork borrowed by the last one and then find out what the incoming Governor, Suzanna Martinez, and the first spouse would like to live with.

Take a look at the office of current Governor Bill Richardson. I am sure the taste of the next Governor will be quite different. The curator is also to assist the Governor with issues that may come up regarding the arts and guide him or her when he has visits from members of the local, national and international arts community. For this reason the curator of Governor’s Gallery who was hired by the Art Museum has offices in both the Capitol and the Museum.

Near the end of our conversation Merry told me, “The Arts are core to our civic life. We had a museum system when the State was just a territory”.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Transportation and Culture

Transportation and communication are central to the development of any society and if one believes that art can act as the ideal ambassador of its culture, then bringing the people to the art and bringing the art to the people is vital.

We forget that people, since time immemorial, have traveled. It is a basic instinct of mankind to explore the unknown. Travel was so basic, for those that could afford it, that portable altars became part of the nobleman’s inventory and, later on, when furniture became more than a plank on two saw horses larger pieces were made in kit form so that they could be taken apart and put together easily for travel.

Starting during the second half of the 17th century The Grand Tour became a rite of the young wealthy gentlemen of Northern Europe, predominantly the British Aristocracy. It was thought to be an important part of one’s education to have exposure to Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance. In this way the traveler could visit famous sites and see specific works of art in far off lands such as Italy and Greece. As we also know, a number of cultural items would return with the traveler who had acquired a taste for these foreign styles.

We have all seen, as well, exhibitions comparing two artists or schools of art from different places and seeing how they borrowed ideas from each other. Patrons all over the world have always commissioned foreign artists to come and paint for their court (be they religious, secular or corporate) and do their portraits.

What actually prompted this “Missive” is being back in New Mexico and the recent arrival of a light rail system linking the Capital, Santa Fe, with the most populace city in New Mexico, Albuquerque, and beyond along what is known as The Central Corridor. It was an idea that had been discussed for decades but it was only after Governor Bill Richardson was elected that he put it on his priority list and in the end it took 6 or 7 years to complete. They named it the Rail Runner, a play on the fact that the state bird is the Road Runner.

The main reason the Governor pushed for the Rail Runner, however, was not culture but rather lessening the growing automobile traffic on the 60-mile trip between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. A large part of Santa Fe’s work force lives around Albuquerque and they need to commute daily.

Originally, there were no plans for the Rail Runner to be operational on weekends or at least none were voiced. But what do you know? New Mexicans and tourists wanted to travel to different communities to visit friends, sites and local museums. As gas prices rose it was an extra incentive to take the Rail Runner. With a yearly pass, assuming one used the Rail Runner every week-day, it would cost an individual only $1.25/day, about the cost of a half gallon of gas! I have mentioned before there are at least 8 museums in Santa Fe alone plus many cultural sites as well as State and commercial exhibitions which are now open to a much larger audience. It was soon realized how important this tourist trade was to Santa Fe, especially when there was the Spanish Colonial Art Fair or an Indian Market or the International Folk Art Market which brings artists from impoverished nations to sell there wares and introduce them to the Culture here and vice versa. This fair alone brings over 20,000 visitors.

The Rail Runner finally added Saturdays and Sundays to their regular schedule. The cultural institutions and the businesses realizing that it could be a long trek to a destination in town from the nearest train station started a regular shuttle service to various stops around Santa Fe.

Believe it or not this marvelous new means of connecting some of the cities and towns of New Mexico was fought tooth and nail as a waste of tax payer money, but I still have not heard the statistics on the money it has brought to the Capital by tourists and workers coming here. There are always unintended ways that anything new is used. Sometimes good, sometimes not, but one good thing that occurred in this case was for the new Charter High School for the Arts. Its mandate is to accept students from each congressional district in the State. About 15% of the student body neither live nor dorm in Santa Fe and they use the Rail Runner. In return, the school has changed its planned schedule to coincide with the Rail Runner schedule, so school starts later and ends later than other public schools.

We need to broaden our horizons by learning about the arts from other cultures as well as our own. The Rail Runner is one way to begin the journey.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

How About a Christmas Present?

Now, you may think it odd that anyone would come to a high end gallery to buy a Christmas Present for anyone but themselves or a spouse, but that is not necessarily the case.

We have had a collector come in Christmas eve and pick out a small Louis XV marquetry table. He then asked for it to be gift wrapped before it was delivered!

Another bought a small French 18th century painting for a business associate and yet another, an older woman, came in and bought a small 17th century Italian bronze snake for a friend.

Since this is the time of year that such thoughts go through one’s head I thought I would pick something from my inventory that might fit the bill. Should it be a piece of furniture? Probably too large in every sense? What about a painting? Probably too expensive. That leaves a small bronze, a piece of porcelain or a drawing or watercolor. Best to pick something I would like to take home because, in the private sector, I find those are the works of art that go first.

Even though we have many works on paper that are less expensive I picked an object that I thought would be popular in subject matter as well as an object that was at the top of its genre in quality.

My mother had a large collection of elephants, therefore my parents were always on the look out for fine examples. On a business trip to Paris, at a prominent gallery, Fabre et Fils, that we had been dealing with for 2 or 3 generations they found a bronze of a running elephant, a bit over 5 ½ inches high and 8 inches long bearing the signature Barye on the base.

Animals have always been a favorite subject for sculptors in bronze and Antoine-Louis Barye (Paris 1795 - 1875 Paris) was the master in this art during much of the 19th century. His range was phenomenal and while bronzes are rarely unique because they could be made in multiples this bronze, known as "Elephant du Senegal” is not as common.

An important aspect of any bronze is the finishing of the piece and our elephant has been superbly finished and it stands out in its class.

As I have discussed before, provenance can also be of great interest when making a purchase. Imagine my parents’ delight when they turned over the bronze and underneath found the inventory mark DW 2090, indicating that it had belonged to one of the greatest French collectors of the first half of the 20th century, David David-Weill (1871-1952) who was an extremely successful financier and a great patron of the arts. His son and grandson, years later became wonderful clients of Rosenberg & Stiebel.

I do not remember exactly when my parents found their treasure but it had pride of place and could be seen as soon as you walked into their apartment. It had given them many decades of enjoyment.

Why not take a look at our website,, and see what you would pick out as a Christmas present.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Miss Frick

No, I did not get that wrong. In Miss Frick’s day Ms. did not exist and, anyhow, I would have been scared to address her as such.

I had not been in the business that long and exactly why I was allowed to take care of Miss Frick shortly after I started I am not sure. But then people had favorites some preferred to deal with me , the younger Stiebel, and others with my father, the old world gentleman.

Helen Clay Frick (1888-1984) was the third child of Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), the Pittsburgh Steel Magnate, who built the Fifth Avenue Mansion and its fine collections. Miss Frick took her role as his daughter extremely seriously. I must be clear that I knew Miss Frick, only as a client, between 1968 until she moved back to Clayton the family home in Pittsburg a bit more than a decade later. We all see people from our own point of view and from mine Miss Frick was an independent soul who knew what she wanted and a spunky doyenne.

She never built as great a collection as her father but she had wonderful taste and when she no longer approved of the way things were run at the Frick Collection in New York she decided to open the Frick Museum in Pittsburgh. It was for this project that she came into my family gallery.

She arrived at the gallery one day ostensibly looking for a specific piece of furniture but she eventually ended up in our last show room with its red velvet walls in which we showed paintings. In those days an art handler would bring each painting or drawing in separately to display on our red velvet easels. On this particular day we had had a visitor just prior to Miss Frick and a portrait by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) of Eléonore de Bourbon (1587-1619) had been left on the easel. In the same room were showcases which were opened to reveal medieval and renaissance treasures and Ms. Frick had been headed for them. When she saw the Rubens, however, she asked a few questions and bought it on the spot! Boy, were we surprised but then Miss Frick did not need a decorator or an art advisor to tell her what she liked.

Another time, in the room before the red velvet one she spotted a two tiered round table known as a gueridon. It was an extremely fine piece stamped M. Carlin, one of the best Louis XVI cabinet makers. The top was a Sèvres plaque of the period and coming out of the porcelain top was a gilded bronze candle holder for 2 candles. This table represented the best of its type that existed. In fact, I can remember few that were as good as this gueridon. She took one look at the table and said, “Mr. Stiebel, if you can find me the candles that fit into those candleholders I will buy the table. Now with some people who say things like that one might laugh. The difference here was she was dead serious! Some months later my wife and I were on holiday in New Hope, Pennsylvania antiquing (not for the gallery but for stuff at home). I spotted a candle maker’s shop and we stopped in. There I saw some short white candles that I thought might fit and laughing bought them. I was quite unsure either whether they would fit or if Miss Frick would remember but the investment was a not major!. Back in New York the candles fit perfectly so I phoned Miss Frick ANDS She said, “In that case, Mr. Stiebel, I will buy the table”. There was never any discussion about price or discounts. She either bought something or did not.

Finally, one other sale sticks in my mind. Miss Frick lived for many years in an apartment over the Frick Art Reference Library. In fact, until her death the story went, she insisted that in the library all women wear skirts and all men wear jackets, no matter the stifling heat without air conditioning in the summer. When one got off the elevator on the main library floor on the opposite wall there was a lunette by one of the Della Robbia brothers and Miss Frick asked me to find another that she could put in the Pittsburgh Frick. As luck would have it I found one almost immediately very close in size and it had belonged to the Vanderbilts in their house at the Breakers in Newport. I was most excited having found just what she wanted with a great provenance. But she turned it down and I was mystified. The religious subject was similar, it was the right form, it was just perfect. Finally, in frustration, I phoned her long time secretary, Mrs. Egan, and said that I did not know where to look if she turned down the one I had found and could she possibly enlighten me. “Well, Mr. Stiebel” she said. “frankly, Miss Frick is not going to buy anything that comes from the Vanderbilts”! I am sure therein lies another wonderful story. Eventually, I found Miss Frick another della Robbia which had been de-accessioned from the Metropolitan Museum.

It was not quite the same shape and possibly not as important, but she bought it. The price was $48,000 and Miss Frick said that she was afraid that she could only pay us $5,000 a month. This was most unusual and seemed very strange, but, of course, we said that we would accept her terms. What we did not know was that Mr. Cooley, her financial person, was away at the time and only on his return did he learn of Miss Frick’s arrangement. He phoned and apologizing said, “Mr. Stiebel, I think we can do better than that” Within the week we received a check for the full amount.

If the art business were only so simple today, collectors who know their own minds and have confidence both in themselves and the dealers that they visit.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

PADA Dinner and Award

It seems incredible to me but I find that I have already been writing these missives for over a year. Inevitably, I come back to themes of dinners and exhibitions and museums I have been to. It is all part of being an art dealer or probably anyone who leads a professional life. We go to fairs and exhibitions in the places we frequent and we attend functions of interest both personally and professionally.

So it is with the Private Art Dealers Association of America known as PADA. Every year it gives a dinner in honor of an institution or one of its departments that do work in the areas that interest our members. Winners of the PADA Grant in the last few years have been The Master Drawings Association, The Frick Art Reference Library, The International Foundation for Art Research and the Concerts & Lectures Department of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This year it was the Hispanic Society of America. A gem of a museum which has the misfortune of being on 155th Street on the west side of Manhattan. A friend of mine once said to me that in New York City we live in a 20 block (approximately 1 mile) radius of our homes. It sounds ridiculous but it is true. This, of course, does not include working in another location which I guess would add another 20 block radius. Think about it, New Yorkers, it is an amazingly accurate generalization.

It is actually not that difficult to get to the Hispanic Society by taking one of the West Side subway lines but few of us make the effort. Unfortunately, I must also plead guilty to that charge. I have been there less than a handful of times in my life. This city is rich in its cultural institutions but if they are not on the beaten track their number of visitors are always a small percentage of the institutions on Manhattan’s East Side from 34th to 91st streets.

The Hispanic Society is located on Audubon Terrace a landmark district consisting of eight early 20th century Beaux Arts Buildings with several cultural institutions. From the Society’s website it “is a museum of Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American art and artifacts, as well as a rare books and manuscripts research library”. If that doesn’t race your motor how about the fact that you can also view great paintings by the most famous Spanish Masters such as Velazsquez, Goya and El Greco! If you are watching your budget it does not hurt that there is no admission fee. Of course, you also have the bragging rights since fewer visitors to New York go there as opposed to the other museum in town.

The PADA dinner is given at the Lotos Club, situated in a mansion built for the daughter of William H. Vanderbilt in 1900. We had cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the period library with its portraits and large fireplace and then there was a dinner for 64 in the banquet room.

The presentation of the grant was made by PADA’s President, Robert Dance and accepted for the museum by its Director, Mitchell A. Codding.

Robert Dance spoke of his early visits to the Museum when his mother took him and his enjoyment of what seemed to a child as a slightly spooky atmosphere with its narrow staircase up to a balcony filled with objects. In the recent renovation these walls are now devoted to paintings.

Mitchell Codding spoke of the renovation of the museum making it more accessible and the restoration of the 14 huge paintings by the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) known as the “Vision of Spain” illustrating the regions and people of his homeland. Sorolla received the commission from the founder of the Museum Archer Milton Huntington in 1911. Sorolla then travelled all over Spain making sketches and finally completed the commission in 1919. But the paintings were only installed at the museum in 1926. The artist had died three years earlier.

It took until the 21st century for this important cycle of pictures to make it’s pilgrimage through Spain in an exhibition that attracted more than two million visitors. Before they left their home they were first cleaned, their first bath in close to a century. The museum took advantage of their absence to do a major renovation of the gallery where the Sorrollas were installed 85 years ago with a new roof, skylights and lighting as well as a reinstallation of the surrounding galleries.

Robert Dance is retiring as President at the end of this year and the evening ended with an impromptu toast from a fellow founder of PADA, Jill Newhouse. She praised Robert’s inspiration and leadership over the many years he has served as President during two separate terms in office.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I rented out my gallery!

Emanuel von Baeyer is originally from Bavaria. His interest in art began as a child of 12, with Japanese prints. So he started out as a collector and dealing became his passion. After all, we can become custodian of a lot more works of art if we sell some of them to feed our obsession. He moved to London 14 years ago as it is one of the centers of the art world where many passionate collectors meet at auctions, art fairs and at the galleries. It is hard to say precisely what his specialty is but one can narrow it down to works on paper with an emphasis on prints.

A few months ago Emanuel phoned to ask whether he could bring an exhibition of over 100 prints covering five centuries to exhibit in my gallery space. I had never done that before, but Emanuel was a good friend so I said yes.

A little late I thought, why does he want to do this exhibition here and now and how was this going to work? The first question was easily answered. New York in early November was the venue for three different works on paper fairs and about twenty galleries had their own shows. The second question took a little more thought. I had shared my walls with others including Emanuel when we did Master Drawings New York together but I had never totally given over my gallery to someone who was selling outside of my field. I thought that I would have to clear off the walls of my paintings and drawing as well as the French 18th century furniture from the floor and hire moving men to take everything to a warehouse, then store it for a week and bringing it back, but we wanted to do this without too many expenses.

The saving grace was that Emanuel wanted the gallery just as it was leaving enough wall space free for all of his prints. We live in a brownstone and he liked the ambience of showing the art as it would appear on the walls of a home. Therefore, we would only have to move some of the pictures and a few of the smaller pieces of furniture. Happily between Emanuel and a couple of very strong members of my staff the works of art could all be moved to other parts of the house.

When one does an exhibition either in a gallery or museum one must expect the unexpected. In this case, we were quite surprised when the FedEx truck pulled up in front of our house and the FedEx man informed us that he had two huge crates with all the prints framed and unframed and they were to be left curbside. There had been a snafu with the shippers and FedEx took the shipment with the designation of freight meaning that it had to be delivered to a loading dock or curbside. Thank goodness for a kind FedEx man who assisted in getting the crates into our house and with the help of an electric screwdriver the crates were soon opened and then emptied of their contents.

But then we had the two huge crates sitting in our small hallway so that one could hardly get around them and we were expecting visitors shortly. We couldn’t get hold of the London shippers to find someone to pick up the crates expeditiously. So we shoved them into the garden and got some heavy plastic in which to wrap the crates to protect them from the rain. Then we put a couple of garden chairs on top to keep the plastic from blowing away. Necessity is the mother of invention!

Now where to put all these prints? Over half were in 3 print boxes and the rest were shown on the walls. Emanuel had to figure out which of our pieces would need to be removed and whether he would use the staircases for some of the prints or pack the large parlor floor with prints as close together as tasteful. Deciding on the latter gave a very rich feel to the installation. And we could place some of our drawings and watercolors on the staircase trying to find ones that would not clash with the prints. Now what to do with the 3 large heavy boxes with the rest of the prints which the visitors would be free to sift through. I had to step in at this point and say that they could not be placed on the 18th century furniture which might get scratched and damaged if too many people worked at it at once.

What could we use without buying a special table for only a few days use? We did have a 6 foot work table in our basement on which we kept tools and packing materials etc. and I suggested that we bring that up from the basement and we took a magic marker to cover some of the bad scratches. It worked perfectly holding the print boxes and allowing visitors to move prints from one side of the boxes to the other. As a final touch we picked out a few objects from our collection that went well with the prints and moved them to appropriate places in the room.

The transformation was wonderful. The prints were top quality pieces from the mid fifteen century to the mid 20th and it all looked great in situ. Even I, not a print person, could easily see what a quality exhibition it was and, of course, ambience plays an important role in making people comfortable with the art. I asked Emanuel what his concept was in putting this particular group of prints together and he said that they were European in different techniques and that many were early or formerly unknown states as well as artists’ proofs.

Well, it worked. That the show was a success became obvious almost immediately. From the first morning on we had a steady flow of museum curators, collectors and dealers and a good number of them bought one or more of Emanuel’s treasures.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

J.P. Morgan's Library

As you have surely read by now, The Morgan Library and Museum recently opened their refurbished building, commissioned by J.P. Morgan (1837-1917) and designed by McKim, Mead and White architects in 1906. This is the first major restoration to the interior since that time and was done in a record four and one half months. Yet, if you do not go regularly to the Morgan you would hardly realize what all the fuss is about. It is a brilliant job, a perfect restoration that only brings out the original grandeur and beauty of the space without trying to improve upon it!

You don’t think about the use of non-reflective glass but the glass on the vitrines has been swapped out so that you now can see the objects and not your reflection in the vitrines. What probably makes the most obvious difference is the new lighting which shows off, for instance, the wonderful painting of the great men of the arts on the library ceiling and the mosaic work in the ceiling of the rotunda. If you think about it, these were probably never before as visible, since it was still early days for electric light when the building was originally put up.

Over the years other buildings have been added to the complex. The most recent of these additions is an award winning new entrance on Madison Avenue and Atrium by Renzo Piano which brings all the Morgan buildings together. Personally, however, I find it an eyesore, not in keeping with Morgan’s aesthetic, but then I am a dinosaur when it comes to tradition and do not embrace change for its own sake. This entrance, however, is in such stark contrast to the original space that when one goes up a short flight of steps on the right side at the back of the Atrium and through the glass door one feels as if one has walked through Alice’s looking glass into another world. I liked that, an oasis from 21st century New York.

The McKim building is relatively small including only three rooms connected by a rotunda. The library itself, study cum office and the annex to the library where the librarian was situated. When you enter into the rotunda that connects all three spaces, there is now installed a rotating exhibition of Americana from the Morgan’s collections. At the moment the cases include one of the 26 original copies of the Declaration of Independence, notes that Lincoln wrote before the Lincoln Douglas debates, a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his daughter signed “Affectionately, Th. Jefferson”, a copy of the first bible printed in this country and a life mask of George Washington for which he had to lie down when the famous French Neo-Classical sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) came to visit him at Mount Vernon. Houdon was also known for the busts he made of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin when they, themselves, were in France.

The librarian’s office or library annex has for the first time been opened to the public and the only physical change that was made to the building during the restoration. It is a double storied room and the library shelves on the lower section have been turned into vitrines to show Near Eastern art from the collection.

Jennifer Tonkovitch, curator of drawings and prints headed the project renovation with the guidance of the director, William Griswold and the Deputy Director, Brian Egan and she was the one who gave us the tour. In this room she pointed out handles on the library shelves on the second story. These bookshelves pivoted to give access to the second floor of the building. Somehow quite exciting, particularly if you are fond of mystery stories!

The library itself is three stories tall and a most impressive room. A couple of manuscripts have been taken out to show both a spectacular modern and early binding. In some ways even more illuminating as to their importance than the fine manuscripts in the cases where you have to read the labels to learn why they are interesting. For this space a “new” large carpet appropriate for the period was needed and a net was cast internationally to find the right one. In the end it was found at a carpet dealer a few blocks from the Morgan itself!

It is hard to say whether it is the library or Morgan’s study cum office that is the most impressive. Never mind the great paintings, sculptures and manuscripts being shown but this double storied room itself in its fabric covered walls and red velvet upholstery (duplicated from the original fabric) with a large vault in the corner is quite something. So when you have a house full of treasures in the building what does the banker decide to put in his vault? Well, in Morgan’s case it was his 600 medieval manuscripts.

J.P. Morgan was 69 years old when he commissioned the building but it represented a very important statement. This was his private space in the image he wished to project and more importantly wanted to think of himself - the beneficent financier, philanthropist and man of the arts.

Monday, November 1, 2010


The World Monument’s Fund (WMF) had its genesis in 1965 as The International Fund for Monuments but changed its name and direction in 1985 to the World Monuments Fund . I have known the Executive Director, Bonnie Burnham, since 1976 when we both attended the first International Congress on art theft in Paris. She had been with ICOM, The International Council of Museums which was administered by UNESCO. They developed the “UNESCO Agreement”, the first effort made on an international basis, to repatriate works of art to their countries of origin. I, of course, was there as one of many representatives of the collecting community. After becoming Executive Director of IFAR, the International Foundation for Art Research, she was asked to join WMF as Executive Director in 1985 and proceeded to revive a rather sleepy institution.

WMF has an annual benefit dinner which I attended a few weeks ago. On this occasion WMF gave its prestigious Hadrian Award to a worthy benefactor of preservation of the world’s treasured art and architecture. The award is named after the Roman Emperor Hadrian (a.d. 76-138), who was himself concerned with the preservation of outstanding artistic works of his time. For a list of all the recipients go to click here. In an introduction to their many worthy projects Board Chairman. Christopher Ohrstrom stated their credo saying, "A society that has lost touch with it's past is a society that no longer knows who it is...... Because our past is what defines us. It gives us our identity".

WMF publishes every year a “Watch List” of approximately 100 sites that it considers most require attention. It gets directly involved in some of these and joins projects where it can contribute expertise to the local effort. At the moment it has about 150 projects on seven continents, to view click here.

They have not neglected their country of origin and have had projects near both my homes advising, for instance, at the Taos and Hopi Pueblos in the Southwest. To show how WMF works they took a group of us to Ellis Island in New York Harbor and demonstrated how a long term project can begin.

Ellis Island was the principal port of entry into the U.S. between 1892 and 1924 when 12 million immigrants were processed there. The Northside with its Registstry building began its restoration in the 1980’s at a final cost of around 260 million dollars and this is the site we can take the ferry to visit today. But there is a huge territory on the Southside of the Island where the original state of the art hospital complex was built. Having been neglected for many decades it had turned into a veritable jungle. Nature had taken over and literally grown into the buildings coming in with all the elements. It had been a most important part of Ellis Island at the time. It was where all those that showed any sign of physical or mental illness were held until they were thought fit to be admitted into the United States or sent back to where they came from and it is estimated that two to three percent were. Ellis Island became known as “The Island of Hope - The Island of Tears”.

Today, it would cost well over half a billion dollars to restore the Southside and the funds don’t exist for the time being. WMF, however, listed Ellis Island on their “Watch List” both in 1996 and 2006. The 1996 listing helped draw National and International attention to the amount of work that remained to restore the island in its entirety. A member of the Lowes family (Lowes Stores) pitched in with $25,000, which though generous and appreciated was not going to make a big dent in beginning this massive restoration.

Boiling down his impressive curriculum vitae, our tour guide, John H. Stubbs received his advanced training at Columbia University’s Graduate Program for Historic Preservation. In 1980 he started at Beyer Blinder Bell Architects & Plannners which specialized in the world of preservation architecture . The firm was hired from 1981 to 1984 by The U.S. National Park Service to restore the main Registry Building and survey the history and 'as found' conditions of all buildings on the island. This included for example, the original toilets and doorknobs. John Stubbs supervised several skilled teams in this herculean task and they gave those doing the actual restoration of the Northside the “blueprint” for the project which was detailed in an 11 volume report which John edited and wrote a great deal of. In 1990 he was hired by Bonnie Burnham to become WMF’s project manager and oversee their many projects.

He had the idea that they could use the Lowes grant to demonstrate what was possible. They took one small building, the Surgeons offices, as an example and showed how it could be cleared out and mothballed so that things wouldn’t get worse until there was the money to continue on a grander scale.

When this relatively small project was completed WMF again listed the Southside of the island in 2006. Now, more substantial funds started to flow in and with the 7 million dollars raised they could seriously begin to clear and clean up many of the buildings, and board up the windows with slanted slats for air.

Of course, since the Ellis Island project was started 30 years ago the question of how the property on the Southside could be best used and over the years many suggestions have been made. A hotel, a convention center with overnight facilities, a study center for immigration and many more, as well from famous architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson. Some of these ideas involved eliminating the original structures but considering the entire island’s landmark designation it is doubtful that these plans would ever be allowed.

Not only was it fascinating seeing new frontiers in the big city and what can be accomplished but thanks to our afternoon with John Stubbs and his enthusiasm, also in a subsequent interview, I do hope to be able to come back to the subject of Ellis Island in my Missives… there is so much more to tell.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Curator

Last week I wrote about the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, “Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance”. Though it takes many people to create an exhibition, those organized by committee often lose focus. Creating a good exhibition requires a good curator with a vision of what he or she wants to accomplish. The single mind behind the Gossart exhibition was Dr. Maryan Ainsworth.

I met Maryan when she was in the Paintings Conservation Department at the Metropolitan working with a new scientific technique called infrared reflectography. With an special camera a conservator could record the artist’s initial ideas represented by preparatory drawings lying beneath the layers of paint. Not all artists used under-drawings but it was a common practice in the Northern European Renaissance.

The investigation of a work of art where scientific data is needed is often performed in an independent lab and the results sent to the curator the same way a doctor might receive x-rays. It takes more than just a camera to make infrared reflectography of paintings useful. Meaningful comparisons can only be made after gathering many examples. Further it requires the skills of a trained art historian to put the new visual information into the perspective of the period and place. I was so impressed by Maryan because I quickly saw that she had the art historical background to create and use scientific data to come up with real insights. This dual expertise explains why Maryan made the unusual transition from the conservation side to the curatorial side, becoming a member of the Met’s European Paintings Department.

Her years of travel to national and foreign institutions pursuing reflectography research allowed her to know where many Northern Renaissance paintings were located and their quality. This knowledge allowed her to conceive and put together her exhibitions. Of course, she first looked at the collections in her own museum and in 1998 opened a blockbuster called “From Van Eyck to Bruegel - Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum” I remember so many visitors going through the show saying things like: “That is wonderful! I have never seen that before”. Possibly not, Maryan might have found the work relegated to the Met’s storage and brought it out on view in order to better illustrate the Met's holdings.

An exhibition is not just a bunch of paintings A-Z, at least not a good one. Knowing what is out there is of paramount importance, but the editing decisions need to be made. It is just as important to know what to leave out as what to put in. You also have to able to show context, thereby adding a new dimension to our understanding of the artist, his place and time. Maryan has shown an ability to do this through her selections, installation, explanatory labels and catalogs. Besides holding more that one degree from both Oberlin and Yale, she has taught at Columbia and Barnard and thereby learned to express herself in a clear and concise manner.

The exhibition will come down within a few months but the catalog gives the show immortality. People can refer to it a generation or two later and not have lost all the work that was done to create the current exhibition. In the case of Gossart, Maryan used the opportunity to catalog all the known works by the artist and not just the ones which she was able to show at the Met. When you put together the 63 paintings and all the ancillary material that was brought in for comparison in the show itself you have an almost 500 page catalog printed on fine thick paper between hard covers.

I have not weighed the Gossart catalog but I can tell you lifting it up from the floor to my desk many times in the last couple of weeks I did not need to do any weight lifting at the gym! It reminded me of Philippe de Montebello’s remark about another exhibition catalog which he said two museum curators had worked on for 9 months and given birth to a 7-pound tome. Though there is no substitute for the beautiful book there is much to be said for a CD. Maybe one should be included with the catalogs.

One can go on for chapters about what it takes to pull together a good exhibition and the stories that make up the creation of these shows are incredible and often exciting. Here I just wanted to give the reader a taste of what it takes to be the curator for a world class exhibition.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jan Gossart Known as Mabuse

The demise of the international traveling exhibition has long been heralded, but after 9-11-2001 it was said that they could definitely no longer occur. Yet, in 2010 you can find in almost every major city fabulous shows bringing together great works of art from all over. Works are brought together not just for the sake of the public, but also so that art historians can compare works that they have never seen together. This allows them to trace the development of the artist and distinguish between versions of the pictures, determining whether they are by the artist himself or a follower. Photographs are no substitute for the original as they only tell a small portion of the story.

Many of these exhibitions are worth traveling to see, but what luck when a great show is right in your own back yard where you can visit and revisit it. So it is with “Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance” an exhibition which opened recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition brilliantly curated by Maryan Ainsworth will be on view until January 17, 2011 and then go on to the National Gallery in London.

The exhibition shows the development of Jan Gossart (Maubeuge 1478 - Antwerp? 1532) and demonstrates how he was a major force in bringing the Renaissance to Northern Europe. His visit to Rome in 1508-09 in the entourage of his patron Philip of Burgundy was a decisive influence on his work. We see this in a gallery showing classical antique sculpture along with Gossart’s related drawings. (Image with captions)

As mentioned in last week’s “Missive”, I believe that the visitor should walk through and look at an entire exhibition before singling out works to study further. What do you do, however, when there are so many wonderful works of art that draw you in? You will find that each time you go through the show another aspect of the story is revealed.

The loans here are amazing, and not just Gossarts. There are drawings and prints by Durer, a first class Jan van Eyck and Gerard David and many others. How was this all managed? Next week I will discuss the curatorial role and the curator that brought these works together.

Monographic exhibitions are the most difficult because the curator is always tempted to borrow and show as many works as possible by the artist. By neglecting the selection process the goal of the exhibition is often lost. I have gone to monographic exhibitions of artists I believed I loved, only to find that by the end I thought less of them.

In this case it is slightly easier since there are only 63 panel paintings known, and at the Met we can see 50 of them. The the show also has clearly delineated subject headings in each gallery, and within the category the works are juxtaposed to other works by the artist or related works by other artists. The labels are excellent and if you cannot figure out what the relationship between works is you need only read the label to make things clear.

While we have often been shown drawings and prints related to a painting, it is unusual to see related sculpture. Two of my favorite examples are sculptures by the German artist Conrad Meit (Worms 1475 - Antwerp, 1550/1). Gossart and Meit worked together in both the courts of Philip of Burgundy and Margaret of Austria. So there is no question that Meit’s sculpture was influential in the sculptural style of Gossart’s paintings. The juxtapositions are so compelling that the three examples that I had picked before even opening the catalog were already available in jpegs from the museum.

A stunning example is a small boxwood figure of Lucretia by Conrad Meit done between 1500 and 1515 and a painting of Venus and Cupid done by Gossart in 1521. Though the painting with its integral frame is twice as large as the sculpture, by setting them off in a case by themselves, the relationship between the similarly twisted fleshy torsos is made obvious.

The other telling comparison is a Conrad Meit marble Virgin and Child done between 1531 and 1534 that I had not seen before from the Brussels cathedral and a Gossart painting dating circa 1527 of roughly the same dimensions. Here it seems Meit was looking at Gossart’s work: note the texture of the hair and folds of the garments.

All that has been discovered about the artist and his time is covered in the catalog. But it is no substitute for going to see this exhibition that allows you to make visual discoveries for yourself.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Audio Guide: Pluses and Minuses

In the New York Times of October 1, 2010 I read Arthur Rothstein’s column entitled “From Picassos to Sarcophagi, Guided by Phone Apps”. It is the newest in the use of audio and video technology to enhance the visitor experience in the Museum. His point is that the technology is in its infancy and, at the moment, can be more distracting than illuminating.

I am for anything that brings the visitor to the museum but then I want the visitors to look for themselves and have their own perceptions and reactions. The museum experience should not be like that of the tourist who rushes from one sight to another just to tick it off in a travel guide, i.e. Eifel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre (Mona Lisa, Victory of Samothrace) etc.

Bring the audience in but don’t lead them around by the nose. The order and priorities of a museum visit should not be dictated. Visiting a museum is not like learning a language at school where you are made to learn the grammar first. It should be more like visiting a foreign country and wanting to learn more about the place and its people. At first you pick up a few phrases that may then lead to the study and mastery of the language.

Long before the audio guide existed, I was taught by my father that the first time you go to a museum or to an exhibition you should just walk around and become acquainted with what is there. In a large museum such as the Metropolitan you need to pick an area such as Greek and Roman or Medieval or American Wing or Old Master Paintings, because you can’t do it all at once. Then go through again more slowly to look more carefully at what interested you the first time round and read the labels. If you are still interested by all means take an audio guide. My complaint is that many still either tell you what is on the label or what you can see for yourself!

One audio guide that I really enjoyed accompanied the presentation at the Kimbell Art Museum of the exhibition “European Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia,” in 2000. Timothy Potts had just arrived as Director of the Kimbell from his previous post at the Australian museum. Since he had been in on the original organization of the loan exhibition he could comment on reasons for the selections and the amendments that had been made by the following administration. These inside stories make the art historical content more interesting and therefore more memorable.

Like Rothstein, I feel that the visual and audio aides can sometimes distance the viewer rather than bring him closer to the art. Art is intensely personal and I believe it should be first experienced at that level.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Two Dreamers....

…one with eyes lowered as if in prayer and the other looking to the stars. Who are these women? We will never know, for they are not commissioned portrait busts but rather idealized heads based on a sculptor’s study of a live model. Furthermore, they are not even in the traditional materials of “fine arts”, stone, or bronze. These two dreamers are made of red stoneware known as Böttgerware, and produced at the porcelain factory of Meissen somewhere between the late 1920’s and mid 1930’s. Their authors were sculptors who made their living creating models for ceramic production.

These sculptural studies are a world apart from the precious quality generally associated with porcelain figurines. But modelers for porcelain factories of the 18th century were often talented sculptors (Kaendler at Meissen, Bustelli at Nymphenburg foremost among them) who could shape the human figure to conform to the stylization of the Baroque and Rococo eras. Just so with these two heads, where the realistic study of models is transformed through the lens of the Art Deco style of the twenties and thirties.

We know little about the sculptors themselves. Professor Emile Paul Börner (1888-1970) studied in Florence and the Italian tradition of the depiction of the Virgin Mary is evident in the mystical tranquility he evokes in his female subject. Even less is known about Willi Münch-Khe (1885-1961), the author of the Balinese beauty, who worked as a modeler at several other German factories as well as at Meissen. He clearly shared in the fascination with the exotic that was current in the art deco and moderne periods.

They both realized the potential of the high-fired red-brown ceramic that had been overlooked in the centuries since it was developed by the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719) in his attempts to produce porcelain for the princely patrons of the Meissen factory. He was the first in Europe to discover the formula for true porcelain known from oriental imports and Meissen began production in 1710. But the early vessels of red stoneware, now dubbed Bottgerware, are among the most prized by collectors today.

The exceptionally hard medium allows for the most refined detail and the contrast of matte and highly polished surfaces (see the eyelashes on Borner’s piece, the glistening lips on Münche-Khe’s) Did the director of the factory encourage the two sculptors to explore the medium in large sculpture? Did the two sculptors challenge each other? I have been so intrigued by my two ladies, their relationship and their contrasting beauty. They are hors de categorie, surpassing the stigma of “minor arts” associated with the products of porcelain factories.

Will we ever know the circumstance of their creation?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Paris - The XXVth Biennale and Beyond

I have been asked if American Museums were represented among the visitors to the Biennale. I had only run into a few American museum people myself but exhibitors in different fields told me that a number were present. Among the museums represented were The Metropolitan Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, The National Gallery in Washington and the Speed Museum in Louisville. The Louisville curator brought a group of patrons as well. Of course, many French and even some German museums curators and directors came.

Regarding the younger contingent of exhibitors, my favorite gallery was definitely Jason Jacques. It is a New York gallery and they do not deal in my field but their specialty has been of interest since my wife was curator of 20th century decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum many years ago. I met two of the principals Jason Jacques himself and Yoni Ben-Yosef. They were showing a large selection of late 19th century French art pottery with a choice selection of European furniture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, as a display case for some of the ceramics they used a large cabinet with the most wonderful mounts by the German artist Richard Riemerschmid (Munich 1868-1957). That was something I would have been happy to take home!

With the Biennale bringing so many French and foreign visitors to town, some dealers who do not participate use the opportunity to stage their own events, so there was much else to see.

A La Vieille Russie, the renowned New York gallery specializing in jewelry and Russian works of art, most especially Fabergé, have an exhibition at the Didier Aaron Gallery while the latter were exhibiting at the Biennale. Originally from Kiev the family firm came to Paris in 1920 and stayed until 1961. Complementing the works of art were photos and texts that lined the walls. They traced the history of the gallery and provided a prime illustration of the interesting ways in which the art world has evolved.

At Galerie Aveline on the Place Beauveau, Galerie Neuse from Bremen, Germany did a wonderful installation of their early German silver, objects and paintings. What particularly caught my eye were a few 16th century German pistols covered with engraved ivory inlays,-- another keeper! All this was wonderfully intermingled with great French 18th century furniture from Aveline’s proprietor, Jean-Marie Rossi.

But the prize for the most spectacular installation and exhibition had to go to the Galerie Kugel. The Kugel brothers transformed the courtyard of their hôtel particulier (well defined by Wikipedia as an urban ‘private house’ of a grand sort’) using a steel structure to turn it into a mini Panthéon. showcases and niches throughout displayed classical antiquities and 16th century Renaissance interpretations of the classical era.

There were many other exhibitions and events but as in any city with so much great culture one can never see it all. Whenever you come home again some one is bound to say: did you see thus and so? You may have missed that particular attraction, but remember, you enjoyed what you did see. By the time you read this one or the other be over but the Kugels’ extravaganza will be open until December 18.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Biennale 2010

Arrival--I don’t think that I will ever get used to the time changes and the unpleasantness of travel these days but having made it across my 8 time zones and checked in at my usual hotel in Paris, I am ready to take on the XXV Biennale des Antiquaires.

The Opening--After spending about 4 hours at the Biennale, with little sleep in the last 36 hours I am sitting at the computer to make some notes on my first impressions.

Just going into the glass enclosure that is the Grand Palais, built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900, is always a thrill; it improves any experience inside. This year the fair is laid out like a star with aisles radiating out from a central circle. For the opening there was a huge round bar for Champagne and other liquid refreshment and continuous hors d’oeuvre were served throughout the evening including all kinds of fish with foie gras for the carnivores. There were many mini refreshment stands as well along one’s route.

As promised there was a surprise in the first booth that one came to on the right. As I entered, the proprietors said, “Welcome to America”. It was a to scale replica of the White House Oval Office. This was the booth of the Kraemer family. Based on the premise that the Oval Office is the most famous single room in the world, they posed the question,-- what if it had been furnished with French 18th century decorative arts. Of course, there was one truly American touch, a small Mark Rothko over the fireplace. I was with my associate Vince Hickman, who had actually been in the Oval Office, and he said this version was much more exciting.

Actually, there have been various attempts to decorate the rooms in the White House with French 18th century. The best known being in the Kennedy Administration when the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, an avowed Francophile, headed an effort to do so. However, when my wife, Penelope-Hunter Stiebel, was asked during the Clinton Administration to examine all the French decorative arts in the White House collection and report on their authenticity, condition and quality. To her and my surprise, besides the numerous Empire gilt bronze pieces purchased under President Madison, the two best pieces were acquired during the Nixon administration when the First Lady, Pat Nixon, led the effort.

People loved the Kraemers’ Oval Office and many came in just to gawk and see photos of the real thing and what the Kraemers had done in their interpretation. It gave me hope that in the future many more dealers would be inspired to do inventive installations just like in the old days.

Day Two--A day later much refreshed I could go to look through clearer eyes. The Biennale press release had noted this year’s accent on younger dealers. In order for the art world to continue as a vibrant field the new blood is vital. We need new dealers and new collectors and at last they are both definitely present.

French 18th century decorative arts remain a good reason to visit the Biennale but there was a solid showing of the 19th and 20th century. And what was particularly interesting to me was the fact that many of the 18th century dealers are showing a contemporary highlight or two, proving that works of fine quality can live well together no matter the period.

Another draw for the Biennale is the participation of the most important international jewelers. This encourages spouses, who may be as interested in gems as they are in art, to come along. In fact, for the opening the jewelers’ stands were too crowded for me to get near them.

With day three under my belt I realize that there is much more to say about the Biennale and the other fairs and private dealer exhibitions that make this week a big art week in Paris. So I guess I have to end this blog with… to be continued…

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Go East Old Man, Go East

For the past dozen years I have spent most of my summers at our home in Santa Fe and always flown East around September 11 (still excellent air fares that day) to get back to New York and or Europe.

I have, however, always wanted to stay in Santa Fe for the month of September. The summer crowd has left, the weather is beautiful and there are many activities after the Fiesta celebrations. But there is always something that I need to do back East so it does not happen. As I say every year at this time, “Maybe next year”.

This year what is luring me away is the 25th Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris. The fair, which will open on September 14 and run from the 15th-22nd, is organized by the Syndicat National des Antiquaires the French art and antiques dealers association. It has around 350 members, mostly from France, but several other nations are represented as well. Although we do not exhibit in the Biennale my firm has been a member of the Syndicat ever since my uncle lived in Paris. He was there from the late 1920’s to the mid 1960’s with a decade’s gap in the 40’s when he lived in New York.

Years ago this fair was one of the most innovative in the world. I remember when a group of 8 Parisian dealers, who often worked together, built a fortress with each dealer showing in his own part of the fort. An English dealer constructed a major mahogany library on his stand, but the most innovative installation that year was a dealer who had borrowed a French 18th century painting from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. He showed it under a glass bridge that one had to cross over to get into his booth. I would have liked to see the curator’s face when he learned how the dealer planned to protect the painting. Well, it was certainly under glass!

Shortly after that extravaganza the Grand Palais, the beaux arts architectural wonder in the center of Paris that had housed the Biennale, closed for a 10 year renovation. The Biennale moved into an exhibition space in the Carrousel du Louvre, the underground shopping mall next to the great museum. There was no room for innovative installations there and the tradition of design competition among the dealers was lost by the time the show came back to the Grand Palais just a few years ago. Who knows, maybe this year it will be revived.. A friend and colleague of mine who will be exhibiting said that they had a surprise, something special, planned so I am very curious to see what it is.

The September date seems early for a major fair to us in the U.S. where we haven’t yet settled into our fall work routines. Maybe that is why they pick it. But scheduling such events is a very complicated affair, and the exhibitors’ opinion of a desirable date that does not conflict with other arts activities is not the only consideration. One cannot just walk into the Grand Palais and demand a certain time slot. There are commercial, political and museum priorities at this prestigious venue where various sections are used for exhibitions throughout the year.

What will this year’s Biennale be like? The art dealer lives in eternal hope. Will there be something to race his/her motor, and possibly buy, around the next corner? And then will there be a passionate collector who will fall in love with it at the next turn? All in all the Paris Biennale is an excellent reason to venture East.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Georgia On My Mind

In Santa Fe, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is front and center much of the time. There is a museum that bears her name here and it is one of the city’s most popular attractions.

Georgia O’Keeffe began coming to New Mexico in 1929 and visited every year until 1949 when she decided to become a resident of the state.

Last week I saw a wonderful exhibition called “Georgia O’Keeffe Abstraction” for the second time. I first saw it in New York at the Whitney Museum and last week at the O’Keeffe here in Santa Fe. Between those two venues it was presented at the Phillips in Washington D.C. From opening to closing the show was on the road for a full year.

The exhibition team was lead by Barbara Haskell, curator at the Whitney and included several other authorities including Barbara Buhler Lynes, the Emily Fisher Landau Director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, also an eminent authority in the field.

The exhibition traces the development of O’Keeffe’s interest in abstraction over her long career so that one can see her themes and interests in chronological order. The Whitney version included over 125 paintings, watercolors, drawings and sculptures. It was truly a monumental show befitting a great artist. For me, however, in exhibitions, less is often more, so I found the exhibition here in Santa Fe, where it had contracted by about 25%, more digestible and enjoyable.

Since I am always interested in what makes people tick, why they go in the directions they choose, I particularly enjoyed O’Keeffe’s quotes on the walls between the works of art.

One of my favorite, from 1922, “Singing has always seemed to me the most perfect means of expression… It is so spontaneous… Since I cannot sing I paint”. That jogged my memory, my father used to say something analogous, “Since I cannot create art, I deal in it”. Ah, but that is for another Missive!

One of her most revelatory quotes is, “ Nothing is less real than realism… Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” Or maybe even better, “I know I cannot paint a flower. I cannot paint the sun on the desert on a bright summer morning but maybe in terms of paint color I can convey to you my experience of the flower or the experience of the flower or the experience that makes the flower of significance to me at that particular time”

I was always a fan of Georgia O’Keeffe even when her monographic exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the 1970’s was generally panned* But I only fully appreciated her work a decade later when I came to New Mexico and saw the light, the clouds, the mountains as she had.

We all strive to communicate what is most important to us in any way we can. Some are masters of the spoken word, others of the pen or paint brush. For me O’Keefe is among the masters. Using abstraction she evoked the essence of the light and landscape of her (and my) beloved Southwest.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Indians Indians Everywhere !

For three weeks in August there is Indian mania in Santa Fe. It actually starts in Albuquerque with the sales fair at the state Fairgrounds. Here traders (called “dealers” back East) sell not only to some local collectors but they also buy and trade with each other.

This in preparation for the following week when collectors will begin swarming into Santa Fe. At the new Santa Fe Convention Center, the best dealers will offer Indian works from the secondary market . These are just a couple of the events that lead up to the week-end of Indian Market (or Indian Mark-up as it is called by some).

The Santa Fe Indian Market has been in existence since 1922 and today brings some 100,000 visitors from all over the world to a town with a population of around 70,000. The market is estimated to bring in $100 million in revenue to the area. With an accent on the southwest about 1200 Native Americans from all over the United States representing approximately 100 tribes set up in 600 plus booths on the Plaza and the surrounding streets.

Why? Aside from it being a successful commercial enterprise for them, there is intense competition among the Indians. They vie for ribbons, with attendant cash prizes. Those who win the ribbons are extremely proud and show them off. A single piece may have been entered and won ribbons in previous markets in Phoenix, Gallup and elsewhere and with each ribbon the price of the art work seems to increase.

In Santa Fe prizes have individual sponsors and the judging is done by juries of three specialists including Native artists, scholars and sometimes traders with a certain specialty. The yellow, red (second place) and blue (first place) ribbons are given in categories that include painting, jewelry, pottery, and textiles, and, this year for the first time, film . These divisions are broken up into subcategories corresponding to specific techniques and the traditional styles of different peoples, but increasingly important is the designation “contemporary” , which may be as subjective as objective. There is a People’s Choice award and, of course, the coveted and much-publicized “Best in Show”.

The reason that many pieces have seemingly high prices is that the Indians bring their best work. They want to show the other artists how good they are, and they know that their pubic expects it of them. The very best pieces by the best artists command the highest prices and they usually sell quickly. In good times, well-known artists are sold out the first day. The second day, the artists that still have goods left may be amenable to giving a better price. The other side of that coin is that if you want the best that an artist has brought with him, you better buy it right away because it won’t be available for long. Even with unsold works, if the artist is affiliated with a gallery, a piece may appear there after market and you will find the gallery mark-up added to the price.

One of the additional events introduced this year was a skateboard competition. A long-time popular favorite is the Costume Contest with competitors in categories according to age, starting with 2 to 4 year olds and going on to adults. They show off traditional wear of their own nation with costumes often sewn by a grandmother. Recently a contemporary fashion design category was introduced.

Indian Market is conducted under the auspices of SWAIA (The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts) and many recent innovations are due to the Executive Director, Bruce Bernstein, a scholar and entrepreneur who had previously been director and chief curator of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. He also served as Assistant Director for Cultural Resources at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.

People who come to town just to see what Indian Market frenzy is all about often get caught up in the spirit and become immersed in the subject matter. Here you have the opportunity to speak with the Native Americans themselves about their art and culture. It is an exciting time to learn something about the “foreign” world of Native Americans who were here before us foreigners!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

State of the Art / Art of the State

A short while ago my wife and I made an appointment to meet with the Executive Director and Curator of the Capital Art Collection. No, that is not an investment fund! The capitol building of the State of New Mexico has a collection and a serious arts program.

The capitol of New Mexico is Santa Fe and the capitol building is hidden behind trees on the border of the most historic part of town. The circular building with four entrance wings protruding to the North, South, East and West was designed so that from a bird’s eye view it resembles the sun symbol of the Zia tribe.

Their pueblo is located in Northern New Mexico. The Zia symbol was adopted for the state flag when New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912.

The “new capitol”, also known as the Roundhouse, was dedicated in 1966 and required asbestos remediation between 1989 and 1991. There was already a system in place similar to 1% for art and at the time of the necessary renovations the legislature decided to set up the Capitol Art Foundation with a panel of 25 arts experts from around the state including curators, directors and scholars. It was agreed that the foundation could not buy art but could only accept it as a loan or by donation. The money appropriated would go only for the salary of the sole director/curator and pay for installation of the art acquired.

Today the collection numbers over 600 works in all areas including paintings, drawings, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, photographs, prints and mixed media. Aside from judgments of quality, the only prerequisites for donations are that the artists are from New Mexico or work here. The works of art are installed throughout the four floors of the Capitol down every corridor and on every wall.

All the cultures of New Mexico are represented including, Hispanic, Native American and Anglo. The most popular piece in the collection is a monumental mixed media Buffalo Head lent by the artist, Holly Hughes.

Additionally, two temporary exhibitions are organized every year, (before budget cuts there were four). When we visited we saw “Roots and Vision of the African American Experience in New Mexico” consisting of work by 25 African-American Artists from Albuquerque. The next exhibition which will open in September will be art created by public school students throughout the state. It is ironic in that in the most recent budget cuts, art is being eliminated from the curriculum.

The Executive Director and curator who does all this on her own is Cynthia Sanchez, who was appointed shortly after the Foundation was set up. She has degrees not only in art history but also in painting, sculpture and performance studies. All of them must come in handy in juggling what she has taken on, not to mention the politics of dealing with the legislature.

Interestingly, in the same building, the Governor has his own Governor’s Gallery in his offices. It is a separate entity, with its own curator, who organizes loan shows…. but that is for a later Missive.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Art Dealer Today

My father defined our trade quite simply, --we try to convince someone who does not want to sell, to sell, and someone who does not want to buy, to buy. That could never be more true than today when everyone with a collection wants to hold on for a better selling climate and those who wish to collect have no expendable cash!

We travel, we look, we schmoose (gab) and we hope. Often we fail in our attempts to bring a buyer and seller together but once in a while we succeed, and that is a day to celebrate. My father and his cousin Rosenberg always celebrated twice. Once when the client said, “I’ll take it” and again when the check actually arrived. That is another thing that is more true than ever today.

In the old days if a client said they would buy something you could literally bank on it. Unfortunately, that is not as true any more . It used to be a pretty small art world. Everyone knew everyone. My father believed that if anyone collected in our fields they had to visit our gallery, not necessarily buy, but check out what we had.

Klaus Perls the renowned art dealer used to say, “I have never sold anything in my life. Once in a while I have allowed someone to buy something”. From an old fashioned dealer such as myself it makes a lot of sense. We want people to come by our galleries and fall in love with a work of art. Only after that am I there to consummate the acquisition.

Today, the art world is bigger. There are many more art buyers (if not collectors), there are many more art dealers, and the auction houses greatly influence the market.

A good friend and art dealer colleague who studied a different field at Columbia University has said to me that he is jealous of my art history degree. I have countered with how jealous I am of his business degree. Which one is more important? I believe that today, probably, the business degree is more important. As a matter of fact some of the most successful art dealers have MBA’s.

When I was doing my MA at Columbia I asked a professor about continuing on for a Phd. He asked “Why? You can learn more in your gallery in 2 months than here in 2 years”. Now, while this might have been a bit of an exaggeration, on the job training in the art field is possible. Business formulae are much more difficult to master without the discipline of a scholastic setting.

Thank goodness, museum curators are still being trained as art historians. Increasingly, however, the prerequisite for a museum directorship is a degree in business administration, yet museum directors still make the ultimate decisions of what acquisitions will go to the trustees for approval. There are few who are strong in both art and administration. . We have recently lost two such directors, Philippe de Montebello who retired from the Metropolitan Museum, and the late James Wood, named President of the Getty Foundation after retiring as the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Happily the Metropolitan picked a new director, Tom Campbell, the old fashioned way, from the curatorial ranks.

From the art dealer, both more scholarship and more business acumen are demanded. I think that the former is a great improvement in our trade. Our clients want to know more about the art that they are buying. We have to be able to supply the latest scholarly information available. The complicated, protracted, deals that have become the norm are alien to the world I grew up in. Yet the art dealer today must be able to handle both.