One of my theories in life is that, if you can't have what you love, enjoy what you can have whole-heartedly, and make it fun. When I was struggling for several years as a young writer, and couldn’t afford a fancy car or even a new one, I bought two 1940 Fords for very little money and had a ball with them. One was a black opera coupe which I absolutely loved, and the other a dark red sedan. I car pooled in the red sedan, much to my oldest daughter’s horror. And the opera coupe looked like a grande dame. I even bought several hats of the era and sometimes wore them when I drove my 1940 gems. I probably looked pretty silly, but I was young and had a lot of fun. I’m not sure it was really a step up in the world when I could finally afford a brand new car. The 1940 Fords were a lot more fun, although neither loved the hills in San Francisco. I kept both cars for many, many years, and finally sold them last year, because I never drove them anymore, and thought that someone else should enjoy them. I sold them to a man who had coveted them for years and was thrilled to own them.
I feel the same way about art. I have always longed to own a Mary Cassatt, but no matter how successful I become, they are always just out of my reach. I love Degas, Renoir, most of the impressionists, and would love to own a Chagall (one of the flying couples, I love his brides), but I can’t afford one. Real life. I have nine children, and have other responsibilities and priorities than owning a Chagall. It’s okay, I am both blessed and happy. And I have developed a huge fondness for contemporary art, particularly by emerging artists.
I like ‘happy’ art, things that make me feel good. And I have always felt that it doesn’t have to be expensive, I just have to love it. I’ve spent a chunk of change on a few pieces I love (but not in the Chagall range to be sure), and have bought other paintings or sculptures for nearly nothing. I am irreverent about its fiscal value. On a table in my living room, I have mixed pieces of antique Chinese ceramic fruit, with similar objects made by my children in school. I love the mix, and no one ever realizes that the apple they’re admiring was made in 4th grade art class, until I proudly tell them. I have a wonderful Indian sculpture my son made when he was six standing alongside some more important modern art. And truth be told, I love the things my kids made best of all.
I like art that makes me feel happy. I want to wake up in the morning and love it, and be thrilled I own it, even ten years later, whether it cost $300 or $300,000. I hate paintings that are so somber and dark that it’s easy to discern that the artist was profoundly psychotic and at a low point in his or her life. Life is tough enough without being surrounded by art that makes you feel bad too. And I have some fun pieces as a result. I love paintings and sculptures that incorporate words, of course. I love discovering new artists, young in their careers, though not necessarily in age. I love Asian art. I love the driftwood (bronze cast look to like driftwood, and boy do they!) horses of Deborah Butterfield, and am lucky enough to own one. I love art that makes me laugh or smile or feel just plain happy. And I have some photographs on my walls that I love too. And I suppose I am childlike in my taste, because I love bright colors, and red is almost always a sure winner with me.
As a young person, I went to art school in my spare time, and had no real talent. I make collages sometimes now, because they relax me, with a great many words and sayings on them. And I just made two dining tables in Paris, with my own hands, with some of my old book covers glued all over them, and industrial wire spools as bases ---and I am inordinately proud of them, ‘look what I can do!’. It’s fun to make things and very relaxing. (I do needlepoint cushions of old Chinese figures, and thoroughly enjoy it. To date, the two dining tables are my biggest project).
I have always loved art. I have very little ‘important’ art, but a lot of art I love. And among the important pieces I do have, I have one of the smaller Robert Indiana sculptures of the word ‘Love’. And more recently acquired a series of ten Andy Warhol lithographs of Marilyn Monroe in fabulous colors. I also love Pop Art, and was interested to discover that my youngest daughter loves graffiti art and has a great eye for it. My grandfather and one of his brothers were artists, also two cousins. It was not thought to be a respectable career in those days, so they weren’t allowed to pursue it professionally. My grandfather was a talented miniaturist, the others were portrait artists, and my father was a talented nature photographer, who began selling his work in later life. So I suppose it’s in my genes somewhere. I love writing, but have always enjoyed art too, and admire those who do it.
My walls are crammed with ‘stuff’, and my children roll their eyes when I drag home another painting. Where are you going to put that? I always find a spot, in testimony to the old saying ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. If I find even a smidge of empty space somewhere, I can fill it with a painting, if I love the painting. There is always room for more art.
Several years ago, during a personal lull in my life, and emerging from the sadness of my son’s death, I decided to open a contemporary art gallery in San Francisco, to sell the work of unknown, emerging artists. I had two missions: one, to sell happy art that made people feel good, and two, to bring together unknown artists and collectors who wanted to pay reasonable prices. My goal was a good one, and all heart. The business plan, unfortunately, was not so great. I forgot that one still had to make money at it, or at least not lose too much.
I found a gorgeous space in a high end residential neighborhood, near an expensive dress shop and some antique shops, and my theory was that if people would spend $10,000 at a dress or antique shop, they would surely spend 2, or 3, or even $5,000 on a painting. The theory did not prove to be entirely true, although we sold a lot of art. The gallery was beautiful, the work was great by some very, very talented artists, and I paid a fortune for ads in major magazines to showcase my artists, and had beautiful announcements for our group shows. We had some very good reviews, the artists loved it, so did I, our clients were as excited as we were. And I hired a very experienced and wonderful woman to run it, and when I was in town I was there every day. I travelled and went to art fairs to find new artists, and found some very good ones. We represented 22 artists, and they, the gallery manager and I, and even many of our clients were heartbroken when we closed our doors after 4 years. We had a ton of fun, met our idealistic goals artistically, and didn’t make much money. Not enough to justify staying in business, according to my accountant. I hated to close, and miss it still.
As happens, real life intervened. Our overhead was just too high for the prices we were charging, and when our lease was up, my accountant tapped me on the shoulder and said that was enough, so we closed. I hated to close it. And I was able to find new galleries for many of the artists. Interestingly, their new galleries immediately raised their prices (sometimes even doubled and tripled them), which is why they’re still in business and I’m not. But having the gallery was a fantastic chapter in my life, and I totally loved it. There wasn’t a single day that I regretted doing it. I just wish I had done it better, on a fiscal level, so we could have stayed in business. My plan was too idealistic, which is why few galleries sell only emerging artists. It’s hard to make money selling at low prices. And placing the gallery in a residential neighborhood far from the downtown area made us less accessible to the designers and art consultants we needed to survive. But oh what a good time we had!!! It was the best!
One of the very good galleries that took on the representation of some of my artists met with me about a year after we closed, and I mourned the loss of the gallery and missed it fiercely. That gallery made me a very appealing offer to guest curate for them, and I leapt at the chance. Curating means finding the artists, selecting the work carefully, and hanging the show. There’s nothing more exciting than standing back and looking at the show once the work is on the walls, and seeing how great it all looks together. Wow! I love that. I’ve curated one show for that gallery, and am currently working on another. And I hired a space at a local exhibit area and put on an art show for our old artists and some new ones shortly after we closed. Finding artists and selling art is under my skin now. And I am still an avid collector and supporter of emerging artists.
If you’re curious about what we sold at ‘steel gallery’, our web site is still up, although we closed our doors two years ago. You’ll find it at www.steelgalleryinc.com, with a selection of work from the artists we represented. The gallery was a happy place and we all loved it. It was a wonderful experience for four years. And as one of my artists said when we closed, ‘this is not the end, it’s the beginning of a new chapter, for all of us’. That has proven to be true. Many of my artists have moved on to more important galleries, most have had shows since, all are still working hard at their art. Steel gallery was a stepping stone for them, to bigger things, and it was a stepping stone for me too. We’ll see what the next chapters bring, in the art field. And fortunately, I still have my day job.