Same As It Ever Was
[T]hese guys these days, these youngsters, get up in the morning, they paint a picture, they hang it up in an exhibition and the Ford Foundation gives them a prize.... They have their [well-known collectors] who stand there and catch the next picture that comes off the easel.
----Edith Gregor Halpert, early 1960s
It takes me forever to read biographies. I'll spend months savoring one, taking it in bit by bit, stopping to read up on something or someone it had introduced me to before I go back for more. I feel that's fine though. It takes years to research and write one and, clearly, someone's whole life to inspire one.
I note this mostly to explain to Lindsay Pollock, in case she's reading, why I've just finished her thoroughly engrossing, incredibly well-written book, The Girl With the Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market. She was kind enough to sign it for me a while back, but I only just read the final pages tonight.
The Times reviewer praised the book (and gives a good summary of the details of Halpert's life and times, so I won't here, except to note for reference sake that she opened her gallery in the West Village in 1926), but he thought Pollock is "perhaps too enamored of her subject’s plucky spirit." I can't say. I fall into that category of reader the Times reviewer meant when he wrote: "Historians of the American folk art market, created in part by her salesmanship, will find plenty of details to chew on." And chew I did. [update: OK, so I just re-read that and need to clarify that I don't mean to imply I'm a historian, and certainly not of the American folk art market, but merely someone who was absorbed by the details of Halpert's life.] The number of innovations that Halpert introduced that contemporary gallerists still use to market and sell art is impressive, and I made plenty of mental notes about things I'll have to try.
As, um, wonderful as it was to learn that artist-dealer and artist-collector relations haven't really changed all that much, it was really surprising to see how little the market factors have changed over the decades, even though each generation assumes the good ole days were better and it's all gone to hell under their watch. In the early 60's Edith wrote to a client [any typos mine]:
A great change has taken place in the art world with two new classifications among collectors--THE INVESTOR and THE RICH MAN WHO IS BORED. The first buys names and the second buys erotica, happenings etc. concentrating on sensationalism exclusively. [She waged a] one-man battle against the new 'investment' buyers. We have been turning them down wholesale and are getting a bad reputation but I am really adamant on the subject as you know.The one thing that Halpert remained impressively true to throughout her 36 years as a gallerist was her unyielding faith in the art she sold. Her business had survived the Great Depression, WWII, and the ever-evolving tastes of the critics, curators, and collectors who saw the craze for old masters, European Modernism, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop art, to name but a few, come and go. She was a true believer in the idea that art is for everyone (introducing payment plans to encourage those without millionaires' budgets to collect) and had little patience for those who didn't spend the time to understand why what she was selling was important. Her thoughts on the market were always impressive for someone who made her fortune selling art. When, in the 1960s Americans were buying American art with a vengeance, a lot of it from her, she stuck to her guns:
"When the crash comes and it's in the making right now and has been for some time, it will drive out, I hope, all the investors--now they come in and say 'Is it a good investment?'" Edith had her answer ready for these new buyers. "I'm sorry," went her line. "I can't sell anything to you. I don't have a brokerage license and I may not sell securities."There are only a handful of people in the art world I know with that much integrity on the subject. I imagine Edith is up there, watching the market today, a cigarette in one hand and a Scotch in the other, shaking her head. Thanks for the portrait, Lindsay. I loved it.