As a small child I always knew that art was my only interest. Much to my parents’ horror, my early education always included art classes. They assumed, “At least I’d be able to teach art.”
I finally ended up at Philadelphia College of Art, now University of the Arts. During freshman year I discovered that I could major in Fine Arts. I became a sculpture major and I was hooked. I continued and received both a BA and MFA (Indiana University) in Sculpture with a minor in Art History, which is the only academic program that I ever liked. After graduation, naturally I started teaching, and I totally hated it. It was a shock to me that art students were so indifferent to art. Out of a class of thirty students, only two seemed interested in actually being at art school.
During that year I also got the job as assistant director at the Janet Fleisher Gallery in Philadelphia. Within a year I became the director, and embarked on a new career. I found that being in the gallery was everything I thought teaching was going to be. Working in the gallery turned out to be a wonderful collaboration between Janet Fleisher and myself. She supported and encouraged my interests in Ethnographic Art, particularly Native American, Oceanic, Pre-Columbian, and the rather new field of Self-Taught Art. So, in the early 1970’s we began exhibiting what was then called 20th Century Folk Art.
Gallerists, academics, and museum curators began to debate the appropriate name of the field we were developing. We called this “term warfare.” I stayed out of the battle because it was clear that no resolution was possible. The media loved the term “outsider.” We considered it pejorative. They continue to use it, and we don’t. I find that these issues usually die a natural death and the art survives.
One early position I did take was not to actively be involved with self-taught artists on a personal level. I found that once the work started selling, the influence of the seller could and often did alter the art, and not in a good way. The only artist I was involved with was Howard Finster, and that was because he was immune to influence.
Taking the lead from Jim Nutt, a Chicago Imagist, and one of the first to identify many of the important artists, such as Martin Ramirez and Joseph Yoakum, we adopted the stance that self-taught was no different than any other art form or the artists that produced it. I believe this, and have tried to encourage an understanding of the artists and why their contributions are worthy of our attention. I have spent my career as a dealer trying to break down the lines (walls) that exist between “high” and “low” art forms.
The early 1970s were a very different time to be an art dealer. The artist or dealer as media star simply did not exist. Showing and trying to sell self-taught artists was no easy feat. I realized this during one of early exhibitions of Martin Ramirez when an appropriately well-heeled matron came into the gallery and pronounced that the work looked like it came from a “loony bin.”
I said, “As a matter of fact, Ramirez had been in the DeWitt State Hospital for the mentally ill.”
She expressed horror that we would consider showing such garbage as she herself was a volunteer at a “loony bin.” and they discard junk like this every day. I informed her that it was because of people like her that this kind of work was rare and consequently expensive. She left in a huff. I knew at that point we would have to expand our base of operations outside of Philadelphia.
Many of the collectors who in the past rejected Bill Traylor and Ramirez ask me why I hadn’t insisted that they buy these artists; I usually say, “I tried.” Now, when I suggest an artist to collectors, they’re more likely to listen. I see this as a major change of attitude in Philadelphia. Local no longer means less important.