Julie Courtney

Julie Courtney
Independent Curator

I met Marian Locks at the home of Sidney Guberman, one of her artists, in 1968. I was an art history major at Boston University, and passionate about contemporary art. I had a long conversation with Marian, late into the evening, and I really can’t remember what either of us said, but at the end of our conversation she said, “Someday, when you’re ready, I’d like to have you work for me.”

When I graduated from college, I came home to Philadelphia and went right to her gallery, which at that time was in the back of a gift shop right across from Peale House in the 1800 block of Chestnut Street. I frequented the gallery, admired her artists, and had some wonderful conversations with Marian and the artists who would come and go all day long. “I’m ready,” I said brightly on more than one occasion. But alas, the answer was always the same. “I can’t afford you.” Not that I came at such a high price.

Eight years later I got a call from Julie Jensen, an old high school friend, who said, “Marian’s looking for someone.” So I called her up and she invited me to come in to her new gallery, the spacious second floor of 1524 Walnut Street, for a chat. When I got there, Diane Burko was sitting there, so my interview was really with both Marian and Diane. Fortunately, I was impressive enough, and entered into the world that would become my life.

Life working at Marian’s was a combination of an old-fashioned art salon, with artists and collectors in and out, and a bustling business. Cheap white wine flowed, and for special guests, like Edna Andrade, a vodka on the rocks. It was wild, chaotic, and exciting. The openings were amazing; they were so crowded we steamed up the wall-to-wall front windows. Since most of the artists were from Philadelphia, and teaching at PAFA, Tyler, PCA (now UARTS), Moore, and Penn, the crowd included their friends, collectors, and students, past and present. Generations, genders, and classes mixed. What we had in common was stronger than most bonds: we shared a passion for art and artists. It was very exciting.

Marian used to refer to herself as the old woman who lived in a shoe, who had so many artists she didn’t know what to do. She was everyone’s mother, artists and collectors alike. She had a very hard time saying “no,” and rarely did. Collectors bought “on time.” One couple amassed an amazing collection, sending in $10 a week. They’d often come in from Wilmington every week, drop off a check and drink a lot of wine, chatting with us and whomever else dropped by. Marian often invited whoever remained after closing time to dinner. She was generous to a fault.

I was privileged to know so many of Philadelphia’s finest artists. Warren Rohrer, Fumio Yoshimura, John Formicola, Harry Soviak, Bob Keyser, Jody Pinto, Ray Metzker, Liz Osborne, John Moore, David Fertig, Murray Dessner, James Havard, Tom Palmore, and soon, as their students became part of the “stable,” the next generation of artists: Keith Ragone, Mary Nomecos, Carolyn Healy and John Phillips, Bob and Trish Moss-Vreeland, and countless others would all come by and catch Marian up with their lives. I know I have forgotten some whom I shouldn’t, but it was a long, long, ever-morphing crowd. Edna Andrade and Diane Burko were among Marian’s closest confidantes, and I hated to pull myself away from the gallery when they came in because that’s when the juiciest gossip was to be heard.

Soon after I started working at the gallery, I fell in love with Warren Rohrer’s work. I bought a small 10” painting and paid Warren $25 a month until I couldn’t stand it any longer and paid the balance, foregoing dinners out and bottles of wine. That little painting cost $300 at the time, and Marian didn’t take her commission, so I paid Warren $180 (those were the days of the 60/40 split, with the artist getting 60%). I treasure that painting today, and look at it each day from my desk – an ever-changing, meditative landscape. I never grow tired of it.

Because the gallery was in the former Yale Club, my father’s Alma Mater, he came to see me every day. It became clear to me that by repetitive viewing, one can really begin to respond to contemporary art. My father knew nothing about art, and in the beginning didn’t even look around. After visiting an exhibit 15 or 20 times (he never missed a day), he would start to make comments. Fascinating!

I started working at the Gallery in 1977, and left in 1983 to start The Temple Gallery. It was inevitable that I would leave one day, but I didn’t like change and was afraid of what my future would hold. But I could see that our interests were diverging. I was becoming more excited by artwork that didn’t sell as Marian was trying to be a better businesswoman and work with corporate clients. I was moving into a world of commissioning site-specific installations, and was interested in writing grants to support artists in that way. I was drawn to non-profit as the gallery was finally becoming a profit-making business.

Marian used to say I was getting my Ph.D. working at the gallery. I started at $100 week, paying my own taxes and health insurance out of that. My accountant said I’d be better off not working, but I wouldn’t have traded this for the world. Marian taught me how to look at art, and more importantly, to be sympathetic and supportive to artists. I know I am who I am today because of our relationship.

In memory of Marian Locks 1915-2010