Interviewsand Articles


Conversation with Ruth Braunstein: A San Francisco Doyen

by Richard Whittaker, Jan 20, 2005



Aug. 5 2004  San Francisco

I met with Ruth Braunstein at her house in San Francisco. Before taping a conversation I was treated to a tour of Ruth’s extensive art collection accumulated over forty plus years. She is perhaps the senior art dealer in San Francisco. Braunstein/Quay Gallery was founded in Tiburon in 1961 and by 1965 the gallery had moved to San Francisco where it has been ever since. Although Ruth represents artists working in all mediums, she has always had a very strong base with ceramic artists and represents the late Pete Voulkos as well as Robert Brady and Richard Shaw. Ruth is a woman of amazing vitality and it was hard to believe she had entered her eighties at the time of the interview. I wanted to learn the whole story…

Richard Whittaker:  Tell me something about your background as a dancer.

Ruth Braunstein:  Since I was a little girl I always liked to dance, and I was very, very athletic as a kid. I could outrun any boy. I just had a natural talent for moving. When I was in high school in Minneapolis, and this was a long time ago, you had to take some form of athletics all the way through 12th grade, and they offered modern dance there. So I did this all in high school. The gym teacher was really unique, when I think about it in retrospect. When Martha Graham and Henna Holm and Humphrey Ryman and Doris Humphry were in Minneapolis, she took us to see them. This is high school! Then she used to have people come and teach master classes, too. One woman who came to teach a master class, invited me to become an apprentice with her group. That meant I would help her on Saturday morning with the kids for the children’s classes and then I could come during the week and take dance classes at night. I was fifteen years old, sixteen years old, a very vulnerable age. She became my mentor and got me into dance, and I stayed with it. When I moved to Seattle, she made a connection for me with Elmer King who was a dancer there.
      I have a funny story about that too. There were two guys who used to come to class with a bunch of portfolios. Their names were Morris Graves and Mark Toby. They were selling prints: five dollars for a Morris Graves and fifteen dollars for a Mark Toby. I didn’t buy those things. I was a dancer! I went out and I bought a Degas print for $12.50, had it framed and put it over my couch. There was a Degas show at the De Young Museum many years ago and my daughter was there. She said, “Mom, look at this! Look what they’ve done with my picture! Look how small it is!”—I’d put the Degas print in her bedroom, see. I said, “Marna, that’s the original.”
      When I came to California, I was thirty-seven or thirty-eight years old. It was 1960.

RW:  Were you still involved with dance at that time?

RB:  Oh yes—by then, for twenty, twenty five years. Yes. I ran a dance studio. I performed. I traveled. I had a tremendous experience. I had the same kind of experience you do in the gallery world, in many ways.

RW:  Say more about that.

RB:  I think about this in retrospect, because getting into the gallery business was a fluke. But as time went by, I saw the relationship between dance and art, to visual art and moveable art.

RW:  I’d like to hear how you see that.

RB:  The similar issues are that you are working with a group of people who are involved with their own craft. Dancers and choreographers are the same as artists there. I had to organize dance classes, and I have to organize shows.
     When it came to looking at art, I was embarrassed in a way, because I had no training in art. I took four painting classes and they told me I was a primitive genius, but all I wanted to do was to learn how to put a house on a hill, and no one would show me how to do that.

RW:  You mean perspective?

RB:  Yes. [laughs] No one would show me because they said, “You have such a great sense of color. You would do wonderful things with painting.” So I took these classes, and I was bored with them, so I gave up my art career.

RW:  As a painter…

RB:  Yes. It was something I was doing in Washington before I came here to the Bay Area. When I came to California I thought, well, I’ll take up painting again. I decided I wasn’t going to do anything other than something for me and my family. Toddie’s job was paying well enough that I didn’t have to make any extra money. I thought I would just take time off, and that’s when I got involved in the art world. I was just roaming around the area looking at art. I lived in Palo Alto.

RW:  You’d been in Seattle.

RB:  I was in Seattle, went back to Minneapolis, to New York and then to the army… My husband was in the army. While he was in the army, I lived in New York city. That was something I’d always wanted to do before I had any children, to live in New York city and dance with all these teachers that I’d heard all about. I did that for eight months, while Toddie was taking basic training.

RW:  In those eight months did you get to dance with some of these great teachers?

RB:  I took classes with all of them.

RW:  Merce Cunningham?

RB:  I never liked Merce Cunningham. I took classes with him later. But I danced with Jose Límon and with Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham.

RW:  What was that like?

RB:  It was very vigorous. It taught me how to stand up straight. The cross over into the gallery business was very similar, for me anyway.

RW:  What caused you to make this change?

RB:  My age. I was thirty-seven, thirty-eight, and I didn’t want to become a dance teacher. I couldn’t do it any longer and, in fact, when I came here, I didn’t like what was going on dance-wise.
   There used to be a group here called Halpern-Lathrop here, and I used to follow them. But then Roland Lathrop retired and Ann Halpern went on her own. During all that time when she was looking for her navel, and when she was doing all the improvisational work, it wasn’t really very good; I didn’t think so, anyway. Also I wasn’t used to people wandering around just improvising and coming out of nothing.
     I had a couple of dancer friends from New York who moved to California. One of them was Rodney Strong. He used to come to Washington and stay with me, and I would go stay with him in New York. Rodney came to California to open a wine tasting room. This is 1959-1960 I’m talking about.
     So the first week that Toddie and I were in San Francisco, we were going to meet a friend for coffee and walking by here comes Rodney Strong! Honest to God! This was on July 13th. It happened to be our anniversary and it was a foggy, foggy day in San Francisco. I hated it: this fog! I came for sunshine, you know? Anyway I’m sitting there freezing, and I rolled down the window and yelled out “Rodney!” He stopped and I asked, “What are you doing?” He told me he was looking for a wine tasting room and living on a boat in Sausalito at Gate Five.

RW:  So this is the Rodney Strong of the Rodney Strong Winery?

RB:  That’s right. He opened a wine tasting room in Tiburon. Toddie and I went there to help him set it up. He ended up renting an old hotel in Tiburon and he called it Tiburon Vintners.
      Well Toddy and I came around that whole summer with the kids and into the winter, and a store became vacant on main street. The whole main street of Tiburon was owned by a man named Ed Zelinsky. His son still runs it now. Zelinsky only rented to people he liked and, if he didn’t like you, then you couldn’t rent from him. He had liked the person who rented this store, but she hadn’t paid rent in 18 months. His accountant told him, “You can’t do business this way.”
      So Zelinsky came to Rodney and asked, “What do you think about your friend Braunstein taking over the furniture store?” Rodney said he’d talk to me, but first, he talked to his wife. She said, “Well, Ruthie doesn’t know anything about furniture, but she’s taking a painting class. Maybe she should open an art gallery!” So that’s how it happened.

RW:  That’s a great story.

RB:  I’d gone off to Carmel with my kids and when I came home there was a message from Rodney, “Come over and see the place.” I told Toddie I was thinking about opening an art gallery and he said, “What do you know about art?” I said, “I’ve got a friend in the art business.” She ran a gallery in Menlo Park. I said I’ll talk to Vera and see if she would become my partner. He asked, “How much is it going to cost?” I said, “We could do it for five hundred dollars.” He said, “Okay, I’ll give you the five hundred.” Just to keep me quiet, you know. I had not spent a great year in San Francisco!
     We were only open four days a week. In 1961 Tiburon, to me, was a sleepy little town. Zelinsky said the rent would be one hundred and fifty dollars a month. I told him, “I can not afford that, and I want to be able to look you in the eye when I see you in the street and not run away.”
    “What can you afford?”
    I said, “Let’s make a business deal—I’ll give you a percentage of the sales.” He said. “I don’t want to have to watch you. Give me a hundred dollars.”
    I said, “I can’t afford a hundred dollars.” 
     To make a long story short, I ended up giving him thirty-five dollars a month plus ten percent of my net. After a couple of months, he said, “This is too hard to do. Give me fifty dollars.” So I was paying him fifty bucks a month.
     I was there for three and a half years, four years and I was up to a hundred dollars a month. That was okay, because it was working. Everyone who worked for me, took it out in trade including me, and that’s why I have so much art. A lot of it dates way back from then, and I was starting to get recognized. People were beginning to get curious about what was going on in Tiburon. Especially in 1964. They started crossing over on the ferries.
     In the beginning, Tiburon was only for the sailing people. They would dock their boats at Sam’s, walk around and have lunch, and get back on their boats and sail back to the city, or wherever they parked their boats. That was the crowd there on the weekends, so you had to be open on Sunday. We were open from Thursday to Sunday. Vera, from Palo Alto, was helping me. She taught me the ropes of the gallery business. She also was an interior designer and she could do something with nothing. We fixed that place up, and both husbands were very handy, too. We picked up all kinds of things and made stands to hold sculpture. She was very creative! She got me going, and once your mind gets going, it goes a million miles an hour!
      The first sale we made was a sculpture for a hundred and fifty dollars by a woman named Mary Anga. I’ll never forget that. So we already made sixty dollars, and that meant we already had our rent made! So we thought this was the greatest business in the world! But after four years, Tiburon had started to grow, too. One day Zelinsky comes to me and he says, “I’ve got someone who wants your space here. They offered me two hundred dollars a month.”
      So I went looking for a space in the city. I couldn’t get anybody to come over to review a show. Frankenstein never came over. So I found a place for a hundred and seventy five dollars a month in North Beach on Pacific between Montgomery and Kearny.
      So in December of ‘64, after three years in Tiburon I closed down. By May of 1965 I was in business in San Francisco. Jim Newman started the Dilexi Gallery, the first really good gallery here in San Francisco. It was way out on Union Street. Well, we both decided we’d like to do something together in the north beach area. We couldn’t find a place big enough for the two of us, so he ended up on Clay Street and I ended up on Pacific. Then Michael Walls came from New York and opened a gallery there on Clay. Then a Wenger Gallery opened on Montgomery, so before you knew it, we had four galleries! Then a guy named Carlson opened across the street from where the Committee used to be on Montgomery Street and Joe Chowning opened up on Pacific a couple of doors away from me. So there was a nucleus. I was in that space from 1965 to 1974.

RW:  I remember a gallery around 1966. A guy was selling a lot of Escher prints.

RB:  Muldoon Elder. He was on a little street called Adler Alley, then he went over and got a place on Battery Street. Then he ended up on Grove St.

RW:  That was a little different, though.

RB:  Yes. He was out there to make money. I was out there to show good art.

RW:  That was an amazing time to be in San Francisco. Did you find yourself influenced by the atmosphere of the time?

RB:  The one thing that has always turned me on in this town is clay. When I came to San Francisco and saw what people were doing with clay, I flipped out. This was before I knew there was a thing called “craft” and “craftspeople.” I didn’t even know what a craft gallery was. I mean this is in all innocence.
     So when I opened my gallery in Tiburon I showed clay. Wynn Eame was the first person. I hadn’t even heard of Peter Voulkos, but when I saw his work, I just flipped out over his work. I showed Jim Melchert. I showed a guy named Hal Reigger. I also showed Dominick Domari who’s become one of the most important weavers in the country. That’s his right there [pointing]. That’s where I got this reputation as being a cross-over gallery. Here I was showing all these important painters, too. It was 1966 when I took on Peter Voulkos, when I moved to the city.

RW:  I never met him and feel that I really missed something.

RB: Oh, you did! He was a very special guy. Everybody thought he was such a raucous kind of crude guy. Not at all. He was very smart, gentle and giving of his time to everybody. He was really very secure within himself. I’ll never forget a young kid named Jim Ballier got a job teaching in 1868, and he came to me and said, “Ruthie, I’ve got to teach a ceramics class and I’ve never touched clay. I took the job and I lied because I need this job. Who can help me?”
     I said, “Maybe you could talk to Richard Shaw.”—I was showing him, too. He says, “No, I have to teach wheel throwing.” [laughs] So I said, “You’ve got to talk to Peter.” So I got a hold of Peter, and Peter took him through the whole thing. He must have spent six weeks with him! Just giving him a crash course in making pots. But that’s the kind of guy he was.

RW:  A friend of mine was just completely inspired by having one short course with him.

RB:  Oh, yeah, just by being around him! There was this thing about you expected an artist to be drunk all of the time, or something. Well, he only got into drugs when he was sixty some years old. I told him, “You’re too old for this!” You know? He lived through that entire period of the drug scene and didn’t get involved, but in 1981 and 82, he picked it up. That’s all people remember. People thought he was an alcoholic. He wasn’t. He smoked a lot. That’s the one thing he couldn’t give up, his smoking.
     He basically was a small town kind of guy from Bozeman Montana who had all this talent. He fell into the ceramic world like I fell into the art world. He needed a course to finish his degree at the University of Montana. He was in painting and design, but he went and touched that clay and that was it! In three months what he had produced was unbelievable, and the instructor saw this. So she made arrangements with Tony Prieto who was running the ceramic department at Mills College. She said, I’ve got this guy here and he needs to be with someone who’s more advanced than I am. He doesn’t know anything about glazing. So they set him up at Mills for the summer school program and he worked with Tony Prieto.

RW:  His instructor at Montana saw this and set it up?

RB:  Yes. She came to Peter’s party, the fiftieth anniversary of the Archie Bray foundation in Helena Montana. Peter was the first resident manager there in 1952. People were waiting in line for his stuff. Here, I’ll go and get one of his pieces. He was selling these [holding it] for twenty-five bucks! He was selling his cups for a dollar, two dollars. When they got up to five dollars, he thought that was a lot of money.
    I’ve always been interested in clay, and in 1975 there were a lot of people out there doing wonderful things. But I was also smart enough to know that you don’t put yourself into one pigeonhole. I didn’t want to be known just as a clay gallery. At that time, in 1974, I had Peter Voulkos, Richard Shaw, a guy named Tony Constanzo and Karen Breschi. But there was also Viola Frey, Ron Nagle, Robert Brady, Jim Melchert, and Arneson was already showing with Hanson Fuller. There were all these artists working in clay and no one to show them! So I opened up the first ceramic sculpture gallery in the whole world in 1975.
     I had moved to Sutter Street, and a place became vacant next door to me, a little place, 900 square feet. So I was looking for someone to go in there with and Rena Bransten, one of my collectors, came in. I said, “I’m looking for a partner. Can you recommend anybody who might be interested?” She said, “What about me?” I says, “Perfect.” That’s how we got into business together. And there was a girl working for me named Sylvia Brown. So there we were, the three “B”s. Well, that sounded stupid. “Three B Clay Gallery”? So we decided to call it the Quay [pronounced key] Ceramics Gallery, because the name, was already known since I was the Quay Gallery.

RW:  That was the name you started with over in Tiburon?

RB:  That’s right. So we did that for about four years. Then one day the bank called up and told us we were overdrawn. Overdrawn? Well Rena had come over to talk with me and someone had taken out three or four pages of her checkbook. So we decided we would find a place where we could work together in one space and we moved to 250 Sutter. We’d been at 560 Sutter, and we found a place at 250 Sutter above the old Flax Art Supplies place. We were in that building from 1983 until I came over to where I am now on Clementina.

RW:  Well, can we get back to your dance experience? When you were in dance, you performed as well as taught?

RB:  Yes.

RW:  Performing must have been a special thing.

RB:  It was fun. Right. In Seattle, and when I was in Minneapolis, I danced with Gertrude LIppencott. I became part of her company. We performed all around Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, anyplace you could drive that wasn’t too far.

RW:  Was there anything about doing business in the art world, that replaced what you were getting from dance?

RB:  Yes: setting up shows. I never did any choreography. I just performed and I guess when I came here I couldn’t find a group I could perform with so that’s why walking into the gallery world was, for me, a release— I’m on stage when I do a show. Placing it up and so on. Hanging a show. That’s a creative part of the gallery world. It satisfies the creative part that I had in dance. Does that make sense?

RW:  Yes. So from the age of fifteen, and having been in dance all those years, you were used to being around creative people—So then to move into the art world and become a dealer…

RB:  …It was a very comfortable change.

RW:  Is there is something about artists which is different from other people? Do you like artists?

RB:  There are very few artists that I don’t like. I find that it’s almost like they can read my mind and I can read theirs. I think there is a correlation between a dancer and an artist. It’s the same way when people try to separate the ceramists as being different from painters. A painter has to know his craft. A ceramist has to know his craft. I like people who are creative, and sometimes they can be creative businesswise, too.

RW:  So creativity is creativity. But there aren’t many roles that tell us that creativity is of central importance. No one has to tell you this when you’re an artist, buy in most other roles, creativity per se, isn’t part of the package—officially, that is.

RB:  Well, it should be. I think it belongs there. I am attracted to people who are.

RW:  Ann Hatch, for example, would agree with that. She did go to art school and, of course, her grandfather founded the Walker Art Center, but she would like what you just said about creativity having a much broader base.

RB:  A good example! That’s how she runs that school, too. See, I’m from Minneapolis too. I danced there. I grew up with the Walker Art Center. Minneapolis was unique. My parents didn’t take me there, the teachers at school did! From the third grade, you learned how to read music, and then we were taken to at least three symphonies a year. We were taken to the Walker Art Center. All in grade school, junior high school and high school. These are the public schools I’m talking about! They have an unbelievable program there. It’s also the group of people there. It’s all made up of Germans, Scandinavians and Jews. And they’re all interested in education.

RW:  I understand there’s less and less of that now in schools.

RB:  Less and less. My kids could dance from the time they were born. They were forced to do it. When we moved here to California there was a program in dance. Well, the teacher saw that Marna knew more than she did herself, and she was smart enough have Marna help teach the dance class.

RW:  That’s great, and it’s unusual, unfortunately.

RB:  But this was just part of our growing up in Minneapolis. We learned to sew on a sewing machine in seventh grade. We had cooking classes, too. But they’ve taken that away from our schools here. There are no sewing classes or cooking classes anymore.

RW:  Are you involved in any kind of advocacy in the arts?

RB:  I belong to the Art Table. I’ve been president of the Art Dealers Association. I started that group in 1974.

RW:  What is the Art Table?

RB:  That’s a group of women involved in the arts at all levels from dealers to curators, to writers. I was a charter member. It came out of New York. We have chapters in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, San Francisco, Chicago. They have a big arts advocacy program.

RW:  As you say, you fell into the art thing and apparently it was a pretty good fit.

RB:  I was a natural fit. It absolutely worked out great! And I used to be ashamed because of my lack of knowledge about art. I was winging it. I’ve never taken an Art History course.

RW:  There’s a tendency to feel apologetic when you don’t have the letters after your name.

RB:  That’s it. So I went to hear a lecture that Herschel Chipp gave many years ago. He said, “With all my training, I still rely on my gut.” I said, “What do you mean?” —because that’s how I have looked at art. He said that if he didn’t get a special feeling in his stomach when he looked at something, then he wasn’t interested in it.
     I would never tell anybody about my lack of training in art because I thought maybe they wouldn’t buy art from me. But I’ve been in business for forty-three years and my taste has changed over the years.

RW:  I’m interested in this thing about feeling apologetic because “I don’t know anything about art.”  You must run into this where people come into the gallery and you can see they feel intimidated. This is a very common thing, isn’t it?

RB:  Absolutely true. But people are more knowledgeable about art than they used to be thirty years ago. There have been some changes. Right now, I’m selling art to the children of moms and dads who came in here thirty years ago. They’ve been raised with art. A lot of it has to do with the attitudes in homes—and buying art has become fashionable, let’s face it.
     When I started the gallery, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had maybe half a dozen paid workers. Everybody else was a volunteer. This is in the 1960s. They paid George Keller so little money that he had to have another job to keep himself going and he was the director.

RW:  [laughs] At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art?

RB:  Yes. He was teaching at Berkeley, I think. People in the community who had money were very influential in keeping that thing going. It was started by a woman named Grace Morley, who was backed by the people who owned Crocker Bank. All these rich people were the ones who got behind the museum. It started in the 40s. When they built that building on Van Ness for the Veterans, the Veterans gave the museum the third floor. That’s how they got the gallery going. They were paying a dollar a year or something like that, but the place was run mostly by volunteers.

RW:  Back in the sixties with all that amazing energy going on, there must have been a certain amount of that going into art too. I think of Jay de Feo, for instance. What was the art world in San Francisco like in those days?

RB:  It was more related to each other. There was a group around Peter Voulkos. There was another group around Bruce Connor. There was more inter-relationship. A few collectors were very much involved in the art scene, and the museum people were much more involved in the sixties.

RW:  More of a local connection with SFMOMA? Which seems to have been lost.

RB:  Completely lost. Yes.

RW:  What do you think of that?

RB:  Well, I try to be broadminded. The museum is a place where art goes and stays for the rest of our lives. But we all know that in this art world, people are very fickle. Over the years I’ve shown hundreds of artists, but I would say maybe there are only two or three that people will know a hundred years from now.
     The whole world of art has changed. I think I lived through the best part, because from the sixties to the eighties, there was a real sense of community in the art world.

RW:  Here in the Bay Area?

RB:  Especially here, and in New York, too. But there were a lot things going on here that New York didn’t feel comfortable in having; there was a freedom here. People could come out here and do anything they wanted to.
     When I was in New York with my artists for the first time in 1966, I went with slides of Manual Neri, Bruce Connor, Karen Breschi, John Altoon, all California people. The deal was that if these people would go from California to New York, then they would look at their work. So what has happened from the sixties until now is that you don’t have to live in New York anymore to make it in New York.
     There were very few dealers in New York then who were curious about things in California, but there was one guy named Stanfly. In 1961 he came and picked up ten artists including Bischoff, Lobdell, Deibenkorn, Sam Francis, and the only woman he picked up was Mel Simpton, who I showed in my gallery.
     He did a show in New York of California artists and it caused a sensation! They had never seen anything like that before. Then a couple of other dealers came out here. A guy named Al Frumkin came here and he saw the clay. Then there was Allen Stone. He picked up Wayne Thiebaud in ‘64 and Bruce Connor and Arneson.
     There were only a handful of dealers who were curious about what was going on here. Then I show up in New York with another group. So a couple of other dealers started coming out here, but it took a long time. I feel half way responsible for changing that scene. In 1975-76 there were four dealers outside of New York that formed an art co-op in New York city: me, Phyllis Kind, Ed Thorpe and Carl Solway. Carl was involved with Buckminster Fuller and John Cage. Phyllis Kind came from Chicago with her people. I came from California with my people. It was the first time Peter Voulkos had been shown in New York since 1961. This was in 1975.

RW:  What happened in 1961?

RB:  He had a show at the Museum of Modern Art. Do you know who was the curator of it? Peter Selz. He saw the genius in this guy.

RW:  So sixteen years passed.

RB:  Yes. No one would show him in New York until I came to New York. Then when I came and brought his work, he already had an international reputation. You never saw so many people come to an opening! Amongst the ceramists he was considered a god! He freed this whole thing in the late 50s, and this was in the 70s. Everybody was out there doing work like this, that’s an early Jim Melchert.

RW:  Really? That looks like Voulkos.

RB:  It sure does! He was a student of his. All these clay pieces here [sweeping her hand] would never have been done if not for Peter Voulkos.
     But the only person who bought a piece was another dealer, Grace Borgenich. The second show I did in New York, I did Richard Shaw, Ron Nagle, Tom Rippon, Tony Constanzo and Karen Breschi. They had seen Breschi because Alan Frumkim had done a show of California ceramists in New York. He did Arneson, Gilhooley, Karen and four or five other people.

RW:  Do you feel that you’ve lived through the best period?

RB:  Yes. I see the big changes in the museums. The art work doesn’t change as fast. There are more collectors now than there were before. But the biggest change is in the museum world. They’re big business now. And a lot of museums, as far as I’m concerned, are doing things that dealers did before. Now they’re out there trying to discover new people. Grace Morley was the one who discovered Jackson Pollock back in ‘45. She gave him a show in 1945.

RW:  Now she was here in San Francisco, right?

RB:  She started the Museum of Modern Art here.

RW:  So she goes down in glory, then.

RB:  That’s right. All the curators are trying to find that Jackson Pollock now. They’re bringing the work of all the young kids in here, which in my opinion, doesn’t rate. And yet, Jackson Pollock wasn’t very old when he had this show.
     But look at the size of these museums now! Look at the overhead they have running. San Francisco Museum bookstore is paying for the museum. They made two million dollars or more in sales last year. You know how much money the Metropolitan Museum makes on their bookstore? Five to eight million dollars.

RW:  What you’re describing taking place in the museum world, I’ve heard described many times as taking place in the universities. It’s a very unfortunate thing, in many respects.

RB:  It’s a different world now and things are moving on a much faster pace. You have to find another way to keep up with the “the Jones.” It has to do with money. You know what I mean? At the new De Young, in big entry where you come into the museum Gerhard Richter is going to do a huge, huge piece on photography. Goldsworthy is doing a big project. Sandow Birk is doing something, the only local guy here.

RW:  If you want to find a museum around here with a local connection go to San Jose or to Oakland.

RB:  But yet, the San Jose Museum would not like you to say that to them.

RW:  You think so? I don’t know the people there.

RB:  Anyway I’m delighted that that’s happening.

RW:  Since the dot com boom there’s lot of younger people with lots of money, and I’ve heard that it’s affecting the artworld. For instance, there was the “SuperNova” show at SFMOMA which was the art collection of one of these new rich guys, Kent Logan. What do you think?

RB:  Well they don’t buy from me. Kent Logan used to come around when he first started. He worked with a guy, a private dealer, but his taste was much more grotesque then than it is now. This is what these guys do. Kent Logan doesn’t buy the art. He has a curator.
     The majority of the people I run into from the dot com world don’t know about art. And the same thing with Kent Logan. It’s not his taste. It’s the taste of his curator who has convinced him that this is the way you should go. You’ve got to give yourself a theme. So the California College of Art did one with his grotesque things. Now he’s trying to start a new movement. I was so surprised when I went to the show and there’s Mel Ramos and Ed Ruscha, and these guys from the sixties and seventies. You know what I mean? It has become big business, all the way through.

RW:  I recently saw a show of the San Jose Museum of Art’s own collection and they have a lot of really nice stuff.

RB:  That’s right. That stuff should get out. Isn’t this what it’s all about? I mean, bringing in the Chagall shows brings you a lot of money, but it doesn’t really let the people know what the museum is about.

RW:  There seems to me to be something big and substantial going on with Asian art. You see here in SF the new Asian Museum. I’ve seen some of the new shows and the work is pretty great, actually.

RB:  I’m delighted to see that. I think it’s great that they’ve finally got a chance, especially since we’re living in a city with such a huge Asian population. They’re becoming aware what’s going on in their own country. I think it goes in spurts.

RW:  Are there more people trying to be artists today than there were in the sixties?

RB:  Oh, definitely so. When the SFAI graduates one hundred and sixty masters degrees! If ten percent of them stay on with the arts—that would be a high number. I just try to be optimistic about it. You hope that they’ve learned something and if they don’t stay in art then, later on, after they’ve made their money, at least maybe they’ll buy art because they’ve learned about art.

RW:  Its curious how we have sort of an art factory in the culture, but there’s not much to support them out there.

RB:  And it hasn’t changed much in the last forty years. Less than one percent of artists make it in the art world as artists without having to do something else.

RW:  Earlier you made the comment that you find a natural rapport with artists.

RB:  I feel that way, but they’re not my best friends. When I started this business there was a tremendous love-hate relationship between artists and dealers. They loved you for selling their work, but they hated you for taking half of their money. It all has to do with money. It started a whole way of working many years ago of artists being taken care of by dealers, getting advances against sales. This is where people like Rothko got into all that trouble with Marlborough.
    When the art world started, people had contacts with each other, the artists and the dealers. You would get a stipend against sales. If you didn’t make any sales, you owed the dealer that money. You could even take a painting in trade.
     So that painting that you took in trade was worth 500 dollars say.  You sit on it and all of the sudden the work of people like Rothko went up to hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars! So, in some respects, the dealer wasn’t wrong here. But the family wanted to take the work back and to pay back the dealer the money he’d paid. Well, this is stupid. The biggest problem, and where rapport falls down between an artist and a dealer, has to do with money.
     You have to learn how to eliminate the fact that I’m not a bank. That used to be more prevalent. With Peter Voulkos, he was sort of at the end of that era, and Sam Chakanian—in my gallery, anyway. The only two people I ever had to support money-wise were Sam Chakanian and Peter Voulkos. I think they both still owed me money when they died. With Sam Chakanian, I literally had to break off the relationship. With Voulkos, at least he gave me things. So the rapport you feel is the same as with a friend, but you can’t get too close. You can’t get so personal with so many people. Does that make any sense?

RW:  Yes. Earlier you said, “the artist is putting something on the canvas from their own soul”… And is there something intrinsically valuable about that?

RB:  Yes. People are sharing something with you. For the person doing it, it’s an unbelievably wonderful way to be able to express yourself. How many people do you know who graduate from school and they go to work and they hate their jobs?

RW:  The value of art is kind of elusive.

RB:  There are different kinds of things. This one, which I think is terrible, is that people buy art because everyone tells them they should. When I got married and put up my first house, I didn’t feel I had to go out and buy art. I needed a couch. I needed a chair. I needed dishes, but I didn’t buy any art. In my generation, we didn’t. My mother and father had a very nice house; they had a couple of paintings on the wall. I don’t know if your family had art.

RW:  No. Not particularly.

RB:  That’s it. It depends on the background that you came from, because there have always been people buying art. So going back to the value of art. It hits everyone in a different way. One, it gives people pleasure. Some feel you have to have it because it’s socially right. Some people buy art for investment like they buy old cars. People are given art and feel they should put it up. Presents, you know.

RW:  You gave that example of the important curator who said something about being touched in the gut. Maybe we need it.

RB:  Oh, I would be very unhappy if all this stuff was taken away from me.

RW:  I don’t think you read about this in the art world.

RB:  No. People don’t talk about their feelings on any subject, you know.

RW:  So are artists people who work in this arena of life, which is overlooked, this arena of hidden feeling?

RB:  Artists are very fortunate in some respects. They are doing something they want to do. I was talking last night with Bob Brady and I asked, How’s your summer going? He says, I’ve had a very productive summer. I’ve gotten a lot of work done and I have enough to do a show.
     That must be very satisfying for him, to be able to develop that body of work in that three months, because the rest of the time he teaches. The important thing is doing his art. And I thought, What a lucky guy! It’s a release that a lot of us don’t have. That’s one reason I don’t give up the gallery. What am I going to do with myself?
RW:  That’s a good point. You have to find something, right?

RB:  How do you find it? I’m talking about any kind of art. Doing something creatively must be a very satisfying thing. My creativity is through the gallery, I guess—and I knit. [laughs]

RW:  There are some things that are comforting activities. For me, occasionally just straightening up my office is comforting. You know, bringing a little order to chaos.

RB:  And “comforting” is a good word for knitting—keeps my hands going and something comes out at the end. If everybody would look at their life, at what they’re doing, and try to see a creative side to it, I think people would be much happier.

RW:  Now I see a lot of art and, to be honest, not a lot of it really touches me. But when it does, it’s a very special moment. Do you still have moments like that?

RB:  Not as often as before. This is why I add on very few artists. Every dealer is out there looking to make a star out of somebody. That’s what our business is about, stardom. All we’re supposed to be is a voice. That’s why gallery dealers got started, because artists found it very hard to sell their own work or talk about their own work.

RW:  So I’m proposing that you get something besides the money.

RB:  Well, the money is an important part of the art world because you have to exist. But you also have to have a passion for the work.

RW:  So the passion, that passion gives life, doesn’t it?

RB:  Maybe so. Maybe that’s what keeps me young. Do you think that’s what it is? [laughs]

RW:  That’s a good thing, to get your passion engaged in the world somehow.

RB:  Yes, it really is.  It’s the gallery that keeps me alive. I’m mixing with young people. I learned one thing from one of my artists. She said, as you grow older you have to have younger friends. The friends her age, bored the shit out of her. I mix with young people a lot, and I attribute it to the role I’m in.
     Frankly speaking, San Francisco is not the friendliest city in the world. I came to California with a list a mile long with names of people to call. Friends had written letters for me and I called, and not one person invited me over for a cup of coffee. It was devastating.
     So okay, I’ll make my own rules, which is what I did. Maybe that’s why the gallery business was so easy. Maybe everyone was looking for a stimulus of some sort, and California, to this day, is like that. Maybe that’s one reason why I don’t give up the gallery business. In this kind of business, as long as your head is on your body and is functioning, you don’t have to retire. I could be a cripple. But it’s the gallery that let’s me do this and I’m very fortunate to be, frankly, in good physical health. That’s very unusual at my age.

RW:  I must say, down at Jane’s party [artist Jane Rosen] a few weeks ago when I first met you, there was some music on, a samba, and you started dancing. I looked at you and I thought, My God! She’s good!

RB:  I was trained as a dancer, honey. ∆


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.  


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