Many people seem to feel a bit intimidated by art galleries. The private (commercial) kind, that is. Sure, in a big public art museum, you know to speak softly. You know not to eat, drink, or use a camera with a flash bulb. You must not touch the paintings. You should not get close enough to breathe on them. Still, you can feel safely un-noticed among the crowd. Even the museum guards seem benign, there simply to tell you how to find the elevators or the nearest restroom.
But a private gallery seems to raise all kinds of nervousness. Some people lurk in the doorway, ready to bolt if the gallery staff make a move in their direction. Some answer a Good Morning smile from the gallery person with an apologetic ‘I’m only looking.’ Sometimes the refrain is uttered in a defensive tone that clearly translates as ‘Don’t think you can pressure me into buying anything.’ Some folk, bless their hearts, ask ‘Is there an admission charge?’
You would not do any of those things in any other kind of shop. And no matter how lavish its furnishings, how celebrated its artists or rarefied their price tags, however chic and haughty its staff may seem – it is only a shop. Its business is to sell artworks, and you are a potential customer. If not today, then perhaps some future day. So, just relax and enjoy your visit. Looking costs you nothing. And any gallery person who comes on like The Dragon Lady is a fool, as well as rude. Let me tell you a true story, with a happy ending, that shows the wisdom of the old saying: ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover.’ It happened on a Friday when a friend was visiting me at the gallery. We watched a chap hesitate in the doorway. I called out to let him know he was welcome to come in.
‘I’m a bit grubby. Been working in the yard.’ He gestured at his clothing: battered baseball cap, well-worn tee shirt over mud-splattered denim shorts, rubber thongs. I told him that the paintings wouldn’t even notice, then left him to browse until he made it clear he had some queries. For nearly an hour, I answered his intelligent questions, told him the stories behind each painting, and enjoyed discussing our shared interest in Australian history.
After he had left, my friend wore a bemused expression as he said: I will never know why you spend so much time on people like that.’ In reply to my question, he answered: ‘Well, you know. Dressed like that. Obviously he cannot buy one of your paintings.’ This is a man who is innately kind and tolerant but is always trying to get me to take a more ‘businesslike’ attitude.
A bit miffed, I countered that if I had to calculate whether a visitor was ‘worth’ my spending time on, I would never be able to enjoy my day in the gallery. ‘Anyway,’ I snapped, ‘in my experience, artists could starve if they relied on the people who look as if they were buyers.’ In fact, they were the reason I stopped giving opening night galas in the days when I exhibited other artists.
They used to arrive loaded with gold chains and flashing their diamonds – and that was only the men! – breathlessly announcing the Volvo or Beamer (it was never just ‘the car’) was double- parked outside. They would stay long enough to make sure that the press photographer had snapped them and got their names right. Then they were off. To the next party, no doubt. I had found my real collectors are solid, self-made people who had earned their wealth and feel no need to impress others. They want quality and know it when they see it.
So, as you can imagine, it was hard for me to resist being smug when my friend returned later that day, to hear I had received a phone call from the wife of the ‘grubby’ visitor. She said he had come home ‘raving’ about one of the paintings and she wanted to buy it as a surprise for him. He would be flying out on business the next day, so the earliest she could come in to the gallery was 10am Monday, after she had seen him off. Was there any way I would hold the painting for her? I promised to put a red sticker on it right away.
At exactly 10am Monday, she was there with cheque book in hand. Only then did we discover that this unpretentious pair owned a multi-million dollar business that made headlines in the local newspaper when they had recently sold it. © Dorothy Gauvin