The Galerie St. Etienne’s traditional summer overview once again combines a recap of the past year’s activities with a selection of recently acquired works. The art world is entering the summer on the tail end of a season that, while hardly as lustrous as some in the press would have it, was notably more active than has been the case for most of this decade. One wonders whether those pundits who, in the depths of the recession, encouraged dealers to “stay alive till ‘95” had it right after all. But if following five years of stagnation the art market is finally reviving, the scene has nonetheless changed radically since the late 1980s. Perhaps more to the point, this new market is vastly different from that which some of us knew and loved before the ‘80s threw all rational values out of whack.
Earlier in the twentieth century, the relatively embattled status of modern art fostered a certain kinship among its various partisans. The dealer, in attempting to cultivate a collector base, shared an educational mission with art critics and curators. If sometimes the boundaries blurred (as, for example, when a critic wrote an essay for a gallery catalogue, or a dealer collaborated with a museum), there was seldom cause for alarm because the entire field was so small and self-contained. By current standards, prices were comparatively low, and the presumption was that most participants were motivated by love of art, not love of money.
Despite the price “adjustments” that have taken place since 1990, people assume today that an art dealer, like a banker or a stock broker, pursues his or her profession primarily for financial gain. While there are still dealers who vigilantly pursue an educational mission, for many galleries public exhibitions are no longer necessary or even economically sensible enterprises. Modern art is not embattled any more, and it is far more lucrative to cater to the existing cadre of monied collectors than to woo new audiences. Although knowledge is more essential to intelligent collecting than ever before, the traditional scholar/dealer has become an endangered species.
In the present environment, the Galerie St. Etienne relishes its role as an anomaly. During the past year, we have if anything stepped up our commitment to mounting challenging and complex exhibitions both on our own premises and for other institutions. Last fall, we were the second and final venue for a major exhibition curated by the Des Moines Art Center: Three Berlin Artists of the Weimar Era--Hannah Höch, Käthe Kollwitz, Jeanne Mammen. This exhibition was seen by us as a prelude to a more sweeping survey of German women artists which we are presently organizing for 1997-98 in conjunction with the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, and the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. In September 1994, co-director Hildegard Bachert coordinated and wrote the catalogue for a monumental two-part Käthe Kollwitz retrospective at the Fondation Neumann in Gingins and the Musée Jenisch in Vevey, Switzerland. At the moment, the third Grandma Moses exhibition organized by us for travel to Japan may be seen at the Yasuda Kasai Museum in Tokyo (through July 30), and subsequently it will travel to Yamaguchi (August 30-September 11) and Chiba (October 13-30). Co-director Jane Kallir is coordinating the Egon Schiele loans for a major survey of fin-de-siècle Austrian art being mounted at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, from September 22 to December 3. Under discussion is the possibility of reworking our highly acclaimed recent exhibition On the Brink 1900--2000 for circulation to American museums before the end of the century.
The resurgence of interest in self-taught art has caused the Galerie St. Etienne to redouble its longstanding commitment to this field. Newly arrived paintings by John Kane and Horace Pippin are among the highlights of our summer exhibition. Recent acquisitions by Earl Cunningham--who has been hailed by Roberta Smith of The New York Times as “fantastic in both senses of the word”--round out this segment of the exhibition, along with a selection of works by Grandma Moses, Lawrence Lebduska and Nikifor. Although, with the possible exception of Henri Rousseau, self-taught artists have never been accorded full equality within the mainstream modernist tradition, the persistence of the genre throughout the twentieth century is indicative of its enduring importance. By repeatedly placing such works in their historical context, we hope eventually to achieve for them the respect that they deserve.
Lately the Galerie St. Etienne has mounted at least one exhibition each year focusing on a specific aspect of German art (as opposed to the Austrian Expressionism for which we are best known). As a result, our current survey includes a number of pieces in various media by Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Erich Heckel, Max Klinger, Käthe Kollwitz, Jeanne Mammen, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein. Needless to say, no St. Etienne round-up would be complete without a representative sampling of works by Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. In this case, we are especially pleased to have acquired a very beautiful, fully worked up early portrait drawing by Klimt (checklist #17) and two exceptionally poignant watercolors of children by Schiele (checklist #s 51 & 52).
We believe that the current exhibition, as well as our recent activities, amply evidence that there is still a place for the scholar/dealer. More to the point, we feel that the ongoing separation of art-for-art’s-sake from art-as-commerce serves no one’s long-term interests. Unless collecting is conditioned by knowledge, intelligence and taste, it will ultimately lack a cogent economic base. There are no short-cuts for the truly astute collector, and no viable substitutes for a well informed dealer.