This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 24, 2013: When Pat Thurman closed the door on her career as executive vice president with MasterCard, she and her artist husband opened the door on another: art gallery ownership. Much more than a business, 10th Street Art Gallery, 419 N. 10th St., was also a calling in its focus on the work of African-America artists including co-owner Solomon Thurman.
But during the two years since, dreams and purpose have often been bogged down by day-to-day struggles that have more to do with money than art.
“I have my days when we’re not selling anything, and I remind myself, ‘OK, Pat, there’s a bigger vision here,’” Pat Thurman said.
Now, the Thurmans are set to launch a new business model. They’ve also joined a new group of black gallery owners, banding together to spread the passion and ease the strain. In all, eight St. Louis-area organizations make up the Alliance of Black Art Galleries.
“I believe we can all benefit through collaboration,” Thurman said.
Charging artists to display their work, selling more prints, bringing in appraisers and offering a greater number of less expensive pieces are among the changes 10th Street anticipates.
“Beginning collectors may not really have $1,000 or more to buy a piece but they may have $100,” Thurman said.
Thurman believes she and her husband can keep fine-tuning their business model while furthering their mission by deepening connections with other gallerists including Freida Wheaton, whose private residential gallery, Salon 53, has been open since 2007. It was Wheaten who conceived the idea of the Alliance of Black Galleries, and in August called a meeting of the prospective members at the St. Louis Art Museum’s Panorama restaurant.
Wheaton’s retirement from her corporate law career last year has freed her up to pursue the idea. The concept gained traction in her mind after the Regional Arts Commission published an economic impact study in June 2012 revealing the arts to be $582 million industry in St. Louis.
"We want to know that black businesses and black artists are sharing in that largess,” Wheaton said.
But the Alliance is also about much more than money. Its aims — cooperation, information-sharing and public demonstration of mutual support — can’t always be measured. Toward those goals, the organization is brainstorming a number of proposed steps:
- Instituting a coordinated annual exhibition: "St. Louis” is the planned 2014 theme, with an eye on partnering with STL250’s celebration of St. Louis’ 250th birthday.
- Establishing an annual, two-day gallery tour: In this vein, on Saturday, Sept. 28 five Alliance galleries will be part of a one-day hop sponsored by the St. Louis Art Museum’s Friends of African and African American Art (FAAA) collectors circle. There’s still time to join FAAA, for a fee of $250 for two, and be part of the private event and other activities.
- Combining connections: Alliance members could help artists by putting together their resources, including relationships with local and out-of-town art collectors.
- Sharing art-fair expenses: Splitting the cost of booths at fairs ranging from the St. Louis Art Fair to the National Black Fine Art Show could make art fairs affordable.
- Holding bimonthly discussions among gallerists and quarterly salons for invited guests: Salons would include informational sessions for artists about exhibiting their work.
[We’ll ask them,] "where do you want to show? Do you want to show at the Contemporary Art Museum, and what does it take to do that?” Wheaton said.
Broader reach, growing awareness
Robert Powell, of Portfolio Gallery, 3514 Delmar Blvd., is cautiously optimistic about the Alliance. The importance of African-American art is a story that Powell’s been telling for 24 years. Now he wants to start a new chapter: selling his building and using part of the proceeds to fund a granting organization focusing primarily on African-American artists and arts organizations.
“The Regional Arts Commission, Missouri Arts Council and Arts and Education Council are all doing something good, but we need more,” Powell said.
Powell envisions his granting entity as one that would benefit artists of every race.
“Although African-American artists are probably in the most need, we want to help all artists — black, white, Asian — in St. Louis,” Powell said.
Similarly, Wheaton would entertain a broader reach for the Alliance of Black Art Galleries. She would consider "Bruno David or any of the other galleries downtown or in West County” for inclusion if they could demonstrate their interest in the Alliance’s mission.
Alliance member Dail Chambers of Gya Community Art Gallery, 2700 Locust, also sees a larger goal for the new association of art galleries.
"I think it will build more arts awareness in general,” Chambers said.
Chambers, an artist herself, initially didn’t think Gya "would last a year.” Now, with a three-year history, the non-profit, volunteer-run collective stands a better chance of getting grants. Donations also make up a big part of Gya’s budget. The gallery is hoping to reach a recent $3,000 fundraising goal for workshops focused on socio-economics and the arts.
"We’re moving in a direction now where I think we’ll be around for a while,” Chambers said.
Chambers and other members of the Alliance of Black Art Galleries seem to be in step with a larger trend. Appreciation for African and African-American art has experienced significant growth in the past 15 years, according to Renee Brummell Franklin, community and public programs director at the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Many of the members of the more than 100 Friends of SLAM's African and African-American Art collectors circle are not people of color, illustrating a growing overall awareness of the importance of black artists. Franklin sees this shift in myriad ways. Even many non-scholars now recognize that Pablo Picasso was influenced by African art. And there's a growing inclusion of African-Americans in lists of important artists in history.
"The average person may name Van Gogh or Monet,” Franklin said. "But more and more, especially young people, will include names like Jacob Lawrence. It’s a societal change."