As gallery owner Kathy Albers reaches a milestone, she explains her philosophy of art and why the business still scares her.
By Cory Dugan
SEPTEMBER 13, 1999: In 1984, Kathy Albers borrowed $6,000 and rented one-fourth of a small quadplex office building on Yates Road just south of Poplar. On the surface, it doesn't sound like either a historic or a particularly auspicious occasion. If, however, one were writing a chronicle of the Memphis art scene, it would have to be counted as a significant event.
Albers is a physical personification of her gallery and the art it exhibits: small, ordered, graceful, and finely crafted. Seated behind the large glass-topped desk in her office, she smiles shyly and nervously rearranges a few stacks of paper that are probably already organized. Her voice is soft but even and assured.
"If I'd known then what I know now," she declares with a measured, whispery laugh, "I would have been really scared."
In the beginning there was Alice.
At least that's the common lore regarding the history of commercial art galleries in Memphis. Like most common lore, it's not quite accurate. This writer dimly recalls the Oates Gallery, perversely stuffy on Tillman at Poplar, purveying European paintings and Oriental rugs along with work by the occasional local college art professor. Surely there were efforts that predated even those ancient memories.
But it was indeed Alice Bingham's little storefront gallery, opened in 1979 on Cooper Street (currently the site of the restaurant KøTo), that set the standard and the tone for the galleries to come. When Albers Fine Art Gallery opened its doors five years later, all the way across town from the lone competition, Kathy Albers had just completed a degree in fine arts at the University of Memphis. Her motivation was simple: "I just figured that one gallery in a town this size wasn't enough to handle the artists who deserved representation or the broader base of clientele that was developing.
"I opened this gallery on a shoestring," she recalls. "I wouldn't recommend that anyone follow my example. It wouldn't work today."
Albers should know what works. In 15 years, she's had a front row seat for the comings and goings, the trends and trials, of the local gallery scene. Eaton Gallery opened a few years later, down the street from Bingham. Lisa Kurts opened her first gallery downtown in a Front Street loft in 1987. Jay Etkin started up his then-alternative Cooper Street Gallery in the then-nascent Cooper-Young district.
In the ensuing years, Kathy Albers has seen Alice Bingham and Lisa Kurts move into her neighborhood -- along with several now-defunct upstarts -- and then merge with one another; eventually Kurts absorbed Bingham. Ledbetter Lusk emerged and opened its showcase gallery a wee bit west in Laurelwood. All the while, Cooper Street Gallery has nobly held down the original fort in Midtown and recently celebrated its own 10th anniversary. And, of course, there were numerous "alternative" galleries that opened and closed with little lasting impact.
Kathy Albers has seen 15 years' worth of galleries come and go, and throughout -- at any given time -- the magic number has always hovered around four successful galleries. Is there any chance in the foreseeable future that Memphis could support more?
"No," Albers says flatly. "The market simply isn't there."
In the midst and yet somehow remaining on the outskirts, Kathy Albers managed to carve a quiet and thoughtful little niche for her gallery. Perhaps not as flashy or as trend-conscious or as potentially cutting-edge as some of the other galleries in town (past or present), Albers Gallery has built a stable reputation for handling mature, mainly conservative, well-crafted artwork -- with a tendency toward the three-dimensional.
"Any gallery's 'niche' is really a reflection of the interests and the attitudes of the owner," Albers says. "I've always tried to strike a balance between two- and three-dimensional art. That's my focus; that's an internal vision. I'm convinced that people should own both. As a result, we sell more 3-D work than any other gallery in the city -- maybe in the state and the Mid-South region."
Albers' collection of artists comprises a fairly wide range: from the stately color fields of Burton Callicott to the figural concoctions of Iris Harkavy, from the Mississippi-fauve fancies of Walter Anderson to the Asian-inspired claywork of Sang Roberson, from the broadly layered abstractions of painter Michael Barringer to the meticulously knotted miniatures of fiber artist Patti Lechman. If there is a common thread in the work of the Albers' stable, it is a consummate degree of craftsmanship. Whether one likes the work or not (this writer sometimes wishes for a little more meat on those well-made bones), it's hard to deny technical excellence.
"I have a good eye for craftsmanship," Albers claims confidently. "Maybe more so than other gallery owners. And I'm very stern with my artists about it. I may like and respect a lot of art, but if it isn't crafted well, I have a problem promoting it and selling it."
When broaching the topic of craftsmanship, it's difficult to avoid the first syllable of the term -- especially in a gallery where clay, glass, fiber, and sculptural furniture often play a starring role. The old, high wall between art and craft has been deteriorating rapidly over the past decade, and Albers counts herself among the forerunners of recognizing those trends.
"I've always seen it that way," Albers says of the increasing legitimacy of former "crafts" in the art world. But she sees the movement toward one another going both ways. "These days, for example, you see painters pushing the element of texture and tactile dimension. At the same time, the craftspeople have pushed the boundaries -- more so than the painters -- and pushed their materials beyond what they're expected to do, into the realm of sculpture. It's been fun to watch and gratifying to realize that your intuitive sense was correct all along."
Part of Albers' mission statement, used in her marketing materials for several years, comes to mind: "Art is the essence of being in touch with human qualities as they are shaped against a technical world." It's a romantic notion, one that could have been penned at the turn of the last century as a paean to the Human Hand pitted against the Industrial Revolution. Of course, it reads equally as well through the Machine Age and into the present Computer Age, and is a fitting sutra for someone whose dictum for exhibition is that there be "a human relationship between the viewer and the art."
What about the human relationship between the artist and the gallery? When it's suggested that artists might not be the easiest people in the world to get along with, Albers laughs: "Neither are gallery owners."
Some galleries view artists as valuable commodities, some as necessary evils; some view them as contract laborers, some as full partners. "I see this business as a very personal business. I take the relationships with both artists and clients very seriously," Albers says. "And I've been very fortunate with the artists I've dealt with over the years. They're very nice people, and I value my relationship with them. I've always been honest with them; they've always been paid. They always know where they stand, what's going on, and where their work is."
"I trust Kathy, I respect her, and most of all I like her," says Patti Lechman, who has been represented by Albers for 13 years. "She instills loyalty. I sell most of my work out of town, but she's nurtured a few devoted collectors here in Memphis. I've stuck with her, and I'll stick with her until the very end."
"Kathy keeps a low-key presence, but it's worked very well with her approach to the business," says David Lusk, of Ledbetter Lusk Gallery. "She's great at educating young clients who never thought about investing in art, much less about what 'art' means."
Beauty is not a term one hears very often these days in regard to art. But Kathy Albers uses it pretty freely and without a trace of embarrassment. "If I hadn't had the beauty of the things that have surrounded me for the past 15 years," she says, "I wouldn't be the person I am today. I can't imagine not living with it. I never lived with it before the gallery. The past 15 years have made me who I am."
But who is Kathy Albers?
She's very shy and yet she's very aggressive about the art she believes in. She's the very quiet force behind the longest-lasting art gallery in local history. And she's still scared.
"Are we going to be dinosaurs in few years?" she asks nervously. She's worried about the future of art galleries in the age of the Internet, with proliferating online auctions and art sales. "I still believe art has to be experienced in person, seen and touched, but I have to wonder what the Internet's going to do to the gallery business.
"I wish I could relax. Even 15 years later, I come in every morning worried, 'Are we gonna make it?'"
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