Wednesday, March 09, 2011

WCP's last word on Fraser Gallery closing

For Catriona Fraser, the Fraser Gallery’s decade-and-a-half run in Georgetown and Bethesda ended on a simple note: “Nobody was buying any artwork from me.”

Case in point: the 10th Annual International Photography Competition, one of the gallery’s best-known feature exhibitions, which just closed at Fraser’s remaining outpost in downtown Bethesda.

The work is affordable, with most of it priced under $500. The work has been seen: The opening reception, Fraser says, was “heaving with people.” And the work is good: Washington City Paper called the exhibit “impressive.”

Yet Fraser did not make a single sale. And so on March 1, following several Bethesda galleries that have recently met the same fate, Fraser Gallery announced it is closing at the end of the month.
Read the article by Kriston Capps and Lou Jacobson here.

Update: Here's the whole text of my email to the CP in response to their request for input:
When my then wife Catriona and I opened the first Fraser Gallery in 1996 in Georgetown, our first two shows almost sold out, we got a huge article in the Washington Post, and I recall Kate and I saying, "WOW, this is gonna be easy."

It wasn't and as we learned, building an art gallery required not only an immense amount of hard work, but also realizing that it is a labor of love, and that more often than not, your finances are getting by (if you're lucky) by the skin of your teeth. Our mantra always was: "the artists get paid first, then the bills."

Catriona was 24 years old when we opened Fraser in Georgetown in 1996; perhaps the youngest ever gallery co-owner in DC history, and she applied herself to the task of co-running Fraser gallery with a ferocity and gusto that was a key ingredient to Fraser's success over the next 15 years.

In my opinion we established a very distinct gallery presence from day one. When we announced that we would focus on contemporary realism - which we described back then as "realism with a bite" - and photography, every one told us that we'd be closed within a year, and that first year, in spite of the great success of those two initial shows, was very tough and more often than not we were using our financial backers (Mr. Visa and Mr. Mastercard) to pay the artists and the gallery's bills.

But a presence we did establish, and we'd get reviewed 4-5 a year in the Post and 1-2 a year in the Times and it seems like every other month in the City Paper (ahhhh... the good ole days), and in spite of the fact that we stayed tightly focused on our gallery focus, we kept doing better and better each year, and continued to argue against the "norm" that only the almost 100-year-old genre of abstraction was "contemporary" for a cutting edge gallery. What abstraction was instead, we felt, was "safe" and perhaps even easier to sell. Try looking at a Chawky Frenn painting for a while - hard to sell, but deserving of a two-page spread review in the New York Times.

We also began to add focus and presence to a whole new set of local artists. Both Erik Sandberg and Andrew Wodzianski (now well-known DMV artists) received their first solo shows at Fraser, while both of them were still MFA students. And Tim Tate's first solo show (which sold out) was also at Fraser... where he went on to have multiple solos over the years.

We also focused a lot of time on photography, and "rediscovered" Lida Moser's wonderful archives of her amazing photography from the past 60 years. Other noted photographers such as Maxwell MacKenzie, Joyce Tenneson, etc. also had multiple solos at Fraser.

A decade ago, almost by accident we decided to put together a show focusing on Cuban artists, and as result eventually we brought to the DC area some of the best contemporary Cuban artists in the world, usually giving them their first solo shows in the US or DC and placing many of them in US museums.

Fraser was also a leading online pioneer, and to this day has the most extensive online presence of any DMV gallery, with nearly 15 years of archived shows and artwork. As I recall, when we opened in 1996, we were only one of 2-3 DC galleries with a website! A few years later we became one of the charter dealers for Sotheby's during their online ventures and by 2001 we were the second largest Sotheby's online dealer in the world. A lot of DMV artists (including myself) owe their secondary market record to that joint venture between Fraser and Sotheby's.

When the art fairs came into vogue, Fraser was also one of the first galleries to start doing them, perhaps only after the now-closed Fusebox Gallery. To this day Fraser brings its artists to fairs in New York, Boston and Miami, still one of less than 5-6 DMV galleries that take the huge financial risk of doing an art fair.

I left Fraser in 2006 and Catriona has been running the gallery alone since then. For reasons that only she knows, we haven't spoken since, even though we had remained partners until the day of my last show at Fraser in August of 2006 (which the City Paper covered in a huge article). I don't know her reasons for closing the gallery, but I wish her the best in her future endeavors.

This is a huge loss for the cultural tapestry of the DMV art scene. Fraser, for all intents and purposes, was the only remaining art star in Bethesda, as other galleries have been closing in the last few years. The opening of the Bethesda gallery in 2002 made us feel like we had accomplished what no one else had ever done successfully in DC: run two galleries at once, which we did until 2005 for three glorious years of 24 shows a year to organize, curate, hang and publicize.

With the loss of Fraser, Bethesda also loses a champion in the visual arts. It was through the hard work and influence of Fraser Gallery that the Trawick Prize and the Bethesda Painting Awards were created; still the two largest individual art awards in the region. It was through the hard work and influence of the Fraser Gallery that the Bethesda Fine Arts Festival - the highest ranked outdoor fine arts show in Maryland and one of the top 100 such shows in the nation - was created.

And with the loss of Fraser, and ins spite of critics always trying to tell a gallerist how to do his/her business, the sharpest eye in representational art with a bite and social commentary goes away.

Ten years of my life don't go away, because the memories of all the great art, all the great artists, and all the great openings (the DMV will definitely miss that famous Fraser sangria) will live with me forever.

Call me if you'd like to chat about anything else...




Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about the closing. I bought the very first painting sold by the Bethesda gallery on their opening night. Although I no longer live in Bethesda (or the Metro DC area for that matter), I share in the community's loss of an outstanding gallery.

Rosetta DeBerardinis said...

Thank you and Catronia for your hard work and the investment in DMV artists. It will be missed indeed!
Best wishes to Kate.
Rosetta DeBerardinis