Saturday, October 2, 2010

While it still exists, let me tell you about the Gallery (Babble)

This is not quite a eulogy, because that would be premature, but it’s hard to know the days are numbered for something you love and not be in mourning.

My parents have run their own art gallery in Michigan for nearly my entire life.  It began in Detroit as a joint venture with friends called ‘The Klein Vogel Gallery,’ and moved farther north to Royal Oak to eventually become ‘The Arnold Klein Gallery.’  My father is an expert in fine prints and books, and my mother is a talented artist who has provided for her family primarily through her work doing custom framing.  Running their own business has meant that they didn’t have a clear plan for being able to retire, but my dad is in his eighties and the economy in the Detroit area has become depressingly bad, so my parents announced recently that as of Valentine’s Day, 40 years to the day that it opened, the gallery will close its doors.

I can’t quite imagine life without the gallery.   It’s been an extension of my childhood home as long as I can remember.  On more than one occasion when there was a power outage in our neighborhood and we’d drive the 15 minutes north to the gallery to make dinner on the hot plate or simply hang out where the heat was working.  Works of art would move back and forth between the two locations.  We grew up looking at exceptionally beautiful things on our walls, the only downside to that being that every once in a while I would ask something like, “What happened to that print of the zoo I had in my room?” and hear, “Oh, it sold.”

In my home growing up, rearranging pictures was common and regarded as pretty simple.  The first time I saw someone else hang pictures I was surprised at what a production it was.  There was measuring and tape and pencils and pondering and it took my aunt and uncle all evening to hang three things.  They could see I was confused and they just said, “Well, we’re not your parents, we don’t do this all the time so we have to be careful.”  My best friend is married to an engineer and when I volunteered to help them hang a print I’d given them as a wedding gift, he couldn’t believe I’d hung it before he had a chance to get his ruler and his level.  I simply hung it where it looked good, because that’s all there is to it.  If you’re off, pull out the nail and move it over.  My friend’s husband just kept asking, “But how do you know it’s really centered?”  And I explained that if it looked right it was right.  It could measure out perfectly and look wrong sometimes.  It’s not science, it’s art.  It’s one of my odd little life skills that I learned at the gallery.

(Baby Quinn crawling around the gallery in 2007)

The Arnold Klein Gallery is located on Woodward Avenue.  Woodward is the Detroit area’s main drag.  (The first mile of paved road was on Woodward around 6 Mile by the original Ford factory.)  It runs at a weird slant through the city and suburbs and for years people suffered with an uncoordinated address numbering system that meant every new place Woodward ran through the numbers changed, so you could be driving along looking for something and the numbers would go from the 200’s to the 9000’s and down to the 3000’s in a matter of blocks.  The original address was N 4520, but at some point someone declared that all the numbers on all of Woodward needed to go in an order people could understand, and the address changed to 32782 (and the N vs S distinction was removed in the new scheme).  I had to look up that second number because I’ve never gotten used to it.  (In my head the address is always 0254 N in a mirror image because I spent most of my time looking at it from the indoor side of the glass.)

Detroit is designed with driving in mind, so Woodward is not an easy place to walk.  When I was in college I would ‘gallery sit’ for my parents on occasion so they could travel together somewhere, and I remember sending a friend who came to hang out with me on one of those days down the street to get lunch.  It took her forever because she couldn’t tell where she was from the sidewalk.  She had to keep walking out near where the cars were zooming by to see any of the signs, because that was where they were intended to be viewed from.  Woodward was not an easy location to run an art gallery, among the dry cleaners and audio stores and ever changing restaurants.  But it was a street anyone could find, and my parents made it work for decades.

(Happy Mona in the gallery)
The gallery was generally quiet.  Because of its location foot traffic was not really a possibility, so customers had to know where to find it.  My parents established a loyal clientele, but an average day at the gallery was usually empty with my mom working furiously in the back.  When I opened my own business I envisioned having uninterrupted time to build instruments or write a novel, but my husband pointed out that that idea was based on what happened in the front half of my parents’ gallery, not my mom’s half.  It’s very unusual for me to have a day at the violin store where no one comes in, but at the gallery it was normal, and kind of nice from a kid’s point of view (as opposed to a grown up with bills to pay point of view).  I used to occasionally go with my dad on some Saturdays to keep him company.  I would wear a nice dress, and we’d have soup and crackers for lunch.  (For some reason we always had different soup at the gallery than we had at home, and oyster crackers and Lorna Doones never made it to our house either that I can recall.)  There was a hobby shop a couple of blocks down called Tiny Tim’s that my dad used to let me walk down to after lunch.  He’d pay me $5 for working at the gallery and I would buy model tanks to put together the rest of the time I was there.  Other regular activities my brothers and I did when we ‘worked’ at the gallery were arrange the mat and frame samples, organize dad’s desk drawers, stack the acrylic blocks my mom used to lay prints flat, draw with brown and black felt tip pens, and make small sculptures out of kneaded erasers.  One of our favorite games if we were all there together was to flip through the display bins of prints and try to come up with an adjective to describe the next piece of art before we saw it.  (“Blue.  Yay!  That one’s mostly blue!  Happy.  No that one looks pretty sad.  Messy.  No, those flowers are pretty neat.  Exciting.  Hey, I think those scribbles are kind of exciting!”  Etc.)  There was crazy brown shag carpeting to roll around on, warm juice to drink (until my parents added a mini fridge to the bathroom, so cold drinks are still kind of a thrill to me when I’m there even though that’s ancient news), classical music on the radio, and time to think.

When I was in sixth grade my class went to the gallery for a field trip to see a one man show by Dick Cruger whose work is playful, dramatic, and fun.  I was so proud to have my class in what felt like my home, and that there were so many cool things to show them.  Dick Cruger himself was there to give a tour of the show, and he’d made a box of simple foam-rubber alligators to pass out to all the kids to keep.  (I kept mine for years until the green faded to yellow and it became too worn to be recognizable.)
There have been so many marvelous shows at the gallery over the years that it makes my head spin a bit to think about them all.  My parents were able to showcase the artists they knew and admired, and often they were people my brothers and I just knew as family friends.  William H. Peck is an Egyptologist my parents knew from their days at the Detroit Institute of Arts, but he also did wonderful origami and they gave him a whole show of his charming work.  We knew Donella Vogel and Larry Blovits who have done our portraits.  I met Arthur Secuda one time in the gallery when he was showing my dad some new pastels he’d done, and I got to title one.   There are so many wonderful artists to have made appearances at the gallery, like Lynn Shaler, Bob Mirek, Carole Harris (she made us a pillow for a wedding gift that I keep in our living room), Megan Parry….  I’m leaving out dozens more I can name off the top of my head, but it’s too much for this post.
There were some great theme shows at the gallery, too, where they would have just trees, or each artist would get a number or a letter of the alphabet.  One of my favorites was a show of prints of birds and fish.  My dad came up with a list of possible titles for the show, and he and my mom decided they liked the list as a whole better than any individual line, so the announcement card for the show was:

Many Birds, Few Fish
Many Birds and a Few Fish
Forty Birds and a Few Fish
Forty-four Birds and a Few Fish
Fifty Birds, Fewer Fish
Fifty Feathered Friends and a Few Fish

(Anytime I have ‘many’ of anything I tack on in my head, “And a few fish.”  I have many violins, and a few fish.)

I’m pretty sure my dad still hand addresses and stamps all of the announcement cards for a show.  That was quite a production when we were kids, doing an assembly line of sorts at the dining room table, where we’d fold letters or stuff envelopes or put on stamps (before self-adhesives, so we used a damp sponge in a little dish to wet each one).  My dad was very particular that everything was straight and neat, and to this day it bugs me if I accidentally put a stamp on crooked.

(Quinn helping my dad at the gallery)

Forty years is a long time for a gallery to survive.  My parents used to apologize to us as kids when we couldn’t afford to do something (not that we ever lacked for anything that mattered) saying, “We’re sorry, you’re supposed to be rich and then open up an art gallery, because it doesn’t work the other way around.”  Everything in Detroit hinges on the health of the auto industry, and that they managed to keep their business running all this time despite the ups and downs of GM, Ford and Chrysler is amazing.  They may not have gotten rich, but they have been an overwhelming success.  They have much to be proud of.

I’m going to miss the gallery.  I know my parents are excited to be moving on to new projects and will enjoy the freedom that comes with not being tied down to a business, so I’m happy for them.  But it’s a real loss to the community that the Arnold Klein Gallery won’t be around anymore.  If you happen to find yourself in Royal Oak, Michigan before Valentine’s Day, go check it out.  It’s one of my favorite places to be.

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