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History of gallery speaks much about culture and life

September 23, 2010

In 1872, a young man named Charles W. Kraushaar began working with William Schaus, an American agent of the noted Parisian print publisher and art dealer, Goupil, who had and opened his own gallery.

Thirteen years later, Kraushaar opened his own gallery in New York City, selling artists’ materials, photogravures, prints and frames. The gallery’s first business day brought in $5.

Over the next 100 years, three Kraushaars – Charles Kraushaar and his younger brother John, then John’s daughter Antoinette – ran the gallery, with Antoinette at the helm until 1988. Antoinette sold the gallery to Carol Pesner and Katherine Degn, and this year, Kraushaar Galleries reached a historic milestone by celebrating 125 years in business.

The remarkable story of Kraushaar Galleries – one of just four New York City galleries to survive from the 1800s – has been told by Betsy Fahlman, professor of art history in the Herberger School of Art at ASU, in a beautifully bound book titled “Kraushaar Galleries: Celebrating 125 Years,” published by the gallery.

The following is a Q&A with Fahlman about the book and gallery, and more specifically why a book about the New York City gallery also serves as a tale of entrepreneurship, perseverance, imagination, the changes in American and European art over the years, and women’s roles in the art world, among other things. The 96-page book is illustrated with numerous color reproductions of paintings by the artists Kraushaar represented, so it also is a short course in art history.

How did you happen to write this book?

There are several threads to answering the “happen” part. The path in these projects is rarely a straight line!

The really simple answer is “they asked me to.” Kraushaar was turning 125 years old, and wanted to do something to mark the occasion. But they wouldn’t have asked me to if I hadn’t already done a lot of research and was well acquainted with the gallery already. The project started small, but ended up being nearly 100 pages, more than 25 color illustrations, and hardcover.

Here’s the rest of the story.

I had several major publications coming to completion: “New Deal Art in Arizona,” “Wonders of Work and Labor: The Steidle Collection of American Industrial Art,” and “Chimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth's Late Paintings of Lancaster.” I didn’t want to dive into another major until I’d cleared my decks of those. But once that had happened, I began to think seriously about my next big research project.

I had first encountered Kraushaar Galleries and Antoinette Kraushaar while I was an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College, and in a senior seminar in 1973. The professor had us choose from a stack of old photographs or art works, and I chose Guy Pène du Bois. The artist eventually became the subject of my dissertation (completed in 1981). Kraushaar had handled his work for 30 years, until the artist broke with them in 1947. DuBois studied with Robert Henri, the leader of The Eight, a group of urban realists working at the turn of the 20th century.

That led to a book, “Guy Pène du Bois: Painter of Modern Life.” This was the first time I had been able to use the Kraushaar Galleries papers, which had been given to the Archives of American Art only a few years earlier. That yielded more than 400 pages of photocopies of unpublished letters.

Then, I was invited to contribute an essay, “The Art Spirit in the Classroom: Educating the Modern Woman Artist,” to “American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945.” That was a wonderful project: an all-woman team working on an all-woman project!

Finally, I was invited to write a history of James Graham & Sons for their 150th anniversary: “James Graham & Sons: A Century and a Half in the Art Business.”

Graham and Kraushaar are two of only four galleries remaining in New York City from the 19th century.

So, when the time came to tackle a new project for my sabbatical in spring 2009, a history of Kraushaar Galleries was a clear choice. I was well acquainted with their papers from my research on Guy Pène du Bois, the American urban realists of the first half of the 20th century were a strong interest, and I had enjoyed writing the history of Graham. Bingo. The slot machine aligned with the word “Kraushaar.”

How long did you work on it?

Intensively, I worked on this over a two-year period. I was fortunate to get two Short Term Visitor Grants from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Archives of American Art (both part of the Smithsonian Institution), to do several months of research in the Archives of American Art. The gallery also funded a month in Washington, D.C. I could only use part of the material in the Kraushaar book: I still have boxes of photocopies sitting on my study floor, as I plan a larger study.

During this time, I also guest-curated a documents exhibition at the New York Office of the Archives of American Art of letters, ledgers, photographs and exhibition catalogues, which opened in September 2010.

What was your research material like? Did the gallery have a lot of records and archives?

I love archival projects. There is something wonderful about letters (you’ve got mail!) and the first-hand view they give you of the artists, their art works, and the period in which they worked. I go to Maine every summer, visiting Monhegan Island and Deer Isle. On one of my trips to Washington, I was delighted to find a letter written in the 1940s by gallery artist Karl Schrag. He summered on Deer Isle, and was describing the coast and pointy fir trees I had just seen!

Kraushaar has about 90 boxes of archival material (I have only eight boxes left to go), and they are a gold mine of information regarding museums, collectors, artists and the gallery business. The many ledgers (including the entry dating from the first day they were open, Sept. 7, 1885) represent an amazing amount of primary material. The gallery has donated much of their historical archival material to AAA, but still possesses a lot of material, and were wonderfully cooperative in giving me access.

Were there any surprises?

You betcha! I had no idea how much European art they had dealt through the end of the ‘20s (that ended with the great stock market crash). It was a surprise to discover the major works by Picasso, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and others they had sold to leading collectors, including Chester Dale, Duncan Phillips, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.

They also handled a lot of French Barbizon and Dutch landscapes and peasant scenes. I also had no idea how much American modernist work they had handled. For instance, they maintained a 20-year relationship with Charles Demuth’s work, both in the artist’s life time and then with his estate. They probably sold more work than Alfred Stieglitz, long regarded as the artist’s primary gallery. There is also a good woman’s story in their papers. Not only did they handle some significant women artists, but Antoinette Kraushaar worked for the gallery for 70 years (beginning about 1917)—at a time when there were very, very few women in the business.

What does the longevity of the gallery say about the place of art in our lives?

It perhaps says more about the hard work and persistence of the gallery to remain in business over the years: it is a tough market. But the business aimed to sell to customers who felt art was important in their lives. Many galleries are eager for the high-end sale to a big collector, but Kraushaar developed the market for its artists over the long term, which is why they maintained relationships with several of their artists for 30, 40 and 50 years (that is an unusual loyalty on both sides). If you include the artist’s estates, that time line lengthens. They sold a good deal to major collectors and museums, but their bread and butter was the smaller collector and many smaller art institutions.

Anything else you think is important?

Despite the richness of resources, and well-organized archives, to construct the story still takes a lot of work to transform primary material into a narrative that is engaging and makes sense. That is a process that has always fascinated me as a scholar: matching a letter with an artist’s work, tracking it to a museum collection and winnowing out the period voice to tell a good story.

I plan a larger study of Kraushaar, as there was so much I could not put into this publication.