Despite volumes in print about Gillows, in the world of English antiques, certainly as pertains to American collectors, this preeminent maker is surprisingly unknown. With its origins in the northwest of England in Lancaster, Gillows was able to forge excellent craftsmanship with the selection of some of the best timbers, given its proximity to Liverpool, a major port for the importation of exotic timbers. In our Jump Start sale, we have a Regency period small sideboard. Signed ‘GILLOWS LANCASTER’ the color and figuring of the mahogany and the craftsmanship in its execution make the maker’s stamp almost superfluous- the piece screams quality.
Archive for January, 2010
It is proceeding apace, the Jump start sale, that is. Not being a January white sale, necessary purchases have not been postponed by buyers eager to replace ragged sheets and toweling. No real obsolescence with our pieces, but low enough in price that it stimulates.
Fascinating, this notion of stimulation, begging questions about what makes the difference between passing interest to, as we say in retail, ‘pulling the trigger’? More pleasantly put, an affirmation of a desire to purchase is what everyone in retail is after, as it signals consumer confidence- be it a January white sale or our Jump Start sale of English antiques. My nephew and gallery colleague Jack Tremper tells me that our website hits are at nearly an all-time high for the month of January. Good news- interest has to start somewhere. Will this be followed by a wave of trigger pulling? We are optimistic, and optimism is the precursor of confidence- which, by the way, is contagious.
With apologies to the memory of Charles Dickens, internationally times are both good and bad, witness the indecision despite the good buys when it comes to the purchase of English antiques. Well, most durables, actually. Even from our vantage point, and I mean this quite literally, from our premises in the precincts of venerable Jackson Square, gallery traffic is very good and, moving to the virtual gallery, our website hits are better than ever. Times are, ostensibly, good.
And sales? Well, let me put it like this: we figured that our clients needed a bit of impetus, a jump start, as it were, hence the title of our first-ever January sale. An opportunity? I should say so, with all, and I do mean all, our furniture and decorative items from 20% to nearly 60% off.
For my readers that are not yet Chappell & McCullar clients, browse our site and let us know your interests. Shall we work together to make this, all around, the best of times?
Family took Keith McCullar and me to Fresno this last weekend to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday. As we gathered en famille a few days after the event, it gave my father the opportunity to go skiing on his actual birthday with several of his buddies, all of them 80 or over. If I were to be in as good shape as my father when I enter decade number nine, my physical condition would have to materially improve over what it is now.
During a break in the festivities, I had a chance to read several recent issues of the Fresno Bee. Shrunk to tabloid size, it nevertheless is replete with press about the closure of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum- and the perilous state of the Fresno Art Museum. Although not closed, the Fresno Art Museum, a venue established over 60 years ago for the exhibition of contemporary art, is certainly on hard times, with staff layoffs that include its longtime curator and my good friend Jacquelin Pilar. The museum may be able to keep their doors open with these cuts, but, sans curatorial staff, exactly what visitors can expect to look at is an open question.
My own first professional exposure to the art world came with an exhibition of ukiyo-e I curated at the Fresno Art Museum nearly 20 years ago. To say that it was an exhilarating experience is an understatement: life changing is closer to the truth. Consequently, I have an inordinate fondness for the institution.
While guest curators might occasionally be useful to enhance the exhibitions program of any art museum, it cannot be thought a permanent substitute. Certainly in the case of the Fresno Art Museum, its own collections do not possess sufficient depth to allow permanent display without being supplemented with visiting exhibitions. It was Jacqui Pilar’s vision and connections in the art world that has seen to this masterfully for nearly 20 years, keeping the museum full of some of the best things available. Ruth Asawa, Manuel Neri, and Oliver Jackson are just a few of the leading contemporary lights with major exhibitions hosted by the museum, all with curatorial oversight provided by Jacqui.
Will the trustees be themselves able to substitute? Doubtful, as the paramount role of any non-profit trustee can be defined in two words- ‘raise money’. To dilute that function will only exacerbate the museum’s difficulties. Moreover, while it certainly benefits a museum trustee to have a love of art, curating an exhibition is far more complicated than mounting pictures on a gallery wall. Actually, that is an extremely complicated task, too, as any successful exhibition requires a proper design that is both visually appealing and unfolds for the visitor in such a way that it compliments any explanatory text. The text itself, whether in wall tags, catalog, or both, must be both factually accurate and methodologically appropriate. Both display and text must work in tandem to achieve a site of meaning enabling the casual visitor to understand why the art came to be created in the first place- and why it is important for the visitor to see it. Although the trustees are charged with governance, management, and this includes curatorial activities, must be performed by professional staff. It is telling that the competence of the staff has more to do with a museum’s maintenance of its accreditation than the hands-on of its trustees.
To be fair, although it is the inability of the trustees to raise money that has resulted in so many staffers at the Fresno Art Museum getting axed, the poor economy has made what is always a tough job nigh unto impossible. Where Los Angeles has the likes of Eli Broad, whose $30,000,000 gift saved the Museum of Contemporary Art, Fresno is not possessed of a cadre of ultra heavy hitters who can erase a budget shortfall, or provide a massive influx of endowment funds, with a single stroke of the pen.
What to do? The Fresno Art Museum serves a need that, certainly absent the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, will otherwise go largely unmet in the fifth largest city in California, 200 miles distant from both San Francisco and Los Angeles. In his column this last Sunday, Donald Munro in the Fresno Bee opined that people were busy behind the scenes to ensure the museum’s survival but nevertheless hoped the local population rallies to its support. Me, too. If not everyone in Fresno understands or appreciates the iconic Fletcher Benton sculpture that dominates the forecourt of the Fresno Art Museum, I can assure them they would all miss it if it were no longer there.
As difficult as conditions have been in the trade in English antiques, no one, and that includes me, has had to wonder if friends or family were living or dead, where food to eat or water to drink were coming from, or required to sleep out of doors with no idea when or if shelter would be available. It is impossible to compare, or even to know, the ongoing misery in Haiti. And what to do? A generous gift to the Red Cross would be a good start.
The writs are flying, with the present owners of sadly now closed Partridge Fine Art claiming that the original owners had misrepresented the business at the time of its sale, albeit 4 years ago. This does the trade in English antiques no good at all, as the brickbats make claims that, while they might have some element of truth, have more to do with the venerable company trying to carry on in business with new management, no matter how illustrious and ambitious, unable to combat the rents on Bond Street and the overall economic malaise. With Partridge’s fabulous premises vacant since late last summer, I suspect that all nearby merchants, in the trade and not, would prefer to have some sort of resolution as doubtless litigation is having a dampening effect on tenanting a glaringly empty leasehold. Will a member of the trade take over what was designed, built and came to be known as a ‘Palace of the Arts’? We can hope.
Who doesn’t know that Keith McCullar and I are erstwhile Fresnans, whose avocations took us far away, but we still consider Fresno our home town. For you benighted souls who don’t know, Fresno is in the midst of California’s great Central Valley, long famous for its farming wealth. Not just a wide spot in the road, Fresno and its environs is home to nearly a million well-differentiated individuals. Demand there for English antiques? Well, yes, but Fresnans whose bent runs to the material we sell prefer to buy it in San Francisco. So, no, we won’t be opening a satellite gallery there any time soon, as presumably valley residents must feel that high culture is to be had, not locally, but elsewhere.
This isn’t just a matter of collectors buying privately who can trade with whomsoever they like, but publically, Fresno has habitually struggled to provide local outlets of world culture, witness the closure this last week of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum. The victim of an ill-managed expansion, the museum’s huge debt load was guaranteed by the City of Fresno, with the city, ultimately, deciding in this economic environment it had no choice but to close rather than operate, as arts organizations are wont to do, at a loss. It is my understanding that the city is now seeking to sell the museum complex.
What’s a sad irony in all this is that the ill fortune of the museum was guided by the local great and good who sat on its board and made abysmally poor decisions that resulted in the museum’s closure. What’s worse, these same local grandees, rather than owning up and stumping up personally, inveigled the City of Fresno into guaranteeing a bank loan for the museum, upon which the museum subsequently defaulted. Now, what moves the irony from sad to cruel, the local community does not have the museum- but does have its debt! I suppose that’s a factor common to grandees anywhere, who, when it comes to guiding the fate of public institutions, often check their good judgment, and sense of responsibility, at the door.
There might be those who would argue that between the axes of San Francisco and Los Angeles, both about 200 miles distant from Fresno, museums mid state might be thought redundant. That would be the point of view of the person for whom travel is an easy matter, who probably also regularly visits collections in Europe. For those not so fortunate, and this includes nearly every public school student in the greater Fresno area, a local public museum of culture and the arts provides about the only affordably accessible window on the larger world. Despite difficult economic times, one can only hope that the vision of the City of Fresno will extend beyond the present vicissitude of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, and determine a manner in which it can be kept open.
This may give me away as something of a swot, but my favorite part of the trade in English antiques is that it does keep me in touch, literally and historically, with the material culture of the 18th century. With trying to run a gallery open to the public, often this enjoyment is vicarious, but none more so than reading Adam Bowett’s Early Georgian Furniture: 1715-1740 just published by The Antique Collector’s Club. A follow-on from Adam’s indispensible English Furniture: 1660-1714, the books taken together provide an examination of furniture development from the political and economic instability at the accession of Charles II to the world power the country had become by the middle of the reign of George II. This critical period saw the development of a national style, with London a style centre less dependent on aping the Parisian luxury trades.
But both books are really only obliquely about stylistic development and rather more about the important task of putting surviving pieces of high style English furniture in correct date order, taking as much as possible a strictly empirical approach- pieces are dated, and attributed, based on surviving documentary evidence. It is with this that Adam Bowett seeks to overcome the inaccuracies perpetuated by both collectors and members of the trade who should know better.
Quite a few members of the accredited trade do know better, but continue to reduce their speech to include largely empty shorthand phrases like ‘Queen Anne style’ or ‘Chippendale style’. While I cannot argue with any of the conclusions drawn by Adam Bowett in Early Georgian Furniture, it is a plain fact that in common with other dealers Chappell & McCullar would like to remain a going concern and, consequently, would find it difficult, for the sake of historic scrupulosity, to risk intellectually leaving our clients behind. To the chagrin of my long suffering partner Keith McCullar, I will at times bore a client rigid by launching into an unbidden lecture on 18th century material culture when all the client really wants to know is if the Pembroke table will fit next to the sofa. What Keith has found, as a number of others know, is that certain phrases constitute a comfortable patois that, times being the way they are, we will continue to use if the client wants it that way. To thine own self be true…
Don’t think, however, that, because of my stamp of approval, Early Georgian Furniture is a tome. Large in size, yes, but textually very accessible, and profusely illustrated with pieces in public collections and those that have passed through the trade mostly in the last few years. Really, a must have that a devotee of English furniture of any stripe will both enjoy and find useful.
One of the issues of that I most look forward to is the January issue that names the vaunted AD100. For those handful worldwide for whom this does not register, the 100 are the most professionally accomplished interior designers and architects and, although not privileged to know what empirical measures the magazine uses in their determination, I can say personally that rarely could I find any exceptions to their judgment. In the world of English antiques, it is gratifying to find that AD 100 firms in San Francisco, The Wiseman Group, Suzanne Tucker, and Douglas Durkin Design are good clients.
With all that, for all of us in the trade, last year’s economic malaise resulted in a dearth of interior design activity. Not surprising, as so much design work takes place in new homes, and, with so little home sale activity, new projects were rather thin on the ground.
Our sense is that, starting this month, interior design activity, gauged by the numbers of contacts we have already had, is up significantly from this time last year. Fingers and toes crossed, we hope that the new year contrasts markedly with the last, with new and existing projects proceeding apace for 2010.
MSN is reporting today that retail vacancy rates are at their highest levels in 18 years. Not surprisingly, asking rents have fallen over 2% in the last year. Note I said ‘asking rents.’ With vacancies as high as they are, one opines there exists shall we say a divergence between ‘ask’ and ‘agreed’. As those of us in the English antiques trade know very well, in established venues we find ourselves fewer in number. Replaced by- what? Lately, it has been vacant storefronts.
While my blog yesterday may have seemed almost celebratory, believing the current rental market would constitute for antiques dealers an economic boon, no merchant wants to see an inordinate number of vacancies. In the manner of the fellow who will not enter a sparsely patronized although otherwise appealing restaurant- and I am one of these- business districts need to be vibrant places, with active shops and plenty of street traffic. ‘Buzz’ is the popular term, and buzz is always a vital component not only within a gallery, but in the environment surrounding it.
Mercifully, Jackson Square has a fair number of dealers, actively pursuing their varied specialities. Though arguably the most prominent and certainly the longest lived venue in this part of the country, the neighborhood buzz is not as yet deafening. Still, we are all still open and embarked on a new year. To repeat my sentiment from yesterday, time, and optimism, will tell.