THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Mr. Imagination in the midst of his creations, including a bottlecap throne and suit.
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Untitled # 366, 1955. 16.5 x 15 inches. Photo courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery.
Carl Hammer opened his gallery in 1979, soon after Rhona Hoffman. He too had a good eye for quality but had to endure a rougher time gaining acceptance for the kind of art he decided to specialize in, work by self-taught or outsider artists. Now, he is seeing the fruits of his dedication as museums nationwide are scrambling to acquire material by those very artists.
Tom Mullaney: When did you open your gallery, and where was it located?
Carl Hammer: We opened in 1979 at the 620 N. Michigan Avenue building where Richard Gray and all the other great, historic Chicago galleries were located.
TM: Was Bud Holland over there?
CH: Bud Holland was not in that building, but he was over in that area. It was a very exciting time. First of all, being a neophyte gallerist, surrounded by so many others. Richard Gray, who already to me was a legend. He kind of served as a role model for me. I looked at how he ran his gallery with dignity and how much respect he engendered.
TM: What about Allan Frumkin?
CH: Frumkin was there, though I didn’t get to know him like the other gallerists.
TM: What led to your decision to become a gallery owner?
CH: I had been teaching high school at Evanston Township High School for over 20 years. So, my ex-wife and I had begun to collect unusual Americana art, and it started basically in the antiques world and evolved out of that into the work of folk artists.
And that area of art was very broadly define[d]. We found ourselves drifting toward that area that only later was to become known as “Outsider Art.” So, we started collecting and then started doing shows around the Midwest.
TM: That must have started then around the ‘60s….
CH: Started around the ‘60s and almost a 10-year period of time before I opened the gallery. And when my wife decided she didn’t want to teach anymore, we decided to open at 620.
TM: What was the Chicago art scene you remember in those days?
CH: I remember a gallery named Phyllis Kind being a great inspiration to me since she was representing the Imagists, pretty much. And she also mounted a few shows of outsider artists, like Howard Finster and a couple of other artists. And I was really entranced and made many, many ventures to that space on Ohio Street, and a lot of her artists started on to the artists that we were representing in our gallery and, as a result, that kind of synchronicity, that body of work that Phyllis was showing at the time really inspired my direction.
TM: Was it more of a scene where artists, collectors and gallery owners knew each other? Now it seems much more anonymous.
CH: Yes, it was like that, but now it’s much more diverse and not as connected as it was then. I hated to see that district bust up and move over to River North because, back then, I thought it was just the ideal, classic gallery scene.
Bill Traylor, Untitled Man in “High-singing blue” with bag and umbrella, pencil and poster paint on found cardboard, 17 x 13 inches. 1939-1943. Photo courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery.
TM: You began just as Art Chicago began
CH: Yes, exactly right. We did not exhibit the very first year. The second year, we were permitted to. I mounted a one-person show of work by Bill Traylor, the classic outsider artist who is having a full-scale retrospective in Washington. D.C. in early October. I’m flying in for that. And we sold everything. Well, it was dirt cheap then. But people fell in love with Traylor’s work.
TM: How have EXPO Chicago and art fairs changed the way you do business now?
CH: Well, at the time, you had to do it [Art Chicago]. People were excited about it and about going there. Now, over the period of time where it’s mushroomed to the number of art fairs that go on almost every week of the year, I see them as less of the Bible [than] as a selling device. Plus, it’s so incredibly expensive now. You can’t get into an art fair without spending $40,000 and upwards to do a show.
TM: I started going and writing about Art Chicago. It knocked me for a loop when, 4 or 5 years in, it was called the best American art fair.
CH: Well, first, it was the only one, and then it became the best one and it maintained that reputation for a long time. I think one of the disasters that cut a huge rip in that was when Thomas Blackman had the art fair in a tent in Grant Park.
TM: That was good for a year….
CH: It was good for a year and then everything fell apart. We arrived, we had all paid our fees. When we arrived to start setting up, nobody was there. The tents were there, the wings of the tent were flapping in the breeze and it was just a sinking, sinking feeling. And that same year, the Merchandise Mart came in for the rescue.
TM: Kennedy and the Mart did it right for the first year or two before it fell apart. Then Tony Karman’s credibility with the dealers went a long way, and a group of gallerists gathered around Rhona and Richard and promised that Karman would do it right.
I went around in 2015 and asked many gallery owners why they had returned, and they said, “Well, we trust Richard and we need to be in Chicago. It’s too important a city.”
TM: You sometimes hear that people don’t really understand how the business works. And what’s the biggest misunderstanding collectors have about the trade?
CH: It’s a mixed perception in that respect [prices are open to negotiation] No, long-time collectors are pretty savvy in knowing how they can work the various dealers they have relationships with. And that’s been very helpful with the marketplace having a certain kind of respect with dealers. You probably get your best deals by being faithful to the particular program the dealer is working with and who the dealer is promoting.
But it’s a tricky business, because a lot of people… have no idea how much the operation of a gallery costs. It’s more than taking the commission and putting it into the bank. You have promotions, travel and art fairs, all kinds of things. We’ve fought a bit of an uphill battle because the outsider material wasn’t always as accepted as it is now as part of the canon. It’s really only about in the last 10 years that has really turned around and people are recognizing it.
TM: You are not going to be in EXPO this year. What’s changed?
CH: We’ve learned that we need to make at least enough money in order to participate. To be honest with you, there are too many art fairs in the world now. As a result, we’re not seeing the people flying into Chicago. There’s only one art show here at EXPO. But, when you go to Miami or New York or L.A., they have several art fairs going on, and that brings a greater mass of the marketplace.
TM: Can you pinpoint the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
CH: Probably is keeping the focus of the gallery on the representation of artists like Bill Traylor, Joseph Yoakum, Henry Darger and others. Even professional art people, look at the Art Institute of Chicago, not one piece of Bill Traylor’s artwork is in their collection. This is one of the great names and one of the great artists of the 20th century.
TM: You have to go to Milwaukee to see a Traylor.
CH: Yeah, you’re exactly right. Or to New York and other places. I think the biggest challenge we’ve had is convincing our collecting public and seeing the changing attitude that lets the public [know] that the self-taught artists’ work can be and is worthy of consideration. It doesn’t mean that all outsider art is good automatically.
We’ve also made a conscious decision to go after artists from the academic perspective. That amalgamation of those two programs has made the gallery much more robust.
TM: You must still have had the challenge in the ‘90s when it still was not accepted.
TM: So, when do you feel you turned a corner? 10 years ago?
CH: About the turn of the century. There’s a big art fair in New York called the Outsider Art Fair. Roberta Smith of the Times has called it her favorite art fair anywhere. And that show has probably done more to put the outsider artists on the roadmap of collectability. Now, all the museums around the country are scrambling to get some of these top names in their collection.
TM: What gives you satisfaction today after four decades in the business?
CH: Well, I like to think we’ve proven our worth in terms of a gallery presenting interesting material to the marketplace and to create, though the artists we represent, an exchange of ideas that helps to explore the creativity of both the self-taught and the academically-trained as well.
TM: You have represented some artist’s estates. Name some.
CH: Well, we represented the Traylor estate, we represented the Henry Darger collection that Nathan Lerner owned, we represent several important Chicago artists like Mary Lou Zelazny, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute.
Lately, we’ve been increasingly associated with the Chicago Imagists. And it’s been very rewarding. People are coming to us. And they fit into the program so well because they themselves were the early discoverers of these outsider artists. That’s why it’s so rewarding like, for example, Paschke, Roger Brown and Ray Yoshida, they were all collecting these guys.
TM: Have you succumbed to becoming a collector? Sometimes I’ve heard dealers say to avoid that since all your profits will go into that.
CH: I’ve got a kind of collection, but they are kind of little, private items. They’re not the blockbuster pieces that we sell and walk out the door. I can’t afford to hang on to them.
TM: Given this 40-year historical perspective, what the quality of the Chicago art scene that you miss most?
CH: Well, over that span, we’ve lost some pretty important gallerists, and to watch that history dissolve away and to see the younger art galleries on the scene, there’s not that kind of cohesive community in the art scene anymore. You almost have to declare your allegiance to a particular gallery owner or two and hang out whenever they have an event as opposed to how it used to be an amazing camaraderie where everyone hung out together and you had this wonderful energy that we had for a long time in this River North district, and I miss that the most.
TM: What do you really like about today’s art scene?
CH: Well, it’s a lot broader in terms of its appreciation for different things. I am seeing a more informed public coming to confront the new ideas that are often hurled at them. I have to say, it’s fun to see this discovery and rediscovery of new forms.
I can’t say I’m ending up a rich man but, in terms of my experience, this time has been among the richest experiences I’ve ever had in my lifetime—being an art dealer and exchanging ideas about any particular given artist you’re hanging. Yeah, I enjoy that exchange. It’s really great.
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