THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

 

Rhona Hoffman: Gallerist with the Golden Eye

 

It is not only artists who have been advancing Chicago art over the past 50 years. Another stakeholder has been the gallery community. Two gallerists who have been around since the late 1970s are Rhona Hoffman and Carl Hammer. The R.S. Johnson Gallery dates back to 1959 and is the oldest existing gallery on Michigan Avenue. Stanley is a long-standing dealer, but he and his wife, Ursula, are also avid collectors. Our interview with him will appear in our next issue.

Rhona Hoffman is seen as a pioneering gallerist who, for more than 40 years, has possessed a keen eye for artistic talent. She co-founded the Young Hoffman Gallery in 1976 with her husband at the time, the late Donald Young. She opened her own gallery in 1983. Among the early artists she introduced to Chicago were Sol LeWitt, Gordon Matta-Clark, and such women artists as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Rhona was honored this year by the Chicago Artists Coalition for her lifetime achievement.

 

 

Rhona Hoffman: We started on Ohio Street but then moved in 1979 to 115 West Superior. We moved into that building along with Jack Lemon of Landfall Press. I moved to Chicago around 1959 and, in 1961, I bought a Leon Golub painting from Allan Frumkin Gallery. I bought a Richard Hunt from Bud Holland.

In 1965, I organized a lecture series for the Art Institute and went on the Woman’s Board there. Then, in 1967, the MCA [Museum of Contemporary Art] was formed, and I was asked to be on that board and stayed there until 1974.

[When the museum store opened, she did all the buying for it]. That was interesting because all the men on the board didn’t think it would be successful. …The store was a major success from the get-go.

Tom Mullaney: So, with this background, what makes you say you want to be a dealer?

RH: We never said that. What happened was that I got divorced and David Hoffman offered me a job. So, that’s how I became a dealer, but I was always interested in art, from the time I was a small child. There was no other life I was [as] dedicated to as the art world.

TM: I go back to 1980 in the Chicago art world. When you say these names “Lemon,” “Allan Frumkin”—they all resonate, but people today don’t know anything about what Chicago was like back then.

RH: Oh, a lot of people do. There’s a new book coming out, published by the Terra Foundation [for American Art], that’s all about art in Chicago from its beginnings in the 19th century so everyone will be able to know all about the Chicago art scene.

TM: I don’t remember whether it was 1979 or 1980 when John Wilson started an art fair [the Chicago International Art Exhibition]. That is like the dividing line. People liked it in the beginning and it was very successful, but it has led to something which is now really gigantic.

RH: No, that’s not really true. Because it was gigantic for its time. But what happened is that the enthusiasm for it didn’t happen. John Wilson failed financially and then Tom Blackman took it over. And then he ran it into the ground and it ended. Along comes Tony Karman who had worked with Tom and Bob Wilson and, since he was a part of that whole operation, he was a logical choice. But Tony [who understands] business [is] a fair-minded person and honest and everything else.

TM: I understand that there was a circle of gallery owners, you being one, who, in 2015, stepped up to rescue the fair, saying “Chicago really needs this. The galleries want to come to Chicago and so, to resurrect it in the right way”…

RH: It was all Tony’s idea. But, when he said he was going to do it, we all said we’d be happy to go around trying to get other galleries to come back to the fair [now EXPO Chicago].

TM: So, with your and other peoples’ imprimatur, you got a lot of those key galleries to come back?

RH: Right. Well, because it had been an international fair. The thing that made it work, primarily, in the first place, is that Chicago is a collecting city. It’s been collecting since the 19th century. The entire Art Institute’s career started with the trustees buying Impressionism and then going with generations of Chicagoans became collectors and were very generous with their collections going to museums. So the history of collecting in Chicago is great.

The other thing is the greater Midwest. I always tell people they live in big houses with plenty of wall space to hang art, and people do buy art. So, they were attracted to come here. Tony has been an incredible impresario.

TM: How has the art fair phenomenon changed the way you do business?

RH: Well, it started out slower, but it’s grown geometrically bigger. And now, you will find that some galleries will do 50 to 80 percent of their business at art fairs. There are galleries, one in particular though I don’t think they’d like me using their name, they do 10 to 15 art fairs a year. They have an entire staff that does nothing but art fairs. They represent 40 artists. So, people go to fairs because you can see so much art in one place.

TM: Would you say you are in the 50 or higher percentage?

RH: I don’t do 50 percent of business there.

TM: What is the biggest misunderstanding collectors have about the trade?

RH: I don’t know. [Really?!]

TM: What about artists who may give you a hard time?

RH: I’ve never experienced that.

TM: Really? That just fall in love with you?

RH: No. We treat each other very fairly. And we like each other. The only disgruntled artist I had trouble with was Scott Burton. No, for whatever reason, I’ve always worked with artists [trails off]. First, we always do what every artist wants, so why would they be disgruntled? We’re very easy to work with.

TM: Are there business dealings that become artistic friendships?

RH: Yes, I’m friends with a lot of artists. It’s an intimate relationship, a close relationship. We’re talking about ideas, you end up talking about how’s the family, it becomes a very personal relationship. We go to each other’s houses.

TM: What’s the biggest challenge you face in your career? You’ve moved several times.

RH: Yes, this is our sixth move. [Rhona left her Peoria Street address and moved earlier this year to 1711 West Chicago Avenue.]

TM: You needed to do it.

RH: I didn’t need to. I wanted to. I didn’t renew my lease. They wanted to raise the rent too high. And I like building spaces. The biggest challenge? To keep raising enough money to keep the gallery running because rents are more expensive and then there’s shipping, insurance, you’ve got postage and printing.

An art gallery is a very small business. We pay the same for our insurance as IBM. We pay the same for printing as IBM. And to do what you want to do and the way you want to do it.

 

Carrie Mae Weems: Sea Islands Series, 1993. Courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery

 

TM: Do you have to travel a lot, or does the art come to you?

RH: I have to travel and the art comes to us. I met the artist we’re showing now through another artist we show.

TM: Is this artist [whose show sold out] like the other find you showed recently, Nathaniel Mary Quinn? Is this new artist like Quinn who people say “Better get in now because this guy is really going to go far”?

RH: No, no one has that. My crystal ball is broken. A friend of mine, who is a curator in New York and whose taste is quite similar to mine and we’ve worked together in the past, told me about Quinn, and I went to Bed-Stuy, where he was working in his studio.

And I loved the work and gave him a show. And because of the strength of the work, not the strength of my gallery but the strength of the work, it caught on. I’m saying we’ve been fortunate enough to pick artists who are strong enough to attract the buyers and the collectors.

TM: You have a strong sense of humility there.

RH: I’m not humble.

TM: Well, I would say that you’re exactly humble. What gives you satisfaction today after four decades as a gallerist?

RH: The same things. I love art. I love looking at it. I like dealing it. I like artists. I like collectors. I like museum people.

TM: The same things…

RH: Well, because it’s always changing. And a lot of the art we show reflects the world, and the world is changing politically and socially, and art is changing with it. Change is necessary.

TM: Have you ever been tempted to become a collector?

RH: I am a collector. I collect cooking bowls.

TM: I heard you a year ago at one of your 40-year retrospective shows [say] that, “If I’d only bought some of this stuff, I’d be rich.”

RH: That was a financial statement. The last paintings we showed [were] by Robert Ryman. His paintings then were $35,000. So, I had a 40% discount—no, Robert gave the dealers only 33 1/3%. But I had it at home and I loved it dearly and I did buy it. But then, years later, dealers need money, and I sold it. I wish I hadn’t sold it. And now, there are works that were $5,000 and are now worth millions of dollars. That would have cushioned my life a bit.

I’ll give you an exact example. So, Feature Gallery had a show with Jeff Koons. He had three of the basketball equilibrium tanks. The show sold out. I bought one, Donald Young bought one and Lew Manilow bought one, each of us for $2,500. That’s what I mean.

 

Barbara Kruger, installation shot, 1990. Image courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery.

 

TM: But you’re a collector in general.

RH: In general. I collect tools, candlesticks.

TM: Adopting an historical perspective over the last 40 years: what about the art scene do you miss most, and what about the art scene today do you value most?

RH: The thing I miss the most was when it was less hectic. Back then, on Saturdays, the collectors would come to the gallery, sit around the table and talk about art. That doesn’t happen too often. I mean people, individually, would come to the gallery, but there was no collective spirit within the gallery itself where that happens.

TM: And what still gives you pleasure?

RH: Finding the art, showing the art, being with the artists, being with the collectors, being with other dealers who are friends and with who we share a commonality of taste. It’s a microcosm world and, for me, it’s the one world that stays interested in art. We’re interested in climate change, we’re interested in everything that happens. Art is talking about what’s happening in the world. And so you have a big vision, big perspective, when you’re in the art world.

TM: Are you finding that collectors now are much more informed about art?

RH: Many of them are. And many are not. I think the museums have done a rather good job of educating the public. For example, in Chicago, there are collecting groups, people who pay money to be in a special group within the museum. They do lectures, they meet artists.

TM: Richard Gray was elected to the board [of trustees] of the Art Institute a number of years ago and handled himself superbly in that unusual role of being a gallerist on the board. Do you think about whether a gallerist can make a contribution as opposed to this strict dividing line?

RH: There is no strict dividing line anymore. But you may not hear that from trustees because usually we don’t have enough money to do that. After Richard’s memorial service, we had a dinner and there were six museum people there and collectors. Everyone knows each other. It’s not a family but a very big group of people who find art interesting, beautiful and indispensable.

Sol LeWitt, New Structures, 1990.

Courtesy Rhona Hoffman Gallery

 

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