Ask Peggy Greenhut Golden to describe what it's like running an art gallery and she'll use adjectives like "challenging" and "volatile." The stock market has been all over the place in recent years, she says, and people are exercising a little more caution with their money. Even Mother Nature can play a part: Last summer's cool, wet weather threw a damp blanket over the state's tourist trade, and Golden's business, Greenhut Galleries, located in downtown Portland, felt the effects. "Summer and fall are our key retail periods for the year, and sales were [for the rest of this story, see the December 2007 issue of Down East]
definitely off in July," she says.
She makes these comments in her office, a closet-like, dimly lit den that doubles as storage space for paintings. She also says it with a faint smile, perhaps because she knows how quickly things can turn around in the art-dealing world. Over the previous three days, the gallery made three major sales, two to local buyers and one to a client who summers in Maine. Meanwhile a selection of waterscapes by Freeport painter Sarah Knock is selling well; eleven of the show's twenty paintings, priced from $1,000 to $19,000, have sold, and the show still has two weeks to go. A couple of weeks earlier, the gallery was paid a visit by Idexx founder David Shaw, a longtime customer, along with his wife, the actress Glenn Close, and their friends Bette Midler and her husband, Martin von Haselberg. No paintings were purchased during the celebrity visit, Golden reports, but it was a bit of further proof that the gallery is on the radar of well-heeled A-list customers, the people who can, and do, spend thousands of dollars on original works by Maine painters. That's the kind of knowledge that helps Golden sleep at night. "It all reminds me that I have to stay on my toes," she says. "Ultimately, it's survival of the fittest."
Embracing the Darwinian aspects of doing business, including a willingness to evolve according to the dictates of the local art-buying market, has helped Golden build Greenhut into one of Maine's most enduring and successful art galleries. Trained as a hospital nutritionist in New York City, Golden arrived in Portland in 1977 to run an art poster shop owned by her brother in a tiny basement space on Exchange Street in the Old Port, just as the neighborhood was beginning its transition from slum to funky urban melting pot. She moved the business to the Mariner's Church building on Fore Street and expanded her product line to works on paper, including prints by notables such as Rockwell Kent, Joan MirA³, and Alexander Calder. A fire in 1985 destroyed the gallery and wiped out her inventory, and she started from scratch in a new space on Middle Street, which has been the gallery's home ever since.
She bought the business from her brother in 1990 and tightened her focus to paintings by contemporary Maine artists, a market niche she continues to develop. She survived the recession of the early 1990s that helped put a handful of local galleries out of business. She now represents forty artists who are based in Maine or have strong ties to the state and has painstakingly developed a diverse group of individual and corporate clients.
Golden bills Greenhut as "the oldest year-round gallery in Portland," and this month she'll host a thirtieth anniversary exhibition featuring works by Maine-art luminaries such as Will Barnet, Neil Welliver, Yvonne Jacquette, Stephen Pace, Lois Dodd, and Joel Babb.
The current incarnation of Greenhut has built its reputation on serious art that's pleasing to look at; the gallery's artists produce work that tends toward landscapes and still-lifes, much of it Maine (or Maine-inspired) scenes suffused with light and color. Painting that's hard-edged, minimal, or aggressively intellectual need not apply. Buyers are more interested in hanging the work over their couches than they are sticking it in a vault as an appreciating asset. "Peggy has a wonderful knack for knowing what people want to collect," says Bruce Brown, an art collector and curator emeritus at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport. "Some of it may not necessarily be provocative, but it's very solid in the middle."
That, essentially, is at the heart of Golden's business plan: Offer well-made work in tune with the tastes of local collectors, maintain professional and respectful relationships with artists and customers, and leaven the long view of the business with a cautious optimism. "I could just try to sell the work I love, but then I wouldn't be in business," Golden says. "Everything you do has to count toward keeping the business sustainable."
Here's the problem," says Ellie Estabrooks, waving vaguely at a large, unremarkable art poster adorning the entryway of the oceanfront condo in Scarborough that she shares with her husband, Lew. "We need to get rid of this."
Golden regards the wall for a moment, then follows Ellie into the living room, which is dominated by windows that offer sweeping views of the ocean. The long sand-colored wall above the off-white couch is blank, and Ellie wants to do something about that, too.
"Maybe a few pieces up there," she says. Lew, a recently retired oral surgeon, observes quietly, an amused look on his face. Golden helped him choose paintings that he bought to decorate the offices of his practice in South Portland, and Ellie has asked her to do the same for their condo, which is the Estabrooks' summer place.
Lew and Ellie Estabrooks are in their sixties, ruddy and fit and dressed in beach wear. Golden, 57, is short, olive-skinned and sharp-featured, her black hair going
silver-grey. Her blouse-and-slacks ensemble is dark and billowy, typical of the bohemian-professional look she favors. She listens intently as Ellie talks. She asks her what kind of paintings she likes - abstracts, seascapes, landscapes. "I like everything," Ellie says. Golden recommends one piece in the entry, and one piece over the couch - "you don't want it to get too busy," she says. Ellie mentions a painting by Mary Bourke that she particularly likes, and Golden invites the couple to the gallery to look at more of Bourke's color-rich domestic scenes. "What if I get tired of it?" Ellie asks, as Golden prepares to leave. "You're only here four months every year," Golden assures her. "You won't get tired of it."
She doesn't make many house calls, Golden says, driving back to Portland in her Honda SUV, but she will if the situation seems to call for it. "It's so important for the owner to have a presence in a business like this," she declares. The occasional house call, she says, is part of her philosophy of client care and cultivation. "I'm not trained as an artist or in how to run a gallery, so I've had to trust my judgment and intuition about how to do it," she says.
Golden likes to contrast Greenhut with a typical New York gallery experience, where visitors are hardly acknowledged by blas`, if not outright hostile, staffers. "I had a kid come into my gallery once who looked like he didn't have a pot to pee in, and he ended up buying a five-thousand-dollar MirA³ print," she says. "That really taught me something - you have to treat everyone well. You never know who's going to walk through your door."
That philosophy extends to the artists as well, says Sarah Knock, who's been represented by Greenhut for sixteen years. She's had seven solo shows since 1994. Her previous exhibit, two years ago, included twenty-four paintings; most sold during the show's one-month run, and all sold during the following year. "It has to do with the gallery getting the right work in front of the right clientele," Knock says of her enviable sales record. "Peggy's also really good about e-mailing people with updates on shows and other events, and she's good at using the Internet as a sales tool - I'm selling more and more paintings over the Web."
While Knock is concerned about the number of artists in the Greenhut stable - "forty is a lot to manage," she observes - she has a hard time seeing herself represented by anyone else. "Peggy wants artists to try new things," she remarks. "Just because a certain kind of work is successful and sells well, it doesn't mean she's going to put pressure on you to keep working in that style. I don't think there's a better match for me than Greenhut."
Keeping Knock's work in front of the right people means Golden and her staff of three have to hustle. The works by Greenhut artists on display in the front of the gallery are updated monthly, as is the solo show in the back. The gallery's Web site (www.greenhutgalleries.com
) is updated daily. An array of events - artist talks, demonstrations, opening receptions - must be organized. Advertising must be purchased - Golden says she spends close to sixty thousand dollars annually on print ads that appear locally as well as in national publications like ARTnews.
To improve her access to the work of higher-profile artists with Maine ties, Golden is cultivating relationships with big-city galleries around the country that also display those artists. "It adds credibility to my shows to have these kinds of artists represented," she says. "The name recognition is more valuable to me than the money those shows take in."
That effort has resulted in steadily increasing sales since going out on her own in 1990, even during the recessionary doldrums of the early nineties. Golden is reluctant to share revenue figures, and she's quick to point out that her overhead - payroll, insurance, advertising, and all the rest - has steadily increased along with sales. Still, it's a far cry from the lean years, when she occasionally had to leave herself off the payroll to make ends meet. These days, she estimates Greenhut is carrying about $1 million worth of paintings in its inventory.
Golden hopes some of that inventory will be claimed by Ellie and Lew Estabrooks, who do in fact stop by the gallery several days after Golden's house call. It's not the Bourke painting that grabs them, but rather two of Knock's works, beautiful but tough-minded studies of ripple and reflection. They're considering a Knock for the entryway, including one larger work, priced at $16,000, that's practically abstract. They like the work of Blue Hill artist Bill Irvine, and would love to see something by him over their couch, but none of his works - eccentric, colorful landscapes - are large enough. The couple leaves with a Knock painting that they borrow on approval, and Golden calls Irvine and asks him if he'd like to make a larger work for them to consider; the colors and subject matter would be entirely up to him, Golden says, and Ellie and Lew Estabrooks would have first crack at the painting with no obligation to buy it. She'll follow up with them as soon as they return from a three-week boat trip.
For Golden, it's just another day of artist-client matchmaking. "I have no idea what they'll end up buying," she says of the couple's search. "But I know they'll buy something."