The Fletcher Gallery turns 20

Tom Fletcher in his gallery. (Dion Ogust)

If you love fresh bread befriend your local baker. On a certain level that’s the relationship Tom Fletcher and his gallery represent for me and people like me who’ve come to crave this thing called “Woodstock art.” It used to be everywhere…now — it’s up the road at James Cox and in the WAAM but you have to be polite there. At The Fletcher Gallery I can show up in my pajamas if need be, and say: “Charles Rosen…please!” Or “…that other Kuniyoshi — I need to see it right now.” Tom understands.

In many ways these same compulsions have guided his life, compelling him to create — thank God! — a sanctuary in what otherwise feels more like a yoga retreat with guilty pleasures, like shops and restaurants, included. This month the Fletcher Gallery turns 20 years old. On behalf of the treasures it trades in — I herewith provide some history and my thanks.

In 1960, art in Woodstock swelled 30 odd galleries. By 1990 that number had dwindled to five. Tom Fletcher had recently left a company he’d started in Nigeria. He and a partner raised the money for a well-drilling rig they shipped to that far African shore and — for a time — prospered supplying water to war-torn villages. The middle child in an Irish family of nine, Tom had never seen an original work of art hung in his own home. He was now a salesman for the Oxford Book Company, a textbook publisher. Fletcher’s territory extended from Albany to New York City. Discovering Woodstock on the map one day he took a drive and fell in love. On a whim Tom moved here, and being a talkative guy, got to know people. The last painters of the golden era were still getting around, among them: Ed Chavez, Bruce Currie, Ethel Magafan, Karl Fortess, Rosella Hartmann, Frank Alexander, Nic Buhalis, Bob Angeloch, Gene Ludins, the Small sisters — and of course, Manny Bromberg — our last man standing. Tom fell under the spell of the work and began a modest collection. Then came the day a For Rent sign appeared in the window of the first floor space on Mill Hill Road. Fletcher negotiated a lease, called his manager from a pay phone to quit his job, and drove home to break the news.

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The Fletcher Gallery opened in May 1992. There was no web-based search engine to gain piecemeal familiarity with the byzantine subject of Woodstock art. Tom is a natural salesman, it’s true. And he soon found his instinctual reaction to art was surprisingly trustworthy, though basically he was flying by the seat of his pants. His location, however, was better than that of dyed-in-the-wool expert James Cox, and also superior to up-and-coming Elena Zang — who concentrates on living artists. Fletcher’s first show was a retrospective of big names from the 30’s — Carlson, Cramer, Dasburg, Bolton Brown…He did well enough, and in any case he was all-in by now; throwing openings for one or two artists, selling the work for a few months, before hanging the next show. I saw a paint brush in his own hand often, touching up the walls with Atrium white. Then — rather quickly — came a breakthrough.

Every shop owner in town was scrambling to somehow bring the masses here for Woodstock ‘94 — held at Winston Farms in Saugerties. James Cox secured a remarkable exhibition of rock n’ roll memorabilia. Tom cold-called the legendary Peter Max who agreed to an exhibition at Fletcher Gallery in conjunction with the festival. Hundreds attended the opening and by the end of evening more than half the paintings had “sold” stars beside them. The Fletcher Gallery was on the front page of many newspapers from Albany to New York. And then?

There were lean times when no one was buying. Tom acquired important estates of artists he admired to bring buyers, “out of the woodwork.” Along the way Fletcher acquired a rep for selling “dead artists” — an accusation which presupposes that it is the responsibility of every gallery owner to further the living. I, of course, would argue that it remains an owner’s perogative to honor the dead. Howsoever, Fletcher did indeed throw openings for Hongnian Zhang, Eric Angeloch, Eva Van Rijn, Eduardo Chavez, Julia Santos/Solomon, Lenny Kislin, and Michael Esposito, among others. The problem is that most living artists do not inspire a timeless quality, and do not experience much in the way of sales. I suppose Elena Zang could argue the point…

The fact is, there are those of us who require a regular dose of old time religion — by which I mean Woodstock art created between 1905 and 1965. The Fletcher Gallery serves it up right here in the middle of town. Don’t get me wrong, I admire many living artists working here, and occasionally encourage them with a purchase, but my core needs happen to revolve around “dead artists” — bring them on! Yes, the painters who in my youth held sway here (who for a time earned my contempt for their “cottage industry” attainments) as well as their teachers before them, these, today create a pantheon — and the Fletcher Gallery is the church I attend to commune with them. The fact that Fletcher and Cox and thousands of other gallery owners across the country, need to make a living satisfying folks like me seems a totally legitimate exchange. But the game has changed. Radically.

When Tom came on board — before the internet — “the gallery” was the primary source of most information surrounding a work of art. Now, at the touch of a computer key a complete auction history of every reputable artist in the world has become available: biography, sales history, variety of medium, signature samples — the works, themselves. In five minutes any literate person can become something of an expert on a particular artist. This informed consumer has gradually been purchasing at auctions on the web — fully available to anyone with a credit card. The result being that the gap between auction sales (previously the domain of dealers and collectors) and gallery sales is closing. And my beloved church, “The Gallery” as such, is becoming something of a lost leader — a throwback to a romantic era — when, yes, it was galleries, not yoga studios which dominated commercial real estate in Woodstock.

But there are some things this “instant expert” is not privvy to…they don’t know the ‘relationship’ between artists and art. Today in world sales, Klimt and Schiele are going through the roof. But do gazillonaire buyers even know they were teacher and student? Does the internet buyer know that John Bentley and Edna Thurber were standing waist-high in grass at Bradley Meadows under the tutelage of Bolton Brown, and that all three painters’ rendering of Overlook are the property of one particular local art teacher? No — but Tom knows, and James Cox does, too.

My point is that the gallery, as institution, is like a farm which experiences good years and bad years, but we need the farm and the farmer, so we buy from their stand rather than from a supermarket. So too…we need to support the art of our choice, where it is gathered, and its gatherer. For the gatherer is the keeper of the lore around the art — and believe it or not — this is really an oral tradition. Or the best of it is.

When I press Tom to reveal some highpoints in his 20 year career he prevaricates briefly: “Well, as far as getting lucky — I paid the seller’s price of $10,000 for a Norman Rockwell which turned out to be an important painting. A colleague and I discovered a small Guston which is today credited with being the ‘modern’ turning point in his career. It just so happened that women artists of the 30’s and 40’s were getting hot when I acquired the Georgina Klitgaard estate and provided her work with its first showing in over 50 years — that exhibition basically sold out…in the middle of what has been termed a ‘depression’ I might add. On the other hand you make mistakes. Every once in a while an expert will spot an all-but-obliterated signature and purchase a work you [soon learn] is highly valuable. Things like that are going to happen…you just don’t want them to happen too often.”

Now the good news — and for once there’s plenty — is that the means by which Tom and his local competitor and friend Jim make a living these days is no longer the tourist in town making a spontaneous purchase; “the art auction” instead, has become their principle revenue provider. (Although the world-wide-web has also facilitated agenting work from seller to buyer privately, faster and surer.) What is important about auctions? 1. They assist laudable institutions. For instance, Tom personally hosts auctions for The Woodstock Land Conservancy, The Woodstock School of Art, both Democratic parties, and, for the last decade, has enjoyed the privilege of overseeing a yearly auction for The Woodstock Day School whose — yes — tenth such event goes into preview this week. This means, 2. Supporters of the school reach into their closets and give or consign work which — the moment it goes onto Tom’s website — starts those search engines previously described spitting out information. It’s like putting marvelous old albums up for sale. You instantly create an interest which inspires an education which keeps the work alive. And 3: you’re keeping the gallery alive, too.

Myself? — I won’t be at the auction. It’s far too tempting. In fact, painting for painting, I think it the most delicious Fletcher has assembled in quite some time. For starters there are some very strong Fletcher Martins; two large, rare John Pikes; top-end Scarletts, a lovely Rosen, Bolton Browns — prints and drawings; several incredible nudes in pencil by our own incomparable George Bellows, not to mention Speichers. It’s great to see some Julio de Diegos up near a gorgeous, large Magafan watercolor. And that French-looking Zhang nude in oil is bound to double in value inside a couple of years. Stop me!

Previews are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, May 24-26. (Or you can view the entire Woodstock Day School Auction on line at fletchergallery.com.) The event itself will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday May 27 at the Kleinert/James Arts Center.

Finally, I ask Tom Fletcher one last question: “With blue-chip art going thru the roof, the merely wealthy are having a hard time keeping up. Do you think a niche market like Woodstock art is poised to be levered to national — maybe even international —attention?” Tom’s answer? “It’s already happening. Any good example of Woodstock art from an established name is going to go up in value — it’s inevitable.”

So, folks, in the words of the immortal Janis Joplin: “Get it while you can.”++

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