Art lovers don’t walk in off the street anymore in Woodstock — at least not to buy works by the artists who first put the town on the map. So Tom Fletcher, whose art auctions and web-based transactions allowed him to keep his Mill Hill Road gallery doors open well past a dramatic down-turn in sales will continue to sell art from out of his Byrdcliffe home. But this same tenacious Tom Fletcher three weeks ago bowed to the inevitable. The culprit? A long-punishing “investment shift” towards non-representational art, and the recent rise of on-line Mega-galleries all but obliterating sales for smaller galleries. The result being the national and international complaint that “cyber businesses” are shutting down “brick and mortar” businesses. And thus “yet another” gallery closing might hardly seem deserving of lengthy comment. However, The Fletcher Gallery’s story is unique because of Tom Fletcher’s “against all odds” story it, itself, unique. So after some background, here’s my sadly incomplete recollection of a most important addition to the town, which I, for one, will sorely miss.
Representational and semi-representational art in Woodstock swelled 30 some galleries in 1960. By 1990 that number had dwindled to five. Tom Fletcher had recently left his company in Nigeria where he and a partner had shipped a well-drilling rig and so prospered, for a time, supplying water to war-torn villages. (Yet growing up as a middle child in an Irish family of nine, our future gallery owner had never seen so much as a single original work of art hung in his own home.)
By 1990 he was a salesman for the Oxford Book Company, a textbook publisher, with Fletcher’s territory extending from Albany to New York City. Discovering Woodstock on the map in the middle of his turf, he one day took a drive and fell in love. Next, Tom and his wife, Sharon, rented a place from Kitty Dordick, a retired art and antiques maven, in Zena. Now Woodstock paintings beckoned from every wall, Tom drank them in, and longed for more. So began weekend sojourns to the Woodstock Artists Association and the Guild, but Tom, his work week largely spent on the road, sought a more tangible, more personal relationship with Woodstock art. He hungered to know the men and women who’d given their lives to the making of it.
Before the influx of city dwellers after 9/11, those last artists of the WWII era were still getting around among us, though only a highly inquisitive outsider might recognize them. Here were Bruce Currie, Ethel Magafan, Karl Fortess, Rosella Hartmann, Frank Alexander, Stefan Lokos, Nic Buhalis, Bob Angeloch, Gene and Hannah Ludins, the Small sisters — and of course, Manny Bromberg, our last man standing.
One Sunday afternoon at The Pub, Ed Chavez introduced himself to Tom who gasped, “It’s honor to meet you, Eduardo. I thought you were dead!” But instead of being insulted Ed Chavez instantly warmed to the star-struck younger man, and fast inducted Tom into a tight inner circle. Ed’s trust prompted introductions to other of Woodstock’s old guard, who met Tom in their homes and studios. Here, before untold treasure, Tom’s mouth opened in awe, as superlatives shot out in a stream.
In two years Tom bought more Woodstock art than he could afford, and so arranged a few sales for the artists he so admired to help finance his growing habit. Then came the day a “For Rent” sign appeared in the window of a first floor space on Mill Hill Road. Highly excited, Tom tracked down and negotiated a lease with landlords, Arnold and Barbara Badner. Next, he called his manager and quit his job. Lastly, he drove home to break the news.
When the Fletcher Gallery opened in May of 1992 many observers (myself included) anticipated disaster. But Tom’s instinctual response to Woodstock art proved remarkably apt, and his salesmanship was downright uncanny. Naturally, it helped, that Fletcher’s “main street” location was far busier than the lavish side-street gallery previously opened by another new comer to town, the dyed-in-the-wool art expert, James Cox. The James Cox gallery (today The Hawthorne Gallery) occupied both floors of a fully restored landmark Woodstockers remembered as “The Red Barn,” all the way up a winding Elwyn lane. By comparison, Tom’s cubby hole across from the Mobil station, seemed more like a short railroad car stuffed full of gems.
Fletcher’s first show was a vastly pleasing retrospective of big names from the 30’s — Carlson, Cramer, Dasburg, Bolton Brown. It sold well and Fletcher did a highly respectable business throwing openings for one or two Woodstock artists, both living or dead, selling their work to locals and walk-ins for a few months before hanging his next show. (I noticed him, often, paint brush in hand, touching up the walls with Atrium white.) Then Eileen Cramer, the elderly daughter of Woodstock’s early multi-media-talent, Konrad Conrad, also became impressed by Tom’s vast enthusiasm, consigning several of her father’s paintings to this new “little gallery that could.” Thus, James Cox and Tom both contributed to Cramer’s resurgence, but, it was Tom who scored the Cramer estate and would eventually mount three full Konrad Cramer exhibitionns.
Likewise he soon impressed Kiriki Metzo, whose diseased father, the legendary Julio de Diego who, Tom proved (in four progressively larger shows) to be the most single prolifically diverse talent in Woodstock art history. Similarly, The Fletcher Gallery mounted the first show in many a year for the local ardent Communist painter, Anton Refregier. Ditto the unjustly over-looked Justin Smith. Then, among “forgotten women artists” Tom’s dramatic rescue of 50 or more Georgina Klitgaard’s from a collapsing garage on a purloined estate finally earned him what every “upstate gallery” dreams of: the rapt attention of a powerful mid-town gallery on the isle of Manhattan.
It was Didi Wigmore, herself ( of “D. Wigmore Fine Art”) who purchased 14 Klitgaards, as many Doris Lees as she could land, and many, many other Woodstock works from Fletcher, for what proved to be the first high end NYC show (complete with a New York Times review) for “Woodstock Art Colony” artists in recent memory.
Elsewhere Cox and Fletcher remained fond rivals, each creating highly exciting art auctions (at first, unclouded by computer bidding). Of course, they each sold their share of Woodstock’s big names: Bellows, Guston, Kunioshi, an occasional sculpture by Flanagan or Archipenko, as well as such prints as occasionally appeared by Dali, Miro, and Picasso. But what thrilled most about taking a seat at Tom’s auction was the incredible deals which could be finessed, if, like a poker player you made just the right play at just the right time. So that when it was over you might joyously write a check for a couple of hundred dollars and walk away with treasures such as a print by Rockwell Kent, or Bolton Brown. (Which, when you ran short of money, you’d sell back, in Tom’s next auction. So that certain works became like gigolos or harlots, always going home with someone new.)
At such auctions you always saw Arthur Anderson, Steve Hirsch, Kevin Sweeney, Peter Mayer, Jean and Jim Young, and a sprinkling of lawyers, doctors, artists of all ages, as well as townies, some excited as a kid at the County Fair, others dead serious and highly competitive.
For Fletcher the auctions seemed to take a jump in quality after one very public victory early in his career.
Every shop and gallery owner in town was scrambling to prepare for the invasion sure to overflow from Michael Lang’s Woodstock ‘94, held at Winston Farms in Saugerties. James Cox had lined up a remarkable exhibition of rock n’ roll memorabilia, featuring a Jimi Hendrix Strat. Scrambling to keep up, Tom Fletcher cold-called the legendary Peter Max who agreed to an exhibition at Fletcher Gallery shortly before the festival. Investing $2500 in advertising from Albany to Manhattan, Fletcher promised a remarkable retrospective which “Peter Max, himself, would attend.” As a result well over a thousand people clogged both sides of Mill Hill Road, and Tom soon lead his jam-packed gallery in a thundering shout of welcome, as Max, smiling broadly, entered, his lightning fast black Sharpie soon signing dozen upon dozens of programs.
For many the surprise hit of the opening rolled up at the Mobil station across the street, in the form of a brightly colored school bus. Then, followed by a human train, Max pranced over Mill Hill Road to greet driver and passengers, different colored Sharpies suddenly appearing in his hand. In a minute flat he’d doubled the value of the multi-colored road warrior on wheels, with his instantly recognizable illustration and signature. And, yes, by the end of evening more than half of Max’s Beatle-juiced paintings had “sold” stars beside them. (In the end, Fletcher grossed $75,000.)
As the next morning a dozen newspapers from Albany to New York featured photos of Peter Max at the Fletcher Gallery. (Sadly for other town merchants, the upcoming festival would spill absolutely none of its plunder Woodstock’s way.)
But the greatest impresario since Andy Warhol had provided an act no living nor dead artist could follow. So? Tom Fletcher resorted to the living dead. But I won’t tell you about the 18 year run of Fright Night at The Fletcher Gallery because, to absolutely truthful? It became too frightening.
And there are more important, life and love and art affirming memories of the Fletcher Gallery that rush to mind. Such as the poetry reading that Ed Sanders gave, and several incredible duets performed by our living legends Ingrid Sertso and Karl Berger, or the nude sculpted by Mark Pilato, mid-opening. Or what pleasure we took in seeing Michael Esposito’s paintings escape his tiny studio at last. Or, admittedly the sadder fact that John Ernst was so recently dead when he finally got his Fletcher Gallery opening, in which Tom sold 41 paintings (three to Congressman Maurice Hinchey), this being the very exhibition which indeed prompted what has ironically resulted in considerable posthumous fame for this, our over-eager hitch-hiker — the one who’d insist you accept a painting because you drove a mere mile or two out of your way to see him safely home.
For that, I suppose, is what I will miss most about Tom Fletcher’s gallery, (aside from the fact I knew where to find him) that his roost became a melting pot combining rich and poor, the high and the low, the young and the old, all of us joined by a common passion for what brought outsiders here in the first place: brushed on a canvas or carved in wood or stone. Those, at their best, near divine objects which for a moment take your breath away, and then — just as quickly — set you a’jabbering to the stranger standing a few feet away, suddenly a stranger no more. At it’s height, Fletcher Gallery had quadrupled in size.
In conclusion, Arthur Anderson, who recently placed his 1,700 piece collection in the worthy hands of the New York State Museum in Albany, (at which point it ceased to be one of the largest private collections of Woodstock art known), kindly sent us this note of gratitude and remembrance.
“As someone who began collecting the Historic Woodstock Art Colony collection thirty years ago, Tom Fletcher and the Fletcher Gallery were critical to my effort to build a study collection. The reasons are several. Tom had a voracious appetite for finding Woodstock art and in quantity. [For] he is adept at representing artist estates of quantity. Tom also has a knack for collecting fascinating stories as connect artists to their art and to each other…artist culture being as important as the art itself. Nor will I forget the unpredictable good times and those lengthy, rich conversations accompanying my many hours in the gallery. And so, public the gallery may no longer be, but Tom Fletcher and his private gallery continue forward.”
Thank you, Tom Fletcher, for 28 years of service in keeping our first lamp so brightly lit!