LEGACY PLANNING: Research, writing, and exhibition planning to benefit American culture

Peter Hastings Falk interviewing the Pop sculptor and printmaker, William Kent [born 1919] in his studio in January, 2010.

Since 1976, Peter Hastings Falk has earned a reputation as a leader in the highly specialized field of promoting lesser-known American artists from the 1860s to today. Whether the focus is upon an artist long deceased or one who is living, the projects we undertake require scholarly attention combined with market expertise.

Why do some highly-qualified artists find it difficult to secure lasting recognition and gallery representation? And how do some artists, previously well-known, unfortunately lose their stature?

If an artist earned critical recognition before 1975 they are almost certainly to be found listed within the three volumes of Who Was Who in American Art. But the process by which certain artists have disappeared from the competitive art circles and become forgotten by later generations can be a fascinating one. These are artists who have been left behind in that continuous and curious shuffle between art history and art promotion. For some of them, critical recognition has been long overdue.

The gauntlet through which artists must run in order to achieve recognition has not changed since the mid nineteenth century. The stages that have served to launch artists’ careers have been the art galleries, artists’ clubs, competitions, and exhibitions at museums. Without participation in these venues and the concomitant exposure by the critics, an artist’s chances of gaining lasting recognition in his or her lifetime are remote. For women artists, those chances are even more remote. Double that for African-American artists.

Why are some artists overlooked and how do they become forgotten?

Without doubt, the discovery (or rediscovery) of such talent is the most exciting part of our work. Assuming that their work is of a high calibre — that it can stand being favorably compared with that of their better-known peers — it is interesting to examine why certain artists never achieved the recognition they were deserving of during their lifetime. We find that every one of the artists we meet or whose life and work we research has his or her own intriguing story. There are many reasons for this unfortunate fate, but eight stand out as the most common.

1) Fires. On the historical list, the first reason is the destruction of large bodies of work, particularly by fires. Disappointingly, our research too often ends in the discovery that the artists’ works and letters have been lost to fires. Since the Civil War, it seems, a major fire has hit almost every city in the United States, and many artists’ studios were consumed: Portland, Maine, in 1866; Chicago, in 1871; Boston, in 1872; Milwaukee, in 1892; Minneapolis, in 1893; Baltimore, in 1904; San Francisco, in 1906 — the list goes on.

2) The Great Depression. This calamity forced some artists to change careers or at least sublimate their artistic life to necessity. Despite the efforts of the W.P.A., many artists never fully recovered. Perhaps more of their works were stored away — or thrown out — during the Depression era than at any other time.

3) Psychology. Many artists began their careers with great promise only to suffer debilitating psychological problems or become victims of alcoholism or drugs.

4) Difficult Personalities. Some artists were reclusive by nature, withdrawing altogether from the museum and gallery scene — if, in fact, they had ever been a part of it. Some were simply irascible characters, at odds with the world. They preferred to live their lives in seclusion, and chose not exhibit their works.

5) Wealth. Some were possessed of such wealth that they did not need — or want — to have their work promoted in galleries or in the important salon-type exhibitions.

6) Women. Simply being a woman has proven to be a clear disadvantage. Historically, the old National Academy and the system of juried exhibitions were clearly male-dominated bastions. Although women artists began to win gains starting in the 1960s, equal recognition and opportunities still lag far behind those for men. Before the 1960s, those disadvantages were greatly magnified.

7) Race. Racial discrimination, whether overt or subliminal, still lingers in our culture despite gradual progress and certain milestones of recognition since the 1990s.

8) Squabbling Relatives. After an artist’s passing, their collections are often divided between immediate relatives, and those relatives often pass works down to their children. As a result, some collections are “spread to the four winds.” Worse, those relatives often have differing viewpoints about uniting to sponsor a full project. Thus, the artist’s contributions to American art history remain sadly buried forever.

What are your basic requirements?

Contemporary Artists We are always open to working with living artists. No matter what stage they may be in their careers, or what type of works they are producing, if the quality stands out we carefully consider how we could serve as catalysts for their careers. This judgment process is a necessary blend of both visceral and objective reactions, often sought in consultation with our peers who are art historians, curators, and dealers.

Estate collections For an estate collection, quantity and quality are the keys. A collection must be comprised of a large enough number of works and those works must be of high enough quality in order to merit the development a project that is rewarding both culturally and financially.

Every year, we receive many requests for assistance from both living artists and relatives of those long-deceased. The very first criteria we must review are: a) photographs of a representative selection of works from the collection; b) the approximate number of works in the collection, according to their approximate size ranges, mediums, and physical condition. All submissions are reviewed carefully in a process that seeks the opinions of other art historians. Unfortunately, we must turn down many. We provide a feasibility opinion at no charge. If the outlook is favorable, the next step would be to arrange an inspection of the collection.

Going forward, what are the steps you take in each project?

When we are introduced to a living artist or discover a collection, we first determine if there is enough work of high quality that encourages a more thorough appraisal. Once committed, our approach is to coordinate a three-stage promotional plan, the hallmark of which is a scholarly foundation. This is essential to our role as a behind-the-scenes promotional catalyst.

The first stage involves organizing and documenting the collection with our Registar, and tending to care and conservation. At the same time, we conduct research and writing, which culminates in a prototype of the exhibition catalogue or book. This is presented to museums and galleries with the objective of securing an exhibition. Success triggers the second stage, which focuses upon the publication as well as the curatorial role for the exhibitions. In the third stage, we seek trusted gallerists around the country through whom the works will be sold through exhibitions, and through private dealers. We also facilitate donations of the works to museums.

Our satisfaction comes with the thrill of discovery, the exploration of artists’ lives, and in serving as a catalyst for the long overdue (re)introduction of talented artists to the public. Even if their contribution was but a small chapter in our American art history, we are delighted when the beauty, integrity, and power of their works can stand up to the best of their peers. This discovery process can help all of us draw a better understanding of the art and culture of both the past and present. With renewed perspective, we are better equipped to consider the artistic achievements of our own times, and look to the future.