While Houston has a reputation for enthusiastic fine art patronage concentrated perversely on the products of established European masters and arriviste locals — its collectors, corporate and private, are conservative animals who look on new forms with suspicion. And while they may accept the most outlandish neo-Gulf abstract, because they have seen something of the kind in Texas Interiors, they are proving slow to take photography into their homes and offices. A painting, after all, is palpably in direct line of descent, technically, from the produces of the Dutch and Italian Renaissance: the very form of photography is scarcely older than Buffalo Bill.
Consequently, selling art photography is one of the few ways in which it is not yet possible to make your fortune in Houston. The city has three galleries concerned exclusively with the sale of photographs, and several fine art galleries which treat it as a side-line. Almost all of them claim that they either lose money on photography, or make very little profit. The number of "serious" private collectors in town is estimated variously to fall between one and two dozen, and the more thoughtful gallery owners all speak of this as a period of education, in which the trust and understanding of potential patrons is being nurtured, in the hope that one day it will blossom into a money-mill.
The exclusively photographic dealers in Houston are the Mancini, the Benteler, and the Clemons galleries, while those showing photography regularly or occasionally alongside sculpture and painting include the Harris, Boulevard, Texas, and Wurzer galleries.
The Mancini Gallery (at 5020 Montrose), moved to Houston in September, 1979, after five years in business in Philadelphia. The presence here of George Krause, one of the gallery's artists, and Anne Tucker, with money to spend on photography for the Museum of Fine Arts, were among the reasons why director David Mancini homed in on the city. He also thought the rich and booming energy capital looked like a good potential market for private sales. Now, he's not so sure.
Houston has lived up to his expectations in terms of its taste, however. He expected that there would be a market here for young, new photographers, rather than for the vintage work which was popular in Philadelphia and this has proved to be the case. Local taste, says Mancini, is progressive in this respect: it is also distinctly partisan, strongly favoring the work of local artists. If it is made in Texas, apparently, it must be good, even if it’s a photograph.
Mancini is one of the self-confessed educators, who sometimes puts on shows in the expectation of losing money while helping to refine the tastes of potential customers in future years.
"Without education, you don't have an informed public that will some day want to buy," he observes, assessing the current pool of regular local collectors at a dozen, at most. He puts on eight shows a year, made up of two group shows and six of individual artists' work. He represents local photographers George Krause, Patsy Arcidiacono, and Sally Horrigan, as well as Keith Carter (Beaumont), Bill Kennedy (Austin), and out of state artists Joan Myers, John Wimberley, and Paul Cava.
Another educator at large is Petra Benteler, the German-born owner of Benteler Galleries (3830 University Boulevard), billed as the only showplace in the entire US devoted entirety to European photography. Benteler studied photography with Floris Neususs at Kassel University, but shortly after graduating came out from behind the lens to make her name as an exhibition curator with the monumental German Photography After 1945, still touring Europe, and featuring the work of 50 photographers "representative of significant post-war developments."
Like Mancini, she thought she saw a potential boom market for art photography when she visited Houston in the late seventies, and two years ago she set up shop with the missionary goal of teaching local people what European photography was about, in the hope that they would want to possess a portion of it. In fact, she goes further:
"I wanted people to see that European photography was as important as American photography," she confesses. "I found that many people, who thought themselves knowledgeable about photography, were really quite ignorant about photography outside America. I think they are now beginning to learn that there are some very good photographers in Europe."
To make her point, Benteler has staged nine shows here since she opened in 1980 all of the work has been European, with a strong bias towards the German, and the gallery's recurring theme is conceptualism — not the easiest bundle of goods to sell to Texans. Until Reaganomics took hold, museums were among Benteler's biggest customers, but private individuals can buy into the contemporary conceptualist scene for as little as $150 to $200, or hedge against inflation with a $20,000 Man Ray portfolio, or even one of only two Rodchenko portfolios in the Western world, at $30,000.
The Clemons Gallery (at 4317 Montrose) is a horse of a different color — a combination of master prints, largely American, amounting to a $100,000 collection, and cheap and cheerful prints, often of local scenes, produced by the gallery owner, Buddy Clemons. Clemons is a Houston real estate salesman who took up photography in 1977, started buying at New York photographic auctions, and discovered two years later that he owned the third largest private photographic collection in town —including everything from Ansel Adams and Cartier-Bresson to Steichen and Stieglitz. Deciding to kill two birds with one stone, Clemons opened up part of his house to let visitors see his collection (with the option of buying) and created a showcase and outlet for his own pictures at the same time.
He calculates that he has taken 40,000 photographs himself in the past five years, the best of which are on sale at prices from $25 to $300, and in spite of the volume of masterwork which looms like a glazed object lesson in a back room, it is Clemons’ views of the First International Bank, in fog, and South Boulevard, in fog, which bring home the bacon. Last year he sold one Cartier-Bresson and 35 Buddy Clemons.
In his own way, he too is out to educate his potential market. He sells photographic books from the gallery, which he hopes will prompt people to want prints for their walls — maybe a weather-bound First International Bank this year, but maybe an Ansel Adams next.
Since 1980, the Clemons Gallery has had three major shows — Eliot Erwitt. Alfred Eisenstadt, and Harry Callahan (in color). In the future, he would like to show more local photographers.
The Boulevard Gallery (1526 Heights Boulevard) deals in local photographers' work, puts on an annual juried show featuring as many as 60 artists, and has given shows to William Adams, David Crossley and Keith Carter since it opened three years ago. Owner Patty Walker says she Ioses heavily on the annual show, but sees the event as an educational exercise about the affordability, colleciability and desirability of photographs.
The Texas Gallery (2012 Peden), puts on two photographic shows a year from a stable of young artists including Lee Friedlander, Eve Sonneman, Ellen Carey, Biff Henrich, Cindy Sherman and local workers Suzy Paul, Sally Gall and Casey Williams. Director Fredericka Hunter has no time for the vintage or historical stuff, and shows new photography simply because it is a part of contemporary line art — with which the gallery is broadly concerned — in spite of the fact that it is not a money-spinner.
The Harris Gallery (1100 Bissonnet) falls into much the same category. Two years ago it extended its interest in contemporary fine art to include the work of local photographer Geoff Winningham, and sold 50 of his photographs of Mexico in eight months. Director Harrison Itz plans more photographic shows this year, and has recently started representing Peter Brown, another local photographer.
The Wurzer Gallery (Galleria II.third level), specializes in master prints — from Purer and Rembrandt to Picasso and Chagall. To this collection of luminaries it has recently added two photographers - Michael Rubin, from Chicago, and Ronald Wohlauer, from Denver. Director Gerhard Wurzer has shown photographs on and off over a three year period, and picked his two names for regular representation because their work reminded him of fine prints — particularly mid-nineteenth century mezzotints. He too is busy reassuring his customers that he is committed to photography in the hope that the habit catches.
By John Hall