A retrospective … and a peek into the future
Over the past quarter century, dozens of art galleries have set up shop here in Jacksonville, but the ones that have stood the test of time are few and far between. Perhaps it’s because the community has never quite been able to stitch together a strong network of galleries. In other cities, such as Asheville and Charleston, there is a dedicated district for such a thing, and an influx of tourists to support it. But local gallerist Steve Williams seems to think a healthy gallery scene could be a reality for Jacksonville. He says it might even be the perfect place for this to happen, “but a lot of education and support would have to come forward for that to be. A good place to look is in Atlanta and, more specifically, the Beltline and the art programming there.” The bottom line, as most gallerists would agree, is that galleries rely on sales, and if there aren’t enough people buying art, owners won’t be able to sustain overhead costs.
(Note: For this article, a gallery is defined as a space representing artists, regularly open to the public, and actively selling art. Included are both museum-style galleries and commercial galleries, but not studios.)
As other galleries have closed their doors, there is one that continues to thrive. Stellers, which first opened in the 1980s when owner Scott Riley began selling his brother’s artwork, is the city’s longest running locally-owned gallery. Later, Riley started a second gallery in Ponte Vedra, now owned and run by Hillary Whitaker. After a short time at a location on Philips Highway, Stellers of Jacksonville is returning to San Marco Square. The gallery had been a prominent fixture in San Marco for many years and they are excited to be back, says Gallery Director Missy Hager (Scott’s wife). The new location, next door to the San Marco Theatre, opens on September 4th, and they will host a grand opening reception on the 19th.
Hager thinks it would be great if there were more galleries in town and hopes to partner with other galleries once Stellers is settled in their new space. She would like to see a stronger network, but, either way, Stellers will keep going strong. “It takes dedication and hard work,” says Hager. “But it also takes people who will buy!” In fact, Riley regularly travels all over the Southeast because a majority of their sales are not local. Last year, Arbus published an article recounting how Scott Riley, “the man with the van,” travels a thousand miles up and down the coast each week to cultivate relationships with various clients including restaurants, private clubs, and residences.
Some galleries have not been as fortunate as Stellers, but nonetheless made an impact simply by providing gathering spaces for the arts community. Pedestrian, for instance, made a big splash back in the ’90s, and many artists and gallerists today still have fond memories of it. Jim Draper and Steve Williams operated Pedestrian out of an old Queen Anne style house in Riverside that was renovated to resemble a Soho-style gallery. “Pedestrian – A Gallery of Contemporary Art was born from a studio situation in Murray Hill that housed, myself, Jim Draper, April Glover and George Kinghorn,” says Williams. “It opened in 1997 and so many people came out to the opening night, it rocked the building back and forth to a point we were worried it would fall.” That first year they brought in one million dollars in sales, which was a significant sum considering their modest beginnings, but even more important was the role that Pedestrian has played as a catalyst for future artists and gallery owners.
In fact, according to Kim Vincenty and Marilyn Spiller, Williams and Draper were instrumental in getting The Spiller Vincenty Gallery off the ground. Longtime friends, Vincenty and Spiller initially sold a collection of Russian art out of the Pedestrian Gallery. The show sold out, and its success inspired them to open their own place. When Pedestrian eventually closed, Spiller Vincenty took on its inventory.
“Marilyn and I had more fun than two girls ought to be allowed,” recalls Vincenty, laughing. They refurbished an old hardware store on Kings Avenue in San Marco at a time when that area of town was still pretty rundown. “We really led the way with gentrifying that part of Jacksonville,” says Spiller.
They both remember Fogle Fine Art, J. Johnson, R. Roberts, and Stellers being significant players on the scene at the time. “It was really a period of a lot of openings and flash,” says Spiller. Williams recalls, “Spiller Vincenty was an amazing museum-style gallery and Kim Vincenty and Marilyn Spiller spent a fortune making that gallery work … the work they chose really was top notch.”
But by 2004, Spiller Vincenty had closed up shop, mostly due to personal issues unrelated to work. Although they were still having fun together, the gallery didn’t make enough of a profit for the time and energy it required. The two women are still very close, and they cherish those memories. They enjoy visiting gallery districts when traveling to other cities together.
A conversation about galleries would not be complete without mentioning the distinguished J. Johnson Gallery, an exhibition space that was in a league of its own. The owner, Jennifer Johnson, and Gallery Director Bruce Dempsey, opened it in 2001, around the same time
Spiller Vincenty was taking off. Having connections to artists and collectors in New York and other large markets, J. Johnson raised the bar for galleries in Jacksonville. They regularly brought in famous artists and hosted some of the finest exhibitions this town has ever seen. Wesley Gibbon, who served as associate director for many years, says, “Jennifer was a visionary who built the gallery in the heart of Jacksonville Beach to nurture development in the area and present world-class art that people in the city (and across the Southeast) would not easily have access to otherwise.”
J. Johnson’s soaring ceilings and elaborate lighting system supported extravagant showcases, but their network in the art world and their freedom to choose provocative works are what made J. Johnson really stand out. “J. Johnson Gallery’s focus was mounting thought-provoking exhibitions by established and mid-career artists,” says Gibbon. “As a private institution we had the ability to hang controversial and challenging art (like Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio of male nudes) and work with the artists we wanted to promote.”
Gibbon recalls her years working at J. Johnson as an exciting time when she had the opportunity to meet artists and gallerists from all over the world. “I will never forget presenting Mexican artist Javier Marín’s stunning figurative sculptures in Venice at an art fair in conjunction with the famous Biennale,” she says. The key characteristic of successful galleries seems to be having relationships with international collectors. Gibbon says, “Though we certainly had strong relationships with local clients who appreciated our aesthetic, and had the space to showcase some fabulous larger works of art, the majority of our sales were to collectors and galleries across the world.” After a long successful run, J. Johnson closed its doors in 2016 simply because Johnson never envisioned it to be such a long-term project. “Jennifer always intended for the gallery to be a temporary venture,” says Gibbon, “and even kept the doors open longer than planned [in order] to continue sharing world-class art with our area. But all good things must come to an end.”
Since its closing, other innovative galleries have cropped up and found their place on the Jacksonville scene. Founding Owner Rula Carr opened The Vault in 2016 at the edge of the San Marco shopping district. Currently they are exhibiting the work of world-renowned painter Harry McCormick. Out at the beaches, Gallery 725 regularly exhibits local artists alongside big contemporary names like Peter Max and Romero Britto. Downtown, The Space Gallery operates in temporary/pop-up style, and the Southlight Gallery co-op, now in a new space on the second floor of the Wells Fargo Tower, has been increasingly active, especially during ArtWalk. In 2017, Hope McMath opened the socially-active gallery Yellow House, next to CoRK, and then there’s Florida Mining, Steve Williams’ stunning contemporary space, which he is re-opening this fall.