J. Johnson Gallery directors reflect on the gallery’s closing and its fifteen years of unparalleled art exposure
If you ask J. Johnson Gallery Director Bruce Dempsey about the gallery’s provenance in 2000, he’s likely to tell you a version of this: “Jennifer and I got together for luncheon. She was going to move her offices out here to the Beach because the majority of her staff lived here. So then, over lunch, we decided ‘Let’s do a gallery – what great fun for both of us!’”
While the logistics to follow were undoubtedly less simple, Dempsey emphasizes repeatedly that working with Jennifer Johnson, gallery owner, truly is full of moments like that. “Jennifer operates from her heart. Period.” The original plan was to open a gallery for a decade. J. Johnson Gallery has been open for fifteen years, surpassing this vision.
Sitting in Johnson’s office, on the floor above the breathtakingly grand gallery space, one can glean a lot about her and her gallery from the room. There are two bronze sculptures by renowned Mexican sculptor and repeated J. Johnson Gallery exhibitor Javier Marín, one in front of a window and the other, a maquette for a large piece, languidly lying across a credenza. There is a striking photograph by Mikhail Baryshnikov, the subject so blurred by movement that it reads almost as abstract. On another table – thick, stately wood like all of the room’s furniture – sits a vignette of objects d’art: a hand-blown glass bird by Mark Petrovic sits with a ceramic Oribe platter by Higashida Shigemasa, which Dempsey says is a national historic treasure in Japan, and a framed photograph of a young girl with a comically deadpan expression (taken by Johnson of her granddaughter, now grown). A pair of large format Polaroids hanging in the room, also by Johnson, represent a style of work she is known for in the local photography world. And finally, a huge Candida Höfer photograph of the Palais Garnier opera house makes you feel like you’re there.
“Jennifer reacts so beautifully to things,” Dempsey says. “She has such an interesting collection of ceramic art as well as historic paintings, like works by Georgia O’Keefe and Picasso, and then a lot of younger artists who have been here and she’s enjoyed … a lot of things she just picks up by herself.” “If she goes somewhere and she loves [a piece], then wrap it up and send it home,” he adds, chuckling.
And this is much the way exhibitions came to be at J. Johnson Gallery. Dempsey was able to bring extrordinary, often international artwork to Jacksonville, in exhibitions that ordinarily would be next to impossible due to challenges with space, finances and logistics. Many museums are forced to plan exhibitions years ahead, and then raise the money and get sponsors. But, Dempsey points out, because J. Johnson is a sales gallery, “I didn’t have to do any of that – Jennifer and I could fly to New York for the week and see someone we like and have them here the next month.”
The exhibitions they brought were varied in every way and made possible by this open-minded and generous spirit of Johnson’s, paired with her and Dempsey’s contacts within the art world, and the incredible Jacksonvile Beach building.
Article written by Meredith T. Matthews