Sunday, June 02, 2002

Gallery owner one-woman show

Linda Schwartz turns passion for 'the visual thing' into eclectic, contemporary Fourth Street gallery

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Linda Schwartz stands in the center of an empty gallery, arms crossed, head cocked, a smile frozen on her face. She has long legs, short hair and a laugh like Phyllis Diller's. But she's not laughing. Quite the contrary.

        “I'd be happy if that big-ass painting were hanging on the wall,” says Tarrence Corbin, an artist whose show opens in two days. “I'm not stressing,” he tells her. “I've just been up for 36 hours.”

        Mr. Corbin had a year to complete the work for his one-man show, Serious Play. But he's late. The show's centerpiece, a colorful 80- by 300-inch triptych, is still not done, and Ms. Schwartz has just eliminated a second unfinished painting from the show.

        “I'm being mean,” she says to the artist. “But I have a schedule. And I don't have installers on staff.”

        No installers — no bookkeepers, sales associates or even a receptionist. She's a one-woman show, a dedicated gallerist with a self-described passion for contemporary art.

        Her passion also extends to her 1860s row house filled with work by the artists she represents, to DIVA, the Downtown Initiative for Visual Arts she helped found; to her relationship with her husband who designs collateral material for the gallery and acts as “tech support.”

        “This is not just a person selling pictures,” says Charles Desmarais director of the Contemporary Arts Center. “Linda lives a life surrounded by art — not only paintings by significant artists but things like her collection of beaded purses picked up at flea markets. It is a way of life for her, not just a business.”

A stickler for deadlines

        It's Wednesday afternoon and hard to imagine Mr. Corbin's show will be installed by its 6 p.m. Friday opening. There are paintings to be hung, a framer who has hammered a nail into one of his fingers, and the wrong paint sent over from a home furnishings store.

  • What: Linda Schwartz Gallery
  • When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday
  • Where: 315 W. Fourth St.
  • What's showing: Main gallery: Serious Play, paintings by Tarrence Corbin; Project Room: Alice Weston: Exotic Landscapes. Through June 22
  • What's next: Summer Vacation, June 28-Aug. 3
  • Information: 241-4202
        Ms. Schwartz and Mr. Corbin face off in the center of the gallery. Mr. Corbin, dressed in paint-splattered denim, lights up a Marlboro and uses his cupped palm as an ashtray. He is clearly nervous, pacing in the narrow space of the entryway.

        The part-time installers — Ryan Duncan, Linda Aretz, Rich Fruth and Angie Head — shuffle around the gallery's perimeter waiting for instructions. Ms. Schwartz crosses her arms and begins to rock on her heels, the tiniest bit of a scowl creeping onto her face.

        “I really don't like anything being done at the last minute,” she says. “Everyone who knows me knows I am a stickler for deadlines. I have to be. I have the handouts to do yet. I've got the price sheets to do. And just the ongoing business of the gallery that goes on hold.”

        “You are being mean,” Mr. Corbin says about her nixing his big painting. “A s---.”

        Ms. Schwartz doesn't have time to respond. She has the installers exchange two big paintings for four smaller black and white studies to settle their difference of opinion.

        “You're right,” Mr. Corbin says. “They look better over there.”

        “I know my gallery space,” says Ms. Schwartz, 49. “The visual thing, that's my job.”

Art agent

        She's been at the visual thing since 1989, the last 2 1/2 years in Cincinnati. She knows how a show should be hung for maximum effect. She knows how hard it was for Mr. Corbin, a University of Cincinnati painting professor, to meet his deadline: “He has other things in his life other than his art,” she says.

        A native of Champaign, Ill., who moved to Lexington in 1982 to pursue a career in the horse industry, she found herself drawn to the art scene.

        “I had this passion,” she says. “I was starting to collect and I was going to New York a lot and connecting with artists there. And I was actually coming up to Cincinnati to look at art.”

        She would visit the galleries along Fourth Street: Toni Birckhead, Carl Solway. She bought her first painting at Sarah Squeri. “I'd even troop into Closson's,” Ms. Schwartz says.

        She had gone to graduate school at the University of Illinois to pursue a master's in art history but found the work — “the intense digging” — debilitating. She bought into a Lexington boutique; when that fell through, a restaurant in an old warehouse provided an opportunity.

        “I started hanging shows there,” she remembers. “They were quite big happenings. I started selling out of those shows. I called myself Linda Schwartz, art agent.”

        Linda Schwartz, art agent, moved to a 15-story apartment building across the street where she ran a gallery for five years.

        “She was doing art exhibitions in the lobby and had auxiliary space upstairs,” says Dennis Harrington, director of the Weston Gallery at the Aronoff Center, who has known Ms. Schwartz for more than a decade. “From those beginnings she built a clientele and a stable of artists. She has always been very hard-working, determined and motivated.”

Showing the best

        At lunch, Ms. Schwartz recaps the morning's events. She is not entirely happy with the way the show will be presented. The gallery is too crowded, she says. She has given in to the four black and white studies because she believes it is Mr. Corbin's show, although she makes it clear she has the final say. To her this show is a pas de deux between gallery owner and the man with the paint.

        “I had to give in a little,” she says. “I see this a lot — an artist makes a lot of work so he wants to show a lot of work. You could have given me the one big piece and that could have been the show. With me, it's let's show the best. But it is very much a working relationship. We are in this completely together.”

        It was in 1995, when she opened her first gallery, that she began to solidify her philosophy on what it means to show and sell art. It was also the year she married her boyfriend of five years, Richard Groot, who promptly left for graduate school at Notre Dame.

        “I knew on the first date he was the one,” she says. “It took him quite a bit longer to catch on. Men!”

        The couple settled into a commuter relationship — Mr. Groot pursuing his master's and Ms. Schwartz focused on her gallery

        “I spent a lot of years in Lexington in a vacuum,” she says. “I lost my direction and ended up back with what I should have never left. When I was a little girl I used to say, "I want to be a matron of the arts.' It was in my blood. But it took me a long while to accept it.”

        After graduation, Mr. Groot accepted a job as design director with Desky Integrated Branding, and the couple moved to Cincinnati. They bought and renovated an 1860s row house in Covington — chosen because the front hall could accommodate a large-format painting they owned.

        “The first question I asked the owner on the phone was whether he had a wall to fit the painting, and were the walls clean and essentially unpainted or white,” she remembers. “When he said his house fit the requirements, I was ready to buy it before actually touring the inside.”

        As she oversaw the renovation of her new home, she began to look for gallery space and eventually landed on West Fourth Street, across from Mr. Solway, whom she considers her mentor.

        “I cautioned her on how difficult it was going to be,” Mr. Solway says. “I told her working with local and regional artists was a job that was so essential and so vital and rewarding in all kinds of ways except financially.”

        “It's not about the money,” she says. “But it's about the money.”

        This sentiment is what sets her apart from other gallery owners.

        “She is serious about making a commercial gallery work,” Mr. Desmarais says. “But at the same time she is serious about showing challenging art. It's hard enough to do in a major city, but triply difficult in a smaller city like Cincinnati.”
Corporate clients

        It's Thursday, less than 24 hours before the opening of the show, and several of Mr. Corbin's paintings have yet to be hung. The installers are working against the clock.

        Ms. Schwartz is overseeing the placement of a video monitor that will be part of a second show opening in her back “project” room the same night. This artist called the day before to say the light boxes that made up the collection could not be sold individually — affecting potential sales and Ms. Schwartz's already printed price lists.

        Although she says she doesn't handle stress well, she maintains her decorum juggling numerous requests by artists, patrons, photographers on assignment from the local press and inquiries from corporate clients.

        “The corporate clients are really incredible,” she says. “When corporations go out looking for art, they don't just buy one piece, they buy a lot. They are forming a collection. What I have going for me is I have a lot of really good regional artists.”

        Ms. Schwartz has brought together an impressive group of artists — starting some on their careers by showing their work, often experimental, in her project room.

        “With Linda it's not just about making work for sale,” says multimedia artist Mark Fox, whom Ms. Schwartz represents. “That's unusual for a commercial gallery. What she is doing is more ... experimental. Linda has been great finding the work and the clients, and ever since I have been with her I have had a spurt of sales. Her gallery is one of the few places in Cincinnati that is showing contemporary work that is not just about making pretty pictures . . . It's about people who are dealing with issues and treating the work as a contemporary format.”

        Mr. Fox is at work on two commissions, which have come to him through the gallery. One of them is for Ms. Schwartz.

        “The piece is based on a miscommunication,” he says. “I was joking and said I had a wandering eye — for women. She said, "I have one, too.' But she was referring to a physical condition. So I am making a motorized eye that will move throughout her house on an elaborate pulley system — a wandering eye.”

        “My role is to find and present the best artists and the most challenging artists I can find,” she says. “But ultimately we have the shows to place the art.”

Downtown art

        Her location downtown is paramount, she believes, to the work she is doing. Although she tried to find space in the center of the city (“The rents were very high and the places needed a lot of work. The landlords weren't willing to put any money into rehabbing them or to give me a break on the rent,” she says), she landed on the western edge and therefore worries about customers finding her space.

        “I am not the most visible, but I think the people who need to find me will find me,” she says. “If you moved me to Hyde Park I'd close. The kind of art I am showing is downtown art; it has heart and soul. When you get farther out of downtown, a lot of times the artwork ends up getting much more commercial. The audience is different, and I think it becomes all about selling. I think there is more of a mission here.”

        “I think she is doing an extraordinarily good job and doing something that is so important,” Mr. Solway says. “She is doing it professionally — showing good work, running a very professional space. She is giving terrific energy to the artists themselves and doing small publications. And, she maintains a sunny disposition.”

        “I love the feel in there,” says Sue Spaid, curator at the CAC. It's very airy and elegant. She has great openings and has been very instrumental in bringing the art community together.”

        Ms. Schwartz has been a key organizer of DIVA, which Ms. Spaid, also an active member, named. It is a grassroots organization of downtown galleries that in the absence of an arts council is promoting its members and working hard to get the word out.

        They held a successful event last year and have a second event scheduled for September. Ms. Schwartz is in charge of membership.

        “DIVA is my little passion,” she says. “When I moved here, there was no art organization that could bring us together. We are all overbooked and overworked but we got a brochure out. The visual arts need to be promoted.”

"Vacation' time

        On Friday the last picture by Mr. Corbin is up, and the gallery seems much calmer. Ms. Schwartz, in a red dress that compliments Mr. Corbin's paintings, is already at work on her next exhibition, a group show of eight artists around the theme of summer vacation.

        “I am extremely excited about Summer Vacation,” she says. “All of the artists have made pieces especially for the show. I had nice long conversations with them — What are you trying to do? What is this about? It was extremely fulfilling. They all used summer vacation as a starting point and then went into multiple layers of content. That really excites me.”

        She strides across the gallery to resolve a problem with the front window signage, then throws a visitor a lint roller because one of the gallery's pony hair upholstered chairs has shed on her slacks.

        “I welcome everybody,” she says. “I want to share this art with everyone. I know a lot of times my shows will not sell, but I put the work out there because I really believe in it, and it challenges me, and I like the artist. I have grown tremendously since I moved here.”

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