George Hemphill- The Au Courant Art Dealer
George Hemphill is thought of as the au courant art dealer in DC. His journey over 40 years, from teaching to the founding of a radical non-profit art organization, to being a force in the development of the fine art photography market, to his work at the influential art gallery Hemphill Artworks, placed him in the front row of an ever-evolving art world. Hemphill typically steps into the background, placing the gallery’s artists in the foreground. But, for the first time, he has agreed to be interviewed.
RE: You spent your adult life involved in the visual arts in one way or another. Did your interest begin in childhood?
GH: Oddly, for a boy growing up in a mill town in the deep south, I identified as an artist before I learned to read. I was a painter, but my artistic interest began to evolve towards the social interactions around the viewer and the artwork. Looking for an experience in the commerce of art was logical.
RE: You have been part of the Washington art scene for quite some time?
GH: Along with painting, my professional experience prior to opening the gallery was teaching, running a college art gallery, working in a non-profit, and ten years in a Washington art gallery. I opened Hemphill in the Fall of 1993.
RE: Do you still paint?
GH: Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if you discovered I made really bad paintings? My time is happily devoted to the gallery.
RE: How did you make the decision to open a gallery?
GH: After working with art from different angles, I felt I had a reasonable chance of succeeding. In particular, having worked as an artist and dealer, I had developed some ideas about how it could be done a little differently.
RE: What were those differences?
GH: You do not need to sell art. A gallery needs created situations in which collectors are comfortable making their best decision. A gallery is not only for the rarified connoisseur. It is an intersection for a range of people and ideas. And a gallery should not be an arbiter of taste but a guarantor of quality.
RE: How has that worked out?
GH: I am still alive and kicking, best of all and inspired by the work. They’ll have to force me to retire.
RE: Was it inspiration that has carried the gallery through the past 28 years?
GH: My inspiration, indeed, but it’s more than me. The success of Hemphill Artworks is entirely due to a team effort. One person dictating is a recipe for boring. A team-oriented gallery is a more exciting enterprise. Pull quote I am lucky, the people with whom I work are extraordinary. I liken it to a great basketball team, they know when and how to pass the ball. Ball hogs lose games.
RE: Researching the Washington art scene, I found there were many more galleries in the 1980s than today, this in spite of an increasing interest in collecting art. Please explain.
GH: It is a confluence of forces, and it is not just here in DC but nationwide. When I entered the art world professionally in the late 70’s, energized young people opened galleries and non-profits, across the country. Now, 50 years later, those energized individuals are retiring, going private, or simply fading away. Today, and particularly after the 2008 downturn, the financial challenges of opening a gallery are more significant. Consequently, we see fewer galleries opening.
RE: What is the solution?
GH: It is an issue that must be addressed by our civic leaders, as well as galleries and artists.
RE: Over the same period, what changes have you seen in the art world at large?
GH: The rise of the mega-gallery. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. These oversized operations take on extraordinary exhibitions. That said, the mega-galleries’ scale, along with the media coverage of the astronomical prices paid for certain artworks, has placed an absurdly exaggerated focus on money and art. Sadly, this can make for a seemingly daunting environment for would-be collectors. Actually, it is not that difficult to become an art collector.
RE: Has the art audience changed?
GH: My god, yes, from art’s social media status as the perfect background for a selfie to the now generally held belief in its spiritual powers, art occupies a central position in contemporary society. The audience has grown in number and sophistication. Compared to when I started, many more people see art as a necessary addition to their lives.
RE: Is the Washington audience different from that of other cities?
GH: There is not yet a scientific measure of the creative differences between one city’s art scene and another, but you do feel the differences. I can say the art world outside DC often fails to understand the local audience. Regardless of how complex or arcane, there are no art concepts that are not immediately engaged by visitors to Hemphill. These are not scenesters going along because it appears hip. The DC audience is of a penetrating intelligence. We know not to underestimate.
RE: Do they collect?
GH: Yes, of course they collect. I should be careful not to lump together collectors as a single type. We’re lucky to have a range of collectors, those capable of acquiring historic works to beginning collectors with more modest budgets. Our approach is broad. It forces us to look for ways of generating a contagious energy in order to reach art collectors, curators, and non-buying art lovers.
RE: I am seeing the nomenclature “curator” cropping up more and more frequently in art journals and reviews. There seem to be a lot of young independent curators. Is curating a way of attracting collectors?
GH: I have to admit, I am a bit uncomfortable curating. I am not interested in expressing a personal viewpoint. Occasionally we have the opportunity and the resources to curate an exhibition. We tend not to curate for sales purposes. Our curated shows are typically pulled together to address social or political issues, not internal artworld musings. Some of the show titles kind of communicate the issues we’ve tried to address, “Our Good Earth,” “The Economy of Scale”, “Vietnam Then and Now”, “Artist-Citizen”. At best, these exhibitions raise questions.
RE: Some galleries focus on contemporary work, some on a particular medium or a period. Some represent artists of related approaches to creating art. Do you have a particular interest?
GH: It is all a rich pageant, a carnival of ideas, the whole of it is exciting.
RE: How have you selected the artists the gallery represents?
GH: Initially, I or one of my colleagues is struck by something visually extraordinary, a unique statement or strategy that feels intellectually or emotionally applicable. Our first responses we take seriously but with some suspicion. Then through repeated studio visits and innumerable lunches with the artist we start to get an idea of the character of the artist. We begin to sense an over-arching vision and a drive to fulfill that that vision.
RE: In addition to presenting the work of gallery artists the gallery has mounted shows of Washington Color School artists?
GH: Well, I arrived in Washington in 1979. I was lucky to meet several of the Washington Color School artists. I was not here when the style originally coalesced, but I do have a rooted connection. In 1979 the popularity of the work was beginning to wane. Today, it’s another story. Live long enough, you’ll see quality work reappear in the spotlight.
RE: I see in the gallery exhibition history you have shown work by Alma Thomas, Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden and other prominent 20th Century African American artists.
GH: When the gallery opened, we were determined not to make the mistakes the major auctions houses, many museums, and galleries had made. We understood how these artists had been overlooked. With the opportunity to show master works, we saw only good reasons. We deserve no credit for this. I feel guardedly optimistic about how institutions and collectors are now starting to pay attention.
RE: There must be uncomfortable situations when you are a guest in a collector’s home, and there is an artwork the host shows you with great pride. You think, how could he purchase that bad art? What do you say?
GH: I try to enjoy the dinner and the conversation.
There is a misperception a novice collector sometimes makes, thinking, fearing, he or she could screw up, make a mistake measured by some sort of set of rules. If you look at the artwork with the whole of yourself, there are no mistakes. The pieces you acquire are moments in a personal narrative, in your personal adventure.
RE: There must be rules a collector should follow if interested in investing in art? Do you consult collectors on investment acquisitions?
GH: There is research, market awareness, and collector behavior. Investing in art is often a romanticized part of the art business. It is a calculation that incorporates human and aesthetic factors. Done correctly, the purchase price and the ultimate sales amounts can make for extraordinary returns.
RE: Article after article describes the dramatic effect of the new technologies on various brick and mortar business. NTF’s, (non-fungible tokens) are portrayed as the potential killers of the art object. Do you think technology will eliminate the art as we define it today?
GH: The question pre-supposes something extreme, like all pre-existing artworks will somehow become un-interesting. That said, the answer is yes. Bio-technology and data-driven consumer manipulation capabilities will significantly alter the human race. There is no telling what future art will be for future human beings. We have to hope and work for the best. Today, presently, seeing a great painting, in all its complexity and beauty, remains an extraordinary experience, and will forever.
RE: But do think the brick and mortar gallery will exist after such sweeping technological changes?
GH: A gallery is just a box where people and artworks gather. In the future, those boxes may not be brick and mortar. However, they are constructed, and galleries will remain the location where artworks are gathered and people will look, think, and respond. No doubt, people will be moved, and they will identify with their favorite artworks.
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