The Beautiful Show

Making the Weinstein Gallery a success only starts with putting pretty pictures on the wall

From the sidewalk, the Weinstein Gallery resembles a struck sitcom set. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the two rooms of the Weinstein Gallery in south Minneapolis are eerily empty, the walls bare of art and the blanched maple floors spotless and uncluttered. With track lighting flooding the rooms like klieg lights, there is an unspoken expectation that something is about to happen, something big. I ring the doorbell and wait.

Originally built in the late 1920s for small neighborhood shopkeepers--a grocer or a butcher, perhaps--the building on 46th Street that houses the Weinstein Gallery has seen many configurations. When the gallery opened in 1997, it occupied only half the space it does now--that is, just one storefront. A few years later, the gallery expanded into a neighboring space, so it now fills two storefront windows. I realize as I wait on the sidewalk that it is not often one sees any building space, let alone an art gallery, in such a state--all lit up and yet completely vacant. Soon gallery assistant Kate Heider answers the doorbell and takes me through the display rooms to the basement where I am to have an audience with the resident wizard of the gallery, Martin Weinstein.

Weinstein, who is 59 years old and dressed informally in jeans, sneakers, black T-shirt, seems hesitant to meet me at first. In fact, the first words he speaks are: "What kind of story exactly are you planning to write?" This despite the fact that Weinstein himself has called to solicit an article--a worthy suggestion given the impressive number of big-name shows his gallery has mounted in recent seasons. Then he draws back into himself, as if taken aback at his own words. He will do this numerous times over the next few days--making gleeful or outrageous statements, thinking better of them, taking them "off the record," or saying, "You can't print that." And then he drops another colorful line, and starts the process all over again. In this fashion, Weinstein seems like a man constantly juggling a dozen thoughts.

Martin Weinstein: Lawyer, philanthropist, art impresario
Daniel Corrigan
Martin Weinstein: Lawyer, philanthropist, art impresario

The initial awkwardness passes quickly--Weinstein is a talker down to the marrow--and he sets off on a small whirlwind of activity: a tour of the space and a discussion of the renovation that took place when the gallery opened more than four years ago. All the while he keeps tabs on what his employees are doing, and he maintains a lookout for the arrival of new artworks from the framer of the gallery's next show.

When Weinstein bought the one space in 1996 it had been a boarded-up potter's studio. "You can't imagine what it was like down here," he says, gesticulating around the room. There was cardboard on the ceiling that had been there for 70 years. It was so dry, we had to take it all out." Upstairs, it took nine days of scraping to remove the linoleum that covered the original maple floors.

The first show at the Weinstein Gallery--paintings by Madison, Wisconsin, artist T.L. Solien--opened in August 1996. Since then Martin Weinstein has put up and taken down nearly 40 shows, nearly one per month. Originally, most of the displays were of paintings. In the last couple of years, though, painting has declined as a marketable commodity--"No one is doing painting now," says Weinstein--and so the gallery has shifted mostly to photographs. Among artists who have shown at the Weinstein Gallery are a number of nationally known figures, such as Chuck Close, Robert Polidori, David Byrne, Mary Ellen Mark, and Nicolas Africano. At present, the next year is booked solid with new shows.

Weinstein has a habit of jumping from topic to topic. Having given a cursory overview of the renovation, he talks about the difficulty of insuring art, then he praises the work of the artist of his upcoming exhibit, Sarah Moon, and praises the way the show will look once it's up. He then praises his preparation crew.

"When we put up a show," Weinstein says, "framing usually takes three weeks. We do a first-class framing....I like to do spare, elegant shows....For us, it is less important to have great economic success. The goal is to make a truly beautiful show. The reason the gallery exists, all I care about, is making a beautiful show."

Then we're back looking at the basement, examining the storage spaces, the floor racks filled with paintings, prints, and photographs. Weinstein talks about keeping the basement free of dust--how he needs to conduct a major cleaning once a week. A moment or two later he returns to talking about the storage racks again.

"There's never enough space," he adds--and then he is off on another subject.

The art world has its share of characters--figures ranging from legendary raconteurs to brilliant pitchmen--and Martin Weinstein seems to belong in this company. There is a bit of the ringmaster to him, an awareness of the choreography of art and artists, patrons and critics, that goes into the running of a successful art business. Weinstein is constantly hitting you with the hard sell, yet there's never a hint of insincerity. He truly believes in what he's selling. And the fact is, his faith is not misplaced. It is surely remarkable that Weinstein has succeeded here in the Twin Cities, where in the past two years at least four galleries have folded, including the significant International Gallery of Contemporary Art (managed by Art-a-Whirl founder David Felker) and Thomas Barry Fine Arts.

His relationships with artists, the cornerstone of gallery life, seem to be exceptionally warm. "The effort Martin makes to bring quality art to Minneapolis is unusual," says Nicolas Africano, a nationally known classically informed sculptor, painter, and print artist based in Illinois. "He works hard to find examples of a range of younger and more established artists whose work departs from the mainstream."

Gallery owners and artists in the Twin Cities often complain about the lack of a vibrant art scene, and especially about the absence of a pool of local patrons. They talk about how the folks with money do their shopping in New York instead of here. They talk about how dead the scene is. But do not tell this to Martin Weinstein. For among his arsenal are a pair of related talents that define his gallery: Weinstein is a powerhouse at attracting well-known artists, and selling their work off the walls.

 

Weinstein's distracted mood changes suddenly when a van pulls up behind the gallery, and workers begin unloading framed photographs. Each piece is wrapped in glassine to protect it from the rain and elements--although Weinstein's attention to each package would seem to be enough to extend its own psychic umbra of safety. The sound of feet stamping overhead and the rustling of glassine are too much temptation for Weinstein to resist, and so he heads upstairs. I ask him if he will be busy now, since the show opens roughly 48 hours from now. Instead of answering, Weinstein stops at the top of the stairs.

"Wait," he says. "You have written some stuff about us, haven't you?"

I reply in the affirmative.

"And some of it has been negative. That's right, I remember now." There is a pause. His face becomes serious and clouds over a bit. "I think that's..." he starts to say, and struggles to find the right words. "You know... That's great. I'm not the sort of guy..."

Again there is a pause as his face twists into a thoroughly unreadable expression. He watches the crew bringing images into the gallery for a moment. They are stripping off the glassine noisily, and setting the framed photos on the floor against the walls. He continues finally: "I think that's great. One of the things that this city has been missing is an arts press....I want someone to write knowledgeably about the art scene here. I have no ax to grind. I love what I'm doing. I love the coverage. I'm happy."

The moment passed, Weinstein introduces me to Bob Mendel from the framing and display business Art Serve, and to his crew, Joe and Brad. All of them wear white gloves to protect the images and frames as they begin the process of hanging the work. Before that can happen, though, Weinstein begins to survey the galleries deliberately. He tells the crew where to move things, taking charge subtly. He never raises his voice, though his intonation has taken on much more authority. Every ear is attuned to his directions.

"Bob will tell me where I'm wrong," Weinstein says as he begins shuffling the order of the images through the gallery, moving photos here and there. "But I'm never wrong, right, Bob?"

The images are rough, painterly photos displayed in beautifully minimalist frames of black lacquered wood. Each around two feet by three feet in size, the moody black-and-white images have undertones of sepia and burnt umber that make them seem almost organic, though the imagery is mostly of turn-of-the-century dolls and mannequins and models acting like dolls. Several are collected in a triptych format. They have something of the quality of early 20th-century anthropological photos detailing human origins: Australopithecus afarensis, Homo erectus, Neanderthal, and the like.

The artist Sarah Moon, a leading fashion photographer in Paris, has begun each of these photos with a Polaroid. Yet these are but sketches for the finished work, which is a conglomeration of 32 sepia-toned silver prints. If there is any context to the work as a whole, they seem to point without irony to the dehumanization of women as doll-like objects. Individually, they mostly seem like tone poems that happen to include otherworldly bodies or dolls or whatever else.

For a time, there is some jostling to arrange the images in the two galleries. This act is complicated by the fact that the show, called "Still," is accompanied by a book of the same title, in which the images are presented in order. Weinstein would like to preserve that organizing system in the gallery.

"Is this where this image falls in the book?" asks Weinstein mildly, pointing at an image.

Someone answers: "No, it's at the end of the book."

"That's what I thought," Weinstein replies. And just like that, the image is moved. This goes on for some time. Walls become too crowded, and Weinstein wants some photographs moved to other walls.

Once the placement has been decided and the crew begins hanging the show, Weinstein concedes to talk a bit about the life that preceded the gallery--which is now, to put it mildly, the center of his life. Originally from Brooklyn, he became a high school social-science teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the mid-1960s, a career that ended during the divisive teachers' strike of 1968. "I loved teaching," he says, "but I had to leave."

He entered law school, graduated in 1972, and came to the Twin Cities to serve as a clerk for a law firm, eventually working his way up to managing partner of Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand. Weinstein is not interested in talking much about this phase of his life, which ended four years ago. Instead, he mentions how he started collecting art in the late 1970s, and how in the early 1980s he began donating much of his collection to the art museums in town. "Ninety percent of what I made, I gave to the museums," he says.

Many of the photographs, which included works by August Sanders, Thomas Frederick Arndt, and Cornell Capa, had great significance to the art world--so much so that the Minneapolis Institute of Art mounted an exhibition with a catalog titled "Martin Weinstein's Gifts to the Photography Collection" in 1992.

Christian Peterson, associate curator of photography at the MIA, describes Weinstein's contributions in grateful terms. "Of local collectors, Martin is one of the two most generous contributors to the collection," he says.

"People ask me why," Weinstein says of his philanthropy. "I just loved sharing with people. I don't really know the answer. I've been asked over and over... I am not now, nor ever have been, a wealthy person..."

Though Weinstein's persistent references to the beauty of his shows may seem like so much sales spin, he surely would have been better compensated staying with law than running a gallery. In a decidedly noncommercial vein, Weinstein has collaborated for two years with the nonprofit Rain Taxi Reading Series, hosting appearances by such avant-garde poets and writers as Arthur Sze, Rikki Ducornet, and Franz Wright.

"We loved his space," says Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer. "There's a sort of Zen-like austereness to the space, and we thought it was the perfect setting for certain kinds of writers."

Their collaboration aside, Lorberer is struck by Weinstein's talent as a collector. "The thing I respect most about him is that he's got an incredibly keen eye for photography. I've seen him spot things in a thrift store and recognize the value even without a signature or any museum context."

As the afternoon draws on, Donna Miller, a part-time sales associate at the gallery, arrives eager to see the work. She stands out of the way of the shuffling and repositioning.

"I'm amazed," says Miller. "We talk about the art, but when it actually comes in it is always more beautiful than we expect."

In time, the final arrangement is decided. The Art Serve crew begins taking measurements--each painting will be positioned at a centerline of 59 inches from the floor--and then hangs the work, keeping a strict measurement of 24 inches between piece.

"Look at that," says Weinstein after Bob Mendel has placed a triptych on the wall. His voice is excited. "When it goes onto a wall, it really changes the pieces."

About 20 minutes later, all of the works have been placed, and everyone steps away to get a sense of how it all looks. No one says anything, but all seem satisfied.

"Now I'll come back at ten at night," says Weinstein. "And I'll change the show." There is the briefest of pauses. He laughs. "See. I'm going to give Bob a heart attack!"

 

And,then, finally, the show opens with a Friday-evening party. Flanking the building like a sentry when I arrive is a guy in a black Italian-cut suit talking into a cell phone. The crowd inside the gallery is not terribly heavy--about sixty people milling about in the two rooms. Weinstein almost immediately picks me out of the crowd

"You should have been here at 7:30," he says. "It was hard to get in the door. I'd say there were three or four hundred people here." He points to the artist, says he'll introduce me to her later, and then heads off to mingle with a group of well-dressed younger people.

The crowd is diverse by age: People in their 20s mingle with people in their late 40s and 50s (there are oddly few people in their 30s). Most are stylishly dressed in the same muted colors and tones as the photos. There are a few anomalous art-school types too, wearing brown and pink thrift-store clothes. They write in their sketchbooks, presumably a homework assignment given by a professor eager to encourage his students to venture out into the dwindling gallery scene.

"I'm running for public office," says a man in a blue window-check jacket (which I think I've recently seen in a GQ ad) to a woman near the food table.

"You are?" she says, astonished.

"No, just kidding," he says.

I walk into the other room of the gallery then--the one without food--which is almost empty of people. The gallery layout is just as it was on Wednesday--no midnight changes by Weinstein after all. As I take out my own notepad, I'm approached by a young man incongruously dressed in a slate-gray sharkskin suit and a pinkish T-shirt that says "excitement" on it. The T-shirt was apparently once white, but seems to have been accidentally washed with something red.

He tells me his name, and upon learning that I'm working on a story about the gallery, immediately tells me about his movie-production company. He hands me a card that is silver, perhaps to match his suit.

"You should do a story on us," he says. "Film is a visual art. I like visual art. It's very important for filmmakers to look at visual art."

After a few moments of conversation, it becomes obvious he is whacked out not a little on something pretty potent, as he asks me my name and whom I work for a second time. I tell him, and he immediately forgets, asking me twice more in the next ten minutes. He says a few things that he is consciously trying to get me to write down, quotable things, but when he realizes I'm not going to write down anything more, he says: "If you ever hear about me, if I become famous, I'll let you do a story on me first, and you can become part of the film scene with me." Then he excuses himself by saying he's going outside to smoke a cigarette.

A few moments later, the film director comes back in, insisting that I take a quote from him. "I can say something brilliant on any topic."

I ask him what he thinks of the show and Moon's work. He pauses, takes a deep breath, and says: "These works express to me the modern state of feminism in today's ultraconsumerist society, which forces women to live under a cloud of degradation and takes away from the natural essence of the female. How's that?"

Meanwhile, Sarah Moon works the room in a far more dignified fashion. She is a smallish woman with bobbed curly hair who looks to be in her late 40s. She's dressed in a stylish green-gray coat, a loosely draped maroon skirt, and wedge-soled shoes. She is obviously exhausted, but on an art-opening high that is keeping her going.

"Martin is great," she says. "He is everything one can say positive. All photographers that exhibit here love him. He brings a lot of passion to it...and he sells."

The last person I see at the art opening is Martin Weinstein himself, who cheerfully shakes my hand as I approach the door.

"We sold a lot of pictures today," he says. "I never ask anybody to buy on opening day. But I bet we sold," he pauses to count, "five or six pictures tonight."

 

A few days later, I visit the basement of the Weinstein Gallery one last time to check in on the aftermath of the opening, and the beginning of the show. Martin Weinstein is giving two women a tour when I arrive, showing them his vintage photographs from the early modernist period--works by Man Ray and others. Then he is suddenly inspired to direct them to something from an upcoming show involving photos of rock stars.

"You'll like this," he says, and pulls out an early photo of the Rolling Stones in Times Square. He points out how young Mick Jagger is, and that the band was still fronted at the time by an insouciant Brian Jones. He explains that these are more obscure shots, taken by lesser-known photographers.

"There's another one in here that is a gem," he says. It is a photo of Bill Haley taken after a concert. Weinstein says he has several other photos, including a rare one of Bob Dylan that is being conserved. "I have five or six now, but I need about twenty more to make a show. I've got word out to my sources."

After a few more minutes of guiding the women through the collection, he sits, and pauses. "Take a look at whatever you want," he tells them. It turns out that eight paintings have sold from the previous Friday, a good amount of money given the $3,000 price tag on each piece. And Weinstein reports that several other people have expressed interest.

"It was good for opening night," he says. But, he continues, after calculating costs and overhead and expenses, the gallery will still need to sell about eight more pieces in order to break even on the show. Weinstein hesitates when I ask how much he sells from a typical show, or during a typical year. Instead, he repeats a sentiment that is at once a kind of mantra, and the undeniable truth about the gallery: "I love what we do. I work my tushy off. The show upstairs is a beautiful show."

I take one more stab at the question, asking for information on how many collectors he has, and where they come from. How has the Weinstein Gallery found a base of buyers where so many other local spaces have failed?

"When I started this thing," Weinstein says, "I thought the gallery needed a base of 40 to 50 collectors who would buy work several times a year....I believe we do have a good core of collectors now."

He pauses, starts to speak, says he probably shouldn't say this, then decides to continue: "When I first had this idea, my wife asked me, 'Who are you going to sell to?' I made a list of 40 people--acquaintances and fellow arts-board members who I thought might come in here and consider buying art. I still have the list at home, in fact... After two years, I dragged it out, and I think only three of the people on the list have ever showed up, which I think is hysterical."

He laughs at the younger, more naive version of himself, then he continues. "At the time, though, the list was important. It gave me confidence. It allowed me to think of the shows that I wanted to do. One of the myths of our success is that it is based on my contacts. This is not true. It's really been based on our work and effort."

As I leave the gallery, I take one look back through the windows at the photographs. They seem to float magically in the flood of light--the work of a master enchanter.

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