by Keith Spera via the advocate.com
Until recently, a 6-foot-tall depiction of Louis Armstrong’s mother dominated a wall at gallery owner Arthur Roger’s sumptuous French Quarter abode.
Renowned local artist John T. Scott carved the image from plywood using a chain saw. Scott’s method, Roger explained, was to cut quickly and not overthink the process.
“You want to always be in the moment,” Roger said. “You want to be in a higher place with art. You don’t want your head to dictate how you create. Do it; then think about it.”
He employed a similar approach not to create art but to give it away.
Roger has donated more than 80 works, conservatively valued in excess of $1 million, from his personal collection to the New Orleans Museum of Art.
His donation — paintings, sculpture and photography by local and national luminaries of modern art — comprises a new NOMA exhibit, “Pride of Place: The Making of Contemporary Art in New Orleans.” The exhibit opens Friday and runs through Sept. 3.
In the exhibit’s 143-page catalog, museum Director Susan M. Taylor describes the gift as “transformational.” It “significantly expands” NOMA’s contemporary art holdings and “reaffirms the museum’s commitment to the work of local New Orleans artists,” she said.
If the gift has transformed the museum, it similarly represents a transformation for Roger.
At 62, he says he has entered a new stage of life. For the past four years, he’s been in a committed relationship. And though he is still a fixture at Arthur Roger Gallery, which for nearly 40 years has factored prominently in New Orleans’ modern art community, work no longer consumes his existence.
At one point, “you want to collect and have things,” he said recently. “And then it’s about letting go. “It’s a personal thing that I’m going through. It feels right.”
A passionate advocate
How quintessentially New Orleans is Arthur Roger? His father was a conductor on the old Desire streetcar line.
As a young man, Roger worked as a framer at a Royal Street gallery, coming into contact with an array of artists. He resolved to open his own gallery.
His mother mortgaged her Chalmette home so he could buy a building on Magazine Street and, in 1978, open Arthur Roger Gallery, with a focus on contemporary art.
His timing was perfect. New Orleans wasn’t considered a modern art Mecca. Only a handful of galleries, including Galerie Simonne Stern, dealt in contemporary art.
But local attitudes were changing. A coalition of artists and civic activists had founded the multidisciplinary Contemporary Arts Center in 1976 as the cornerstone of a nascent arts district.
Roger emerged as a passionate advocate for modern art. He aspired to build a national profile for both his gallery and the local artists he represented. He was perfectly positioned to catch the wave as female and black artists first came to prominence in contemporary art.
“As a dealer and a collector, that’s an exciting place to be,” he said. “You want to be at the beginning of something.”
His roster of artists included the likes of George Dureau, Ida Kohlmeyer, Lin Emery, John T. Scott and Catherine Opie. He also forged relationships with such national figures as film director and artist John Waters.
Even artists who lived in New Orleans then often sold their work elsewhere, usually in New York. Arthur Roger Gallery provided a local outlet and cultivated an extensive network of collectors. In 1988, the gallery moved to its present location on Julia Street in the Warehouse District.
Groundbreaking exhibitions explored issues of gender, race and sexuality and addressed the AIDS crisis and Hurricane Katrina. He represented New Orleans at prominent art fairs around the country.
He also assembled a carefully curated personal collection, much of it displayed in his octagon-shaped home at the edge of the French Quarter. Built in 1860, the house has a history as colorful as its art. Previous owners included author Michael Lewis and the proprietors of Restaurant Jonathan, a now-shuttered eatery around the corner.
‘From white to white’
Leading a tour of the home recently, Roger pointed out where Barry Manilow once entertained guests at a purple piano and where TV talk show host Dick Cavett held court.
Last year, Roger and his partner moved into the guesthouse as the main residence was being renovated. The color scheme “went from white to white,” Roger said. His partner found the whole process “ridiculous,” Roger said. “There probably is some truth in that.”
Going into the renovation, he didn’t think he’d miss the artworks that were temporarily placed in storage. Instead, “I wanted to get them back on the wall as soon as possible.”
But what would be his collection’s ultimate fate? As he has told clients over the years, “You really don’t own the painting. You’re just a custodian. I honestly feel very committed to that.”
Helping collectors resell their acquisitions is an important part of Roger’s business, but he didn’t want to flip his own collection. “It would make me feel bad about myself to profit, to trade this art like a commodity in a hedge fund,” he said. “I didn’t buy them for that reason.”
And the notion that the art would find a new home only after his death “always creeps me out a little bit, that that’s the ‘letting go.’ I wanted to see what would happen by doing it this way.”
Donating art to museums is not without controversy. Some artists believe museums should buy art, not receive it for free.
“It’s a valid point,” Roger said. “If people give them away, why would a museum purchase them? Museums need to demonstrate their commitment.”
But other artists not only supported Roger’s donation but enhanced it. He worked with painter David Bates and other artists to provide the museum with more significant works than the ones Roger owned.
Katie Pfohl, NOMA’s curator of modern and contemporary art, made the selections, which amounted to approximately half of the collection Roger painstakingly assembled over decades. The process is ongoing, as appraisals, tax filings and other paperwork involved in formally transferring ownership of some pieces must still be completed.
The end result is that the museum’s permanent collection now includes Robert Colescott’s “Power for Desire, Desire for Power,” a 7-by-10-foot acrylic painting that formerly hung in Roger’s foyer. NOMA also gained Scott’s “Mayann (Woodblock),” Kohlmeyer’s mixed-media “Synthesis BB,” a Deborah Kass silk-screen, a Willie Birch papier-mache sculpture, a subversive Waters sculpture titled “Rush,” Opie’s “Self-Portrait/Cutting” and dozens more.
In exchange for his generous gift, Waters joked, Roger should get a museum bathroom named after him.
‘They were pretty horrified’
On June 6, museum staffers arrived at Roger’s house to pack up the art. He left, preferring not to be involved as his household objects were suddenly promoted to museum-quality works of art.
“It’s an odd thing,” he said. “You’re so familiar with the things you have in your house. Other people treat them differently, in a good way. I thought it was a good idea for me not to be around and let them do their job.”
Previously, Roger had transported several pieces to the museum to be photographed, unloading them swathed in Bubble Wrap from the back seat of his car.
“I’m not careless; I know how to do it,” he said. “But when I got to the museum, I think they were pretty horrified.”
Ceding control of objects he’s lived with for years wasn’t easy. “When you move them to an institution, you recognize what an artist must feel like when they have an exhibition,” he said. “You no longer have any ability to protect it. It becomes open for discussion and anyone’s opinion.”
On Tuesday, he oversaw NOMA’s installation of a large work by Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly, previously displayed at Roger’s camp in rural Mississippi. “I felt much more confident after that experience,” he said. “I know it’s going to live beyond what my expectation was.”
Still, coming home on June 6 to empty walls was disconcerting. “The most striking part of it is the echo in the house,” he said. “I sort of like it, because the way the artwork talks to you visually when you go in and out of the room isn’t there anymore.”
He’s since moved some pieces out of storage but doesn’t plan to fill all the empty space anytime soon, if ever. “My partner thinks this is all a big excuse to make room for buying other things,” he said. “But that’s not possible.”
He bought many of his pieces early in artists’ careers, before prices skyrocketed. “Opportunities always exist, but not the same opportunities,” he said.
And building the original collection required 40 years of “searching, finding, waiting. I don’t see that I would go through that again.”
Especially now that he has other priorities.
“I remember one of my artists telling me, ‘I’ll never have a partner because there’s just no room in my life.’ That jolted me to rethink myself a bit,” Roger said.
“The art business is all-consuming. No matter how much you do, there’s so much more that you should or could do. It’s not just the work during the day; it’s the openings, the parties, going to (international art fair) Basel, going to museums, networking. I want more. I want a personal life. That’s the bottom line.”