150 works by 100 artists crowd the flagship Julia Street gallery
By Doug MacCash | Staff writer for The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate
The 150 artworks in the Arthur Roger gallery 45th anniversary show aren’t arranged in chronological order. And they’re not arranged according to style, subject matter, whether the artists are local or from out of town, or alive or dead.
The paintings, sculpture and photographs just seem arbitrarily scattered around the rooms, as if they were guests at a crowded house party, mingling and striking up random conversations with one another.
As gallery founder Arthur Roger put it, the show was arranged “organically.” The approach befits the organic growth of the New Orleans art scene since 1978, when Roger’s first showroom opened on Magazine Street, and the evolution of what would become New Orleans’ premier contemporary art gallery.
Roger, who grew up in the 9th Ward, describes those first days as a gamble. He said he was “a kid with no direction” until he got a job working in a French Quarter art gallery.
When he set out to have a gallery of his own, he borrowed the money to open the place from his mom, who mortgaged her house to make his dream possible. Looking back, he said, to have asked his mom to risk her future on his feels a bit “selfish.”
It was a “Field of Dreams” idea, he said. But because there wasn’t much interest in contemporary art at the time, it was very possible that if he built it, nobody would come.
But with Mom’s investment on the line, Roger said to himself, “I gotta make this work.”
And so he did. Timing turned out to be on his side. As Poydras Street office buildings grew, so did corporate art purchases. That kept the gallery afloat as Roger introduced New Orleans collectors to the works of some of the most happening artists of the era.
Roger always had a great eye. He represented outstanding locals like John Scott, George Dureau, Willie Birch, Bob Gordy, Lin Emery, Jacqueline Bishop and Gene Koss.
Regional artists like Doug Bourgeois, Clyde Connell and Francis Pavy were also part of the picture. And so were national stars, including Robert Colescott, Lesley Dill, James Surls and Deborah Kass.
His business philosophy, Roger said, has always been to try to shoot for that perfect spot where the price of an artwork is fair to both the artist and collector. He said he considered posting some old price lists in the exhibit to demonstrate how the value of some artists’ works have mushroomed over the years, but decided against it.
In time, Roger moved his gallery to Julia Street to become the flagship of the then-new New Orleans arts district. The directionless 9th Warder had become one of the most important arbiters of the whole art scene.
Asked what’s changed over the years, Roger said he feels like his gallery and others have become more accessible. There was a time when people felt that a certain social and financial status was required to feel at ease in an art gallery.
Now, he said, “People feel more ownership with art, and are more comfortable walking in.”
As he meandered the gallery earlier this week, Roger noted that, as the decades have slipped by, several of the early gallery artists have died, and others have ceased making art.
Roger said he can’t imagine leaving the profession he loves. “I don’t see that I’m ever going to retire,” he said. The gallery “still has a role to play to further the New Orleans art scene.”
The exhibit “45th,” which debuted during Saturday’s Art For Arts’ Sake coordinated gallery openings,
will continue through the fall, with a closing reception on Jan. 6. The gallery is located at 432 Julia St.
For information, visit arthurrogergallery.com.