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November 2010
L'ART POUR L'ART
By Carol Gifford

     Witness the flourish of development in the Wells Fargo Cultural Campus—the recent opening of the new Mint Museum Uptown, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture—and the esteem with which Charlotte holds art and artisans is evident. That’s none too soon for one local art gallery owner.

     “It’s an enormously exciting time for visual arts in Charlotte,” says Jerald Melberg, founder of Jerald Melberg Gallery, who has been quietly but intentionally building a reputation as a purveyor of fine art for private and public collectors for the past 27 years.

     Melberg started up in a downtown gallery, subsequently moved to the Moorcroft area, and seven years ago settled in his South Sharon Amity Road location, where he designed and built a 4,000-square-foot gallery large enough to display two art exhibitions at a time, with the artwork on display changing every five to seven weeks.

     Melberg currently represents 25-plus artists, more than half living artists but also including nine or 10 estates such as 21st century abstract expressionists Robert Motherwell, Hans Hofmann, James Rosati and Romare Bearden. In 1986, the gallery presented the first Pablo Picasso exhibition in the state.

     In 2005, Jerald Melberg Gallery was elected to the Fine Art Dealer’s Association, a select group of the nation’s fine art galleries. The gallery has been called “one of the 10 best galleries outside of New York City.” Melberg runs the gallery with his wife Mary and three other employees.

 

The Canvas of Charlotte

     “The city is becoming more aware of visual art and is translating that awareness into a long-term commitment,” says Melberg, who was at one time curator of the Mint Museum of Art. “I hope it means that we recognize that visual art adds an important component to our urban life.”

     He also hopes the new facilities will increase the maturity level of art in the city and make people more discerning about art. He champions partnerships and collaborations between institutions and existing art venues, and has been instrumental in bringing major pieces to Charlotte.

     In 1983, while at the Mint, Melberg met American sculptor James Rosati while he was in Charlotte to install “Two Angled Forms” at the Charlotte Plaza building at College and Fourth Streets. And in 2009, he placed Rosati’s “Triple Arc I,” an abstract stainless steel sculpture rising more than 16 feet, at Queens University campus along busy Selwyn Avenue. The latter is on loan to Queens from the Jerald Melberg Gallery, as the national agent representing Rosati’s estate.

     “Any time we can get a major work of public art placed in our community it strengthens our cultural threads,” maintains Melberg. “I immediately thought of Queens because of the beauty of the campus and for the opportunity for students and the public to interact with the sculpture.”

     Melberg explains that Rosati was an abstract American sculptor, and a member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. The group was at the forefront of American art in the 1940s and 1950s, representing the era in which American art emerged center stage in the world in the form of abstract art. He says about 40 of Rosati’s monumental works are on display in the United States and abroad.

     Rosati’s best known work includes a 24-foot stainless steel “Ideogram” that was located in the plaza between the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York City. Commissioned in 1969, the sculpture was lost when the towers collapsed during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

     The artist once described how he hoped the public would perceive his art: “It should be like a great piece of music: Every time you play it you’re astounded by it... but every time you play it, it shows you more.”

     Next September, on the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Charlotte-born Bearden, Melberg’s gallery will premiere a special exhibition of works. Melberg became personal friends with the artist and has represented Bearden since he first opened his gallery 26 years ago. That show will be part of a Bearden retrospective that will also include special programming and exhibits at the Mint Museum and the Gantt Center.

     “The only way to learn about art is by looking,” says Melberg. “People in our community now have more access to public museums and they can see different artwork and learn the language of art.

     “Art speaks to you,” explains Melberg. “It feeds you in a certain way that nothing else can, and it’s often not easy to describe in words.

     “Oscar Wilde once said, ‘Art is not a thing. It is a way,’ and I try to instill that concept into my collectors. What they are acquiring is a part of what has always set man apart: his ability to pictorially present himself, others and the environment. The product is simply a vehicle to the soul.”

 

Art for Art’s Sake

     “Museums and art galleries can be intimidating to people. People don’t know,” says Melberg, “how they are expected to experience art or how to describe what they see in it and like about it.”

     “Not all of us have a background in art, and people are fearful of the unfamiliar,” he adds, admitting that he has occasionally felt intimidated while visiting galleries in New York City.

     An art gallery can be a more comfortable way to view art, says Melberg, because it offers people the chance to spend more time with art and ask questions about it.

     “We do our part to remove the mystery of visiting an art gallery, but not the mystery of the art,” says Melberg. “When people come in to see a work of art, we explain the history of the artist and the piece. We want to open the door to help you appreciate it.”

     Jerald Melberg Gallery has more than 2,000 works of art. The extensive inventory can be viewed while on exhibition or in a private exhibition room. Picture sizes range from a few inches square to over 13 feet in length. Sculpture is also on display.

     Although the gallery owns some of the work it offers, the majority is on consignment directly from the artists,” explains Melberg.

     “I never apologize for making a profit,” he says, “because if I don’t, I won’t be here to support my collectors’ purchases.”

     Art education and appreciation is just part of Melberg’s business.

     “Art is a commodity—bought, sold and traded in the marketplace like all other articles of commerce,” he says, “and I am the shopkeeper. Prices are determined by supply and demand and can fluctuate based on what the marketplace will bear,” says Melberg.

     Art doesn’t originate as something to sell or buy, because its creation is personal and an individual form of expression, explains Melberg. It is a product of an artist’s confrontation with, reaction to, and interpretation of life and the specific reality of his or her existence.

     One of the differences in selling art and other goods, such as new furniture, is that other businesses can track their anticipated purchases. While Melberg would not reveal his gross annual sales, he did describe the gallery as a significant contributor to the local economy. Although due to the economy, sales have dipped in the last two years.

     His business, though located in Charlotte, attracts clients from around the country and the world. He estimates approximately 20 percent live within 100 miles of the gallery, 70 percent from around the country and 10 percent international. Prices for works of art range from $1,000 to $750,000, with the average range of purchase between $6,000 and $30,000.

     The profile of a private collector, says Melberg, is a male professional between the ages of 45 to 60, who is well educated and has disposable income.

     His public collectors include museums and corporations such as the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Mint Museum of Art, Bank of America, Wachovia/Wells Fargo, Texaco, Hilton Hotels, Price Waterhouse Coopers and Mitsubishi.

     “We’re a destination, so our geographic location is secondary,” says Melberg, explaining that people in the Charlotte region who come to the gallery do so intentionally, as do people from the Southeast or other parts of the United States.

     “I could not survive just from local sales. I could have my gallery anywhere, but I chose Charlotte because I enjoy being here. This is where my home is and my friends are located.”

     “We have developed a history with the city,” Melberg continues. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that my collectors have become my friends. They enjoy receiving invitations to openings and visiting with other art collectors.”

 

Artful Strategy

     Melberg has built his client base by carefully choosing his artists, looking for “visual poetry and an aesthetic quality that’s not easy to describe.” He is invited to attend several art fairs or “trade shows” each year held in large cities such as New York City, Miami, and Chicago to meet other dealers, gallery owners and collectors from around the world.

     His marketing strategy is narrowly focused because his target audience is very small. I try to reach people who are specifically interested in purchasing works of art,” he says, through advertising in national art magazines such as ARTNews and American Art Collector, as well as sending out newsletters and exhibition openings in the mail.

     “We use the Internet to its fullest capability. We have an extensive and user-friendly website that is visually oriented,” he adds.

     Other ways Melberg stands apart from other galleries is by his public speaking to museum and artist groups around the country. His gallery is also writing the Catalogue Raisonné on the graphic works by Romare Bearden, a venture he is funding himself. He decided to take on the exhaustive project after viewing a publication for a Bearden traveling show in the 1990s that contained many errors and omissions.

     “Bearden was like a grandfather to me and I want to make a personal tribute to his legacy—and leave it behind as part of my legacy,” says Melberg, who has been working on the catalogue for nine years now.

     Collectors shop for goods they want in terms of quality, price and the artist’s reputation.

     “If someone wants to buy a regionally known artist in a moderate price range, they probably are not going to come in my door,” says Melberg. “On the other hand, if they are looking for high-quality, internationally acclaimed artists who were significant players in the major 20th century art movements, they will probably seek me out.

     “Works of art have, for centuries, been the primary form of man’s recording himself, others, the human condition and the environment,” says Melberg.

     “It’s a very interesting business and I love what I do. If we can help people see the value of art and how it adds to the quality of their lives, then we’ve succeeded.”

Carol Gifford is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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