Columbus, Ohio USA
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Columbus – ArtCity, USA?
It would be if element of Arts' Roman Czech had his way
By Jennifer Hambrick
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©Photos by Gus Brunsman III
Roman Czech, owner of elements of Art-Gallery.
The afternoon sunlight of a warm fall day streams through the glass windows of the Short North’s elements of Art-Gallery. Beneath the exposed ventilation ducts and steel beams of the gallery’s industrial chic ceiling, the walls are arranged with paintings large and small, some clearly inspired by French impressionism, others abstract expressionist works. Modernistic sculptures in bronze, wood and ceramics occupy the space on the way to a glass-topped table at the back of the small room where gallery owner Roman Czech riffles through papers and works his computer with visible efficiency.
It is easy to see why Roman Czech, an artist as well as a businessman, might be drawn to art as both creator and entrepreneur. His warm, open demeanor seems at once an ideal channel for artistic expression and a powerful means of reaching prospective clients. His fluid yet heavily accented English tells others that, despite his European upbringing and art training, Czech is no prissy art snob. Instead, he’s a guy who loves bringing art and people together, and who has ideas about the Short North’s potential to lift Columbus fully out of its status as cultural backwater and transform it into a force to be reckoned with on the international art scene.
A sensitive counselor in art
A graduate of Krakow’s Academies of Art and Architecture, Czech left his native Poland for America in 1972 to serve as an exchange visitor at the Ohio State University’s School of Architecture. He worked for architecture firms around Columbus until 1976, when he launched Architectural Fabrics, a company specializing in creating design elements, including fabric installation pieces, for shopping centers. Czech was both entrepreneur and principal artist in the Architectural Fabrics enterprise, which was the marketing banner for the fabric installation pieces he created for large event spaces. In Columbus Czech may be remembered as the creator of the series of large, brightly colored fabric wings suspended overhead at the 1992 AmeriFlora exhibition.
Placing art where people gather – in shopping centers, at exhibitions – is not just what Czech has done for most of his 30-year career in the art world; it’s what he’s really all about. His philosophy of art combines the forward-looking eye of a devoted modernist with the most delicate human touch. This philosophy takes root in his artwork from the beginning of his creative process. Czech intuitively searches for an emotional bond with the natural materials he often uses in his works. On annual trips to Lake Erie, Czech searches for rocks from which to create rock sculptures. He takes his boat out on the lake and dives for rocks, keeping some and returning others to the water.
Pray, bronze sculpture by Roman Czech.
“If I look at the rock and I feel some type of relationship with the rock in myself, I keep the rock. If not, I put it back to nature,” Czech said.
Czech manipulates his chosen rocks back in his workshop in Columbus, sandblasting their surfaces or breaking them, and topping them with tiny stone heads.
“Maybe a thousand years ago there lived some type of society with small heads,” Czech mused. “Nature can show human things. I’m trying to discover children and mothers and fathers.”
The primitive-looking human forms that emerge from this process are rendered with a simplicity that enables their souls to emerge unhindered.
While continuing to work as a sculptor and installation artist in the 1990s, Czech noticed that none of the Short North’s art galleries at the time served the market for high-quality contemporary European art. Czech opened elements of Art-Gallery, what remains the only gallery in the Short North focusing exclusively on the work of living European artists. His decision to move elements of Art-Gallery from its original Vine Street location to its present location directly across High Street from the Greater Columbus Convention Center in 2003 was motivated by a desire to be more visible in the Short North art gallery district.
“When people walk from the Convention Center to the Short North art district, they first see elements of Art and the international art that I bring from Europe,” Czech said.
At least this was the plan, and to a certain extent, Czech says, it has worked. But he remains concerned that, despite the Short North’s energetic gallery district, Columbus doesn’t draw as many art investors from other countries, or even from other parts of the U.S., as it could.
“Very often when I travel to different cities, people ask me what city I am from, and I say ‘Columbus.’ I tell them I own an art gallery, and they say ‘Columbus? An art gallery? What art do you have in Columbus?’ In the United States they know only SoHo, the North River district in Chicago, Santa Fe, the Art Expo New York, but they don’t know that art exists in Columbus. I’ve sold to a lot of collectors from Chicago visiting Columbus and they see the art and say, ‘I can’t believe you have this kind of art in Columbus.’”
Czech agrees that Columbus’ low profile as an art center is unjust, but he also believes that charity should begin at home. Columbus art buyers, he says, too often buy artwork from dealers outside Columbus just to say they did, ignoring better art investments sitting in their own backyards.
“Columbus has tremendous potential for supporting art,” Czech says. “But people are very snobbish. They want the (big) names. They want to say, ‘I purchased this piece in Chicago or New York. I flew to Paris and there was an auction.’ Some clients from Chicago purchased art from me not because it was in Columbus, but because it was very good, mature art.”
Good, mature art of central European artists alive today is what Czech aims to bring to Columbus through elements of Art. Czech busily works his European contacts and trolls the Web for exciting new finds to introduce to the Short North. He spends two or three months each year in Europe scoping out the work of adventurous artists, many just emerging in the professional art world. After more than a decade of representing European artists in Columbus, Czech now receives portfolios – solicited and unsolicited – daily in his e-mail box from artists all over Europe hoping to gain footing in the U.S. art market. Czech will give at most two or three of his finds solo shows at elements of Art each year. Most of his gallery’s exhibitions, like the exhibition currently on display, show the work of many different artists from many countries in Europe.
What Czech looks for in the art he chooses to promote is openness and honesty.
“I think art should be very personal, sensitive, direct, pure, clean,” Czech said. “No gimmicks. You have to be attached to the art. Each painting must be a story about something.”
Czech’s approach to selling art is based on a similar idea, and one that sees humanity in both the buyer and the work of art to be sold. The buyer must sense a very deep connection with an artwork, Czech believes, or purchasing it will do neither the buyer nor the artwork any good. This approach makes Czech more of an adoption agent committed to matching an artwork with a loving caretaker than a salesman merely hustling to close a deal.
“When somebody walks into the gallery, I never try to make a sale,” Czech said. “My recipe for buying good art is, you have to be in touch with the piece. Don’t buy a piece on the first day you see it. When you leave the gallery and you think about the same piece over and over, come back and buy it, because this piece will be staying with you.”
Czech’s training in both art and architecture may make him particularly sensitive to the effects a person’s surroundings can potentially have on himself or herself. In addition to being able to advise his individual clients how to discern the right artworks for them, Czech has also employed his intuition about the effects of one’s aesthetic environment in an enterprise, Art'space, to create art for hospitals. Although Czech and business partner Tyler Bohm create and market art for many other types of corporate settings through Art'space, their stated philosophy of art in healthcare settings, like Czech’s gentle approach to working with individual buyers, sees art as powerful medicine: “The role of art in healthcare facilities is part of a larger ideal, one which emphasizes not only physical healing but psychological and spiritual well-being. The role of art in this context should be to enhance and contribute to an overall healing environment.”
elements of Art-Gallery, 507 N. High Street.
The Short North: Art District to the World
Perhaps necessitated by his gentle approach to uniting art with people, Czech has adopted a strategy that has helped to advance the cause of international art in Columbus and to promote his adopted city around the world: he has rolled out the red carpet to corporate America. Following the money to prospective art buyers may seem in general like a good idea, but big business and modern art also seem strange bedfellows.
Still, Czech has found a way to make it work. He began a campaign to bring groups from large corporations around town to elements of Art for buffet receptions and sit-down dinners. At these events, called “Be Part of the Art,” guests have the opportunity to rub shoulders with the artwork and each other, and to begin to understand the importance of their role in developing the arts in Columbus.
“I want the gallery to be very active and to show the corporate world and private investors and developers how art can be important in this city,” Czech said. “The concept of developing these events in the gallery is that I want people to be comfortable being in the gallery. People in the United States are educated about art, but they are intimidated about art and by being in a gallery.”
Czech’s interest in interesting corporate America in art extends beyond the balance sheets of his own gallery. He envisions elements of Art functioning in the far broader context of a Short North art district officially committed to developing its gallery trade and a Columbus known around the globe as a vibrant art center. His ideas to achieve these goals involve enlisting the support of Columbus civic agencies and organizing his fellow Short North gallery owners to plan community arts events with an international, and therefore higher, profile.
Czech would like to see Columbus commit officially to developing the Short North first and foremost as an art district. The area’s informal reputation as an art district because of its high concentration of art galleries is too informal for Czech, who would like to see Columbus developers commit funding to support art in the Short North. The Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce and the Columbus Visitors Bureau, he says, should have a vested interest in developing the Short North as a place where high-level art is traded, and should direct money from their budgets to the area’s galleries. Czech also sees a place for young artists, perhaps as participants in a local contest, to help chart the course for the area’s development as an art center.
To bring even greater visibility to the Short North as a bona fide art district, Czech also envisions moving the Goodale Park Arts Festival to High Street and renaming it the Short North Art District Festival.
An aggressively supported art district in Columbus, Czech believes, would be more visible and could more easily be promoted on the international art market. With the status of an international art center, Columbus would be nicely situated to bring in more revenue from overseas art investors than it currently does.
“I think the Short North should be more international,” Czech said. “I see possibly working together with Ohio State and Columbus College of Art and Design on an exhibit of international art students’ work, or working with Columbus’ European sister cities to display the work of artists from those places.”
In theory, the international artists invited to show their work in Columbus would then spread the word about Columbus’ Short North with other artists overseas.
Living Structure, by Roman Czech.
Although many planks in Czech’s platform to develop Columbus into a global art center focus on international artists, he also hopes to see stronger support for local artists. To this end, Czech himself has worked to foster local talent. In 2005 Czech converted a Short North-area warehouse into artists’ studio space. The venture, called BEDISCOVERED, was intended not only to give emerging Columbus artists space in which to create and display their artwork, but also to bring them together into a professional network and to integrate that network into the greater community.
“I created this type of place there because I felt that a group of people has more to offer than one individual,” Czech said.
The 4,000 square-foot warehouse is an open space with small nooks created by partitions. A small courtyard will serve as a venue for outdoor performances. BEDISCOVERED will be open to the public several times each year, including during Gallery Hops.
One of the first two tenants of BEDISCOVERED has in every way embraced Czech’s concept of bringing artists and the community together in a place devoted to creativity and innovation. Darren Grundey, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and the Ohio State University, had rented studio space at a different facility before coming to BEDISCOVERED. When his former studio space closed, Grundey was left without space for his canvases, so his work went “totally conceptual.” He stopped producing art and focused his energies on conceiving the Columbus New Eden project, a venture that, if implemented, would endeavor to bring about a cultural renaissance in Columbus on the Whittier Peninsula.
Now renting space in BEDISCOVERED, Grundey is again creating paintings, collages and installation pieces, but continues to ruminate over why it is so difficult to be an artist in Columbus.
“There’s wonderful talent here, but it has to migrate elsewhere to survive,” Grundey said. “ You can’t have economic prosperity without the arts. The economics are here, but (corporations and agencies) are not focusing their energies in the right direction.”
As one way of supporting local artists, Czech would like to see more opportunities for artists to display their art in public spaces around town, as part of large outdoor festivals like those at Chicago’s Navy Pier, or even in permanent installations.
“Chicago is a city in love with art,” Czech said. “Every time I go to the city, they are having Navy Pier week, with large-scale sculpture installations. I see the potential to pick up this idea from Navy Pier and give the opportunity for some Columbus artists to create sculpture or installation pieces.”
Czech stops far short of calling his thoughts about the Short North a plan, and he admits that some of his ideas are a little unusual. “This may be a little different, but what if we charged every car $2.00 to drive through the Short North on High Street on Gallery Hop nights?” he asked with a whimsical twinkle in his eye. Still, You have to start somewhere. Czech’s thoughts about Columbus’ future may just lead to big ideas and solid plans which, in turn, may lead to new growth and the development of a progressive art center right in Middle America.
But as committed as Czech may be to ensuring that art in Columbus has a future, he is at least equally committed to ensuring that art – wherever – has a future. If Columbus also benefits from this passion, then we all can share in Czech’s success.
“My soul is totally dedicated to art,’ Czech said. “I think the Short North could make a powerful statement for the community.”
Editor's Note: The 507 N. High St. space closed in February 2010.
elements of Art-Gallery is located at 507 N. High St.
Hours are Monday through Friday 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
For more information about BEDISCOVERED studio spaces or “Be Part of the Art” dining,
call Roman Czech at 614-324-9030 or 614-353-1634 or email email@example.com
©2006 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights received.