Columbus, Ohio USA
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After 20 years, the Hammond Harkins Galleries is still relevant
By Karen Edwards
January/February 2017 Issue
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Marlana Hammond Keynes • Photo | LarryHamill
It’s Paris, 1906, and you’re among the glitterati winding your way to 27 rue de Fleurus in the sixth arrondissement. Here, you’ll mix and mingle with artists and art lovers, writers, musicians and socialites. This is the home of Leo and Gertrude Stein. It’s your first visit here, and you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed – not by the crowd, necessarily, though certainly the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso are distracting. No, instead you’re drawn to the paintings, the glorious bursts of color, shape and form that hang on the wall. Paul Cezanne’s Bathers are here – over there, Picasso’s Young Girl with Basket of Flowers. Everywhere, oils by Renoir, Matisse, Gauguin, Delacroix, virtual feasts for the eyes, the senses, the soul. And there, in her black dress, holding her own among the cultured guests, is Gertrude Stein.
Now, it’s Columbus, the Short North, January 2017. You’re among the vibrant, energetic crowd pulled into a well-lit space at 641 N. High Street. You wander the room, mixing and mingling with young and old, gay and straight, black, brown and white, but it’s not necessarily the people that draw your attention. It’s the walls covered with imaginative, thought-provoking images in a kaleidoscopic range of color. Here, an abstract painting by local artist Dennison Griffith, there a still life by Paul Hamilton, and over there, the joyous, colorful, almost rhythmic work of African-American artist Aminah Robinson. And there, in a smart black dress, holding her own among the evening’s invited artists and cultured guests, sits Marlana Hammond Keynes. This is the Hammond Harkins Galleries, and this is as close to Gertrude Stein’s legendary French salon that you’ll probably ever come.
Two like minds
The similarities between Keynes and Stein are striking. Stein was not an artist. Instead, her art was in locating and supporting the best artists of the day, and she did so with a careful eye and a breadth of knowledge that impressed even those art masters who attended her soirees. The same with Keynes.
“I’m not an artist. My father wanted me to be one. He thought I had talent. I didn’t,” she says with a laugh.
But Keynes has always been interested in art – and how could she not be? Although her father owned a men’s clothing shop, he loved art. “And my mother was a collector,” says Keynes. “She collected French impressionism primarily. Not my cup of tea, but she liked it.” And her sister – who lived and worked in Europe for 19 years, traveling to France, Spain, Venezuela, Tunisia, Nigeria and other locales– collected art wherever she went.
So Keynes knew when she arrived at college, that she would study art. “I was an art history major,” she says. It was during a time when everyone, including her father, wondered what kind of job she could land pursuing a degree like that. Never mind that she studied under the likes of such notables as Roy Lichtenstein. It was a question that needed an answer.
And, at first, it wasn’t clear what Keynes would do with her degree. So what was an art history major to do? What any post-graduate interested in art would do. She moved to New York. “I worked in retail, at Lord & Taylor,” she says – but her stint in the Big Apple became, in brief, her graduate degree, a chance to feast on the city’s art galleries, museums, and special exhibitions. Fully experiencing, living and breathing art. “It was the 1950s and 1960s,” she says. “There was so much wonderful art going on at that time.” Art was in the process of evolving from traditional, realistic images to more contemporary, abstract themes.
It was an exciting time, a time of learning and growth and study. Eventually, however, Keynes found her way back home, to Lancaster, to her father’s clothing shop.
Finding her path
But she wasn’t there to sell clothes. Well, not primarily. Her time in New York had made clear her path. Now, she knew what she wanted to do, in fact, what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. Keynes took the space below her father’s shop and opened her first art gallery.
“Eventually, I opened a second gallery above the men’s store as well,” says Keynes. “The first gallery featured contemporary realism, the second gallery offered more abstract work,” she says. And Keynes ran it all. The galleries, of course, but after a while, she was also running her father’s business. And she needed help.
It was during this time that Keynes met a woman who would become one of her longest-serving employees. Laura Savage was an interior designer at the time. “My favorite part of the job was fine art installations,” she says. Her father was an art collector, and she and her father would often take a drive to Lancaster to visit Keynes’s galleries. “We’d make a day of it,” says Savage. “We’d always have dinner at Shaw’s.” It was through that relationship, of initially visiting and occasionally buying, that Savage came to work for the gallery. Now, as assistant director, she works as both an art consultant and as liaison with the interior designers who frequent the gallery.
By 1997, Keynes was ready for a change. Keynes, by the way, is always ready for a change. “You have to constantly look forward,” she says. “I like to grow and to change. I’m never satisfied.”
So, Keynes moved to Columbus – to Bexley – and opened a gallery space that would last at that location 18 years. Before she even opened her doors, however, the gallery owner was introduced to three artists whose works would comprise the first exhibit in her new space. “Susie Saxby introduced me to Dennison Griffith and Aminah Robinson,” she recalled. She also met Paul Hamilton. “I love his work,” Keynes says. “He paints in the style of the Hudson River Painters.” That means Hamilton piles his art supplies into whatever vehicle he’s driving, and heads to a location to paint. “He paints the environment he’s in,” Keynes notes.
Griffith, former president of the Columbus College of Art & Design is a “terrific personality,” Keynes exclaims. “He created these acoustic, abstract works of art in beautiful colors.” And as for Robinson, “She had this unbelievable skill to tell stories through her art. Her work is the epitome of the black experience.”
A return to roots
The Hammond Harkins Galleries returns to these artists this month, beginning January 13, with a special exhibition of their work, and as a way of recognizing the gallery’s 20 years in business. The exhibit is especially poignant as both Griffith and Robinson have passed on. “We’ll include some pieces in the exhibit that have never been seen before,” says Keynes.
Although this latest exhibit is a return to her roots, don’t think the gallery will wax nostalgic for the rest of the year. Keynes isn’t one to sit still, at least when it comes to art. “My gallery in Lancaster was primarily contemporary realism. I added more contemporary abstract when I moved to Columbus,” she says. “The gallery continues to evolve as I evolve.” Even now, Keynes keeps an open mind regarding art. “We’re always looking for what’s new and different and exciting.”
By the way, for those wondering about the gallery’s name, Hammond is Keynes maiden name, and Harkins is Bill Harkins who once owned a gallery in German Village. The two collaborated shortly after Keynes’s arrival in Columbus. Harkins left the business about three years ago, but the name Hammond Harkins was kept since it had already developed a following and a reputation.
Something for new collectors
When it comes to art, Keynes has her own collection, of course – mostly painting and some sculpture. The work is from artists throughout Ohio and the U.S. “I have enough paintings in my collection that I’ll occasionally rotate what’s on display,” she says. When she does, she discovers something new about the painting, something she never noticed before. It’s one of the reasons why she likes to keep things fresh and interesting at the gallery.
“I don’t buy art as an investment,” adds Keynes. And she recommends that anyone starting out today as an art collector do the same. “Buy what you love. I tell that to clients all the time. Art is a personal thing. It has to move you emotionally. You have to wake up every day and enjoy the art that surrounds you.”
If you are a young collector, or you are coming to art collecting for the first time, Keynes suggests you dive deeply into the subject. “Go to art galleries, go to museums, research the artists, look at a lot of paintings.” In that way, she says, you’ll not only discover for yourself what art you like – and what you don’t – but you’ll also begin to train your eye to that intangible known as “quality.” Only by looking at a lot of fine art, at great paintings created by master artists will you understand and appreciate what quality art is, says Keynes. “You’ll not only train your eye, but you’ll also begin to understand what the artist is trying to express in the work.”
Quality work isn’t cheap, of course, but that doesn’t mean you need to turn to those mass-produced paintings you find hanging over sofas. The gallery does offer terms, according to your budget. And there’s another incentive that a big box store will never offer new collectors – education.
For gallery registrar Chet Domitz, that’s the best part of the job. Domitz came to the Hammond Harkins in 2010. “I was a volunteer at the Greater Columbus Arts Council, and I learned that the gallery needed volunteer help for an Aminah Robinson exhibit,” he says. From that volunteer job, Domitz went on to become a temporary employee of the gallery, then to a part-time position, and finally to become what is, in essence, the gallery’s third director.
“I love meeting the artists and learning about their work, then I convey that information to our clients. That way, we try to make the art and the artist more accessible,” he says.
For Keynes, that interaction between artist and gallery and client are also sheer joy. When asked to describe her perfect day, Keynes says it’s one where she has an opportunity to talk with each artist represented by her gallery individually. “I learn so much, and it’s thrilling when we click,” she says. Her next perfect day would be one where she would spend the day sharing the information she learned from the artists with clients.
It might seem strange to be so focused on work, but if there is one thing you need to understand about Marlana Keynes it is this: She lives and breathes her gallery; she lives and breathes art. Ask her what other activities she enjoys, outside of the gallery, and she draws a blank. Even when she takes time to read, she’s reading about art.
“I can’t imagine being anything but a gallery owner,” she says.
Savage isn’t surprised to hear Keynes’s response. “Marlana has been at this for 40 years. She is passionate and knowledgeable, and loves to educate others about art.”
That enthusiasm is contagious, as anyone to her gallery will soon realize. But don’t underestimate her, either.
“She’s a smart business woman,” says Domitz. “Her family has always been entrepreneurs, and Marlana follows that mold. She’s an arts appreciator, but she is also smart and disciplined.”
It’s one of the reasons the Hammond Harkins Galleries has been able to operate with such success for as long as it has.
“It’s a tough business,” says Keynes – one her daughter, Laura, appreciates. While Laura is interested in art, says Keynes, she’s not ready to take over the family business. “She realizes it’s not just hanging pictures on walls,” says Keynes. “You have to make a profit.” And that can be difficult unless, like Marlana Keynes, you’ve been doing this for a while, and you know what you’re doing.
And that means working hard in all areas of the business. “I think one of the reasons for the gallery’s success is we work hard to develop relationships with our artists, says Savage. “Once we have that relationship, the artist works hard for us. It’s a mutual respect.”
But it also means working hard for clients – brainstorming ideas for new art and new exhibits to keep clients coming in through the door. It means keeping the gallery always fresh and interesting and moving forward – even if that means making a physical move after 18 years.
An array of new clients
Keynes doesn’t regret the move to the Short North. She appreciates the energy of the area. And the people who now wander through gallery doors are a slightly younger, more varied demographic, says Savage.
“We are also seeing a lot more people from out of town,” says Domitz.
Recently built hotels, like the Joseph, home to the notable Pizzuti art collection – and just a short hop to the Hammond Harkins Galleries – are driving some of the traffic. So are Gallery Hops, business travelers who stay at downtown hotels, and guests of the Ohio State University who arrive in town for one function or another. All are drawn to the vibrant, colorful arts district that is the Short North. And almost all eventually find their way to the Hammond Harkins Galleries.
You can rest assured that the gallery will continue to provide both locals and out-of-towners with the best that contemporary art has to offer. Keynes is already excited about upcoming exhibits by artists Andrea Myers and Laura Alexander. “And we have something really exciting coming in March, an installation by a young painter.”
But Keynes and Savage and Domitz are still forming ideas for future exhibits. The gallery typically does six shows a year. This year, that may grow to seven or eight.
In other words – it’s an exciting time for a visit.
“I hope when people leave the gallery they say they found us approachable and informative,” says Keynes. “I hope they say we didn’t pressure them, that we made them feel comfortable.”
One thing clients will never say is they found the Hammond Harkins Galleries dull. “The gallery will still evolve. I don’t know how, I can’t say specifically, but it will,” says Keynes. “This gallery is my vision. For me, the Short North is the last place. But who knows what the next owner will do. They will bring their own vision to the space.”
That won’t be for a while, though. Keynes may be celebrating 20 years at the Hammond Harkins Galleries, but her artists, her clients, collectors and art lovers across the city, and no doubt the nation, hope there will be at least another five, ten or fifteen years before the gallery changes hands. Until that time, Keynes will be there – just as Gertrude Stein was at her salon in the sixth arrondissement – meeting new artists, exhibiting the latest most exciting art, educating new collectors, and always actively playing a role as her gallery evolves.
Somewhere, you know, Gertrude Stein is smiling.
3 Artists • Dennison Griffith, Paul Hamilton, and Aminah Robinson will be the first exhibit in a yearlong celebration of the gallery’s 20th anniversary. The opening reception is Friday, January 13, 2017, 5- 8pm. Hammond Harkins Galleries is located at 641 N. High St. Visit www.hammondharkins.com to learn more.
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