Taking the Long View on Art
A Gloucester gallery makes a big bet on contemporary art
Trident Gallery owner Matthew Swift made his bet on Gloucester. It’s paying off.
A high-end art gallery, representing contemporary work, just didn’t seem to fit on Gloucester’s Main Street in 2013.
Chelsea? SoWa? Newbury Street? Sure. But even though Cape Ann has a century-old artistic heritage, with artists showing in their own studios everywhere, co-ops scattered around, a few healthy art associations, and a museum — a gallery that was devoted to contemporary work, run by an entrepreneur who believes in the artists — well, that was one thing Gloucester didn’t have.
Swift began by representing a dozen or so artists — among them, Ruth Mordecai, Susan Erony, Pamela Ellis Hawkes, Gabrielle Barzaghi, Eileen Mueller, Zyg Jankowski — and has only added a few since then, including Peter Lyons.
“It’s been four or five years now,” he says. “that I’ve known them professionally. There’s always more to know. And their work is always changing.
“I feel like an art consultant, with a sign on the door,” he says. “The role between me and the artist is flexible, just like it is with the client.”
It’s a long-term relationship, and Swift would not have it any other way.
“We are in it together,” he says. “I’m not advocating for an artist that’s paying me on retainer. I’m an artist’s agent, and I have my own independent reputation. And I’m much better at it than I was on the first day, which benefits the artist. When I see a new work from Pam Hawkes, I’m right on board.
“What I’ve learned over these years, I have to be able to share with someone in 20 minutes — and you can do that.”
It’s not a matter of hanging something on the wall, putting a price tag with a whole lot of zeroes on it, and waiting for it to sell, either.
“You showing the artist, not the art,” he says. “You can plant seeds, and if there is reaping to be done, you harvest it in the future.
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Swift has taken Trident’s brand and moved it out into the community — both by hanging works in other locations, like Rockport’s Emerson Inn, and in other ways, through the inventive Trident Live Arts Series, which brings the public into the space for dance performances, readings and discussions.
The series is curated by Sarah Slifer Swift, choreographer, dancer (and Matt Swift’s wife). For Matt, it’s at the core of the gallery’s business—which takes some explaining.
“We take a deeper look at the art through performance,” he says. “It can’t always achieve business goals, but personal goals. There is a pleasure in sharing, and that is certainly one of the rewards. It doesn’t have to have a business justification.
“This is a sacred space for the experience of art,” he says. “I mean no disrespect to my other gallery colleagues, but I’m the only one that has the ambitions to do that.”
The Live Arts Series certainly does not mean chatty wine and cheese receptions with the artist. Slifer Swift, a distinguished choreographer, gravitates toward original dance works that take their point of departure from the art on exhibition.
The inspiration takes unexpected pathways: last fall’s Towers and other Thoughts, a dance work inspired by a Susan Erony exhibition, has become the focal point of a spring fundraiser for refugee families recently relocated to Cape Ann. This, in part, is the “pleasure in sharing” that Swift alludes to.
“A lot of people that come here are never going to be collectors,” he says. “But you are also setting yourself up as an arbiter of taste, a leader in aesthetic exploration. That is a reputation you have to earn, whether you’re earning money or not.
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The recent acquisition of an offsite storage facility — “climate control storage, logistics, a private viewing facility, eventually a white box aesthetic,” is how Swift refers to it — adds to Trident’s ability to thrive as a business.
“You can’t just sell off the walls,” Swift says, gesturing around his gallery. “Then you’re operating like a co-op. Selling from inventory has always been a goal. I also needed a storage area, where I could package and ship things. Here, in the gallery, I want all of this to be retail. In the annex, I can take people over and show them more of the work.”
It’s also allowed Swift to be agile, to respond to market opportunities in a way he might not have been able to back in 2013.
“We were contacted by a design firm recently,” he says. “They were staging a house — the whole house — for a client in Florida. Furniture, artwork on the walls — the whole thing. The client walks in, looks at it, and often keeps everything they see. It’s a different world.
“They wanted eight Jankowskis sent out that weekend. If I hadn’t been set up for it, I couldn’t have delivered. We were in contact for more than a year, but it happened in a weekend. So much of the work that I’ve already done allowed that to happen.
“Those moments make you feel great, because they validate the long view.”
The venture to the Emerson Inn reflects a sense of the status of that hotel, and also Swift’s ideas about the artists he represents.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to put contemporary art in an 1800s style house,” he says. “They gave me carte blanche, and I got to respond to the space. The room at the Emerson has great natural light. But wherever these artists are shown, it has to be appreciated — it has to be good conditions for experiencing the art. It’s not just decor, it’s not just background. It’s an important partnership to me.”
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But earning money is at the heart of owning a gallery. Selling expensive art is certainly not the quickest way to do it.
“I have a broad idea of who a collector is,” he says. “If you have two pieces of art that you care about, you’re a collector. If you like an etching that was in your grandmother’s drawer, and put it in a nice frame — that’s valuing, in a sense that’s divorced from dollars. It’s an attitude toward the things you have. You feel that living with a piece is giving you value.
“As far as customers, I think there are plenty in this community — maybe they have their foot in another community as well. But they aren’t used to coming to galleries, because there hasn’t been that much to interest them here. And they are steeped in a certain kind of art that’s been here since the 60s and 70s.
“I have a collector, from Rockport, and they purchased a contemporary piece. They liked it. And now their friends are seeing it, and they’re liking it. When you hear people say ‘You really can mix the old and the new,’ or ‘We’re thinking of doing more contemporary things in our home,’ you feel like you can take some credit for it. That makes my day.”
It’s definitely the long view.
“I’m looking at what they do in New York, not just around here. I want to hit a higher mark. There are incredible artists showing here, and whenever I go to New York or to SoWa I come back happy and proud of what we’re doing here.
“This is a critical time for the arts — it’s always important, and it will never die, there are always opportunities. But this is a critical moment.”
Dana Wendt is a Boston-based photographer.
◼︎ Trident Gallery, 189 Main St, Gloucester. (978) 491 7785. Hours: Tuesday & Thursday, 12-5pm, Friday & Saturday, 10am-7pm, Sunday & Monday, 10am–5pm