Aspen’s Harvey/Meadows Gallery adds a working ceramics studio
December 5, 2009
ASPEN – When Sam Harvey and Alleghany Meadows proposed to open a ceramics-oriented gallery at Aspen Highlands Village, the plan included a working pottery studio. Harvey and Meadows, both artists as well as entrepreneurs, believed that the base of Highlands had all the components to become something of an artists’ colony. Rents were relatively inexpensive for the Aspen area. There was space to spread out, and natural beauty to inspire them. There was a nice balance between activity, during ski season, and near-silence most other times.
Furthermore, Harvey and Meadows had both spent considerable time at Anderson Ranch Arts Center, in Snowmass Village, and had witnessed there how artists and their studios could be the foundation of a thriving community. And Lord knows how Highlands needed a sense of community, as businesses and overall neighborhood concepts shuttled in and out like RFTA buses on a powder day. Harvey and Meadows figured the model that had worked in neighborhoods from Brooklyn to Omaha to Los Angeles – bring artists into an underappreciated area, let them create beauty and bustle, and watch the neighborhood’s desirability escalate – had a shot at the bottom of one of the finest ski mountains in the world.
The plan for a studio got smacked down by reality. Harvey and Meadows, who at the time had only a slight acquaintance with running galleries, gave themselves just one month between committing to the space and opening their doors. That period was filled with lining up artists, mostly those working in the clay medium, to exhibit. Their list of contacts was extensive; between the two of them, they had fostered relationships with significant ceramics programs at Alfred University in upstate New York; at Claremont College in Southern California; at the Kansas City Art Institute; and Anderson Ranch, which is a major crossroad on the ceramic map. Moreover, since 1999, the two had run Artstream – a gallery on wheels made from an old Airstream trailer that exhibited pottery across the country.
The call to artists was remarkably successful. “Everyone wanted to be involved,” Meadows said. “They knew our history with Artstream, knew we would put our heart and soul into it, knew we’d do a good job. I think every artist we contacted wanted to be in the gallery.”
Lost in the shuffle of creating the space, gathering art and putting the business in motion was the working studio. Harvey and Meadows were struck by the quantity of work coming in, but what really overwhelmed them, and knocked the original plan off-course, were the people behind the work. Among the artists who signed on was Betty Woodman, who was scheduled six months later to become the first ceramic artist to have a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“It just snowballed,” Harvey said of the gallery portion of the proposal. “We had so much art work. We had so much quality, and we felt we had to present it in a certain way. We ran out of space and time to put in a studio.”
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“We had ideas of what a gallery should be,” Meadows said. “We knew what places look like where someone like Betty Woodman would show. And a working studio – that just didn’t feel appropriate.”
• • • •
Fast forward to December 2009: Harvey and Meadows have spent the last few weeks moving walls, ordering equipment, and contemplating the vast possibilities for their reconfigured gallery, which, four years after its opening, will finally have a working studio. The plans are modest for the moment: one electric kiln, a potter’s wheel and a banding wheel, a sink. At most, a third of the square footage will be devoted to working space, and in the summer, when the gallery business is at its busiest, the tools will be put away to maximize exhibition area. But the prospect of an on-site studio – which will be introduced with a public reception on Saturday, Dec. 12, coinciding with the opening of Aspen Highlands’ ski season – has them thinking big.
“Sam’s going to make big work,” Meadows said, challenging his partner. “We’re looking at minimal equipment for maximum creativity.”
The two ceramists have a handful of reasons why adding a studio now is appropriate. The recession has cut into their sales, meaning that some of their time has been freed up, and that they are looking for ways to keep the business economically feasible. (Sales for the year are down, but they report a sharp uptick in activity this past summer.) After four years as gallery owners, Harvey and Meadows feel they know their artists and clients well enough that they can whittle down their roster of artists: They have represented some 75 artists since opening – about three quarters of whom work in ceramics – and expect to scale it down to 30 or so.
The most urgent item behind the new direction, however, is the creative impulse. Both Harvey and Meadows speak, act and live like artists, and had careers as artists before opening the gallery. Both have studios outside Harvey/Meadows that they plan to keep operational. And while the gallery has been a success and a pleasure, it has taken them away from their pottery work.
“You’re challenged,” said Harvey, whose work is wildly far-flung, covering large-scale sculpture to geometric shapes to functional pottery. “There are so many hours in a day that you can devote to your own practice, and so many hours selling the work. We’ve both invested years in our own art and establishing our careers. I don’t want to give that up. I like making my work.”
“Essentially we’re working artists who have spent the last four years primarily running a gallery,” said Meadows, who infuses elements of beauty and unique design into pots, cups and plates. “It’s like having kids. You don’t know till you’re well into it how many hours there aren’t in a day, how much it will change your life. We’re looking for more balance, personally, in the way we spend our time.”
And after a time of contraction in their own work, they see the new studio as a vehicle for expansion. The space will be small; they will need to keep it relatively tidy. Their working time will be interrupted by phone calls, visits from collectors, people looking for a ski shop. They will be surrounded by an ever-shifting collection of work by other artists. The atmosphere and flow will alter their creative process, and Harvey and Meadows welcome the change.
“As artists, we’re seeing everything we see in the world and filter it down to a set of questions we’re asking ourselves, asking our work,” said Meadows, a 37-year-old father of three. “For me, I don’t know what questions I’ll be asking myself in here yet. But it’ll be a different set of questions than I ask in my own studio. We’re shifting our normal format, allowing for some experimentation to happen.”
Experimentation, at this point, seems like a luxury for Meadows. Running the gallery at full speed didn’t necessarily harm the quality of the work he produced. But it did impede his ability to try new ways of creating.
“It’s put a different type of pressure on my studio time,” he said. “As the studio time becomes more precious, the amount of risk I can take in there is less. It’s not that I haven’t grown, but there’s an accountability placed on the work. The work has to succeed, instead of being allowed to fail.”
• • • •
The shift of focus at Harvey/Meadows does not seem to be an act of backpedaling, or grasping for a model that works. Instead, the two seem to be seizing an opportunity out of their success as gallery owners. In four years, the Harvey/Meadows Gallery placed itself in the top ranks of galleries devoted primarily to ceramic arts. Among the artists whose work they have exhibited are Japanese master Takashi Nakazato, one of Meadows’ former mentors, and Peter Voulkos and Aspenite Paul Soldner, the two ceramists who are often credited with elevating clay from a craft to a fine art.
“From the field’s point of view, they’re part of a handful of galleries countrywide that shows high-quality ceramics,” Doug Casebeer, the artistic director of Anderson Ranch’s ceramics, sculpture and woodworking program, and who has exhibited his work at Harvey/Meadows. “They have very quickly risen to the top five in the country. They have very high standards in what they show.”
The question is whether they can maintain the same standards in the gallery if they are regularly ducking into the back to mold some clay. The abundant space they have devoted to the art objects has been key to the look of the gallery; now they are set to do away with a third of it. And with more energy devoted to their own art, will they be able to focus on the artists they represent?
Harvey and Meadows acknowledge they may have been overly deep in numbers in the past. “You know, 75 people is a [load] of work,” Meadows said. “You represent an artist well, you have to really know the artist. You have to spend time with them, read their books, know their work.”
With fewer artists to represent, and a four-year history of familiarizing themselves with the tastes of collectors, they believe they can accomplish nearly as much in less time. “We’ve become clearer on what we’re doing,” Meadows said. “We’ll represent the ones we choose better. We’re getting to that point of, this is what we really want to do.”
There are certain things that the gallery owners don’t want to stop doing, things they see as defining traits. Principal among those is selling art to all kinds of collectors: high-end, beginners, those with a taste for the avant-garde and those looking for something to drink their morning tea from. The gallery might seem a good fit for downtown Aspen, but they feel that would alter the operation in an unacceptable way. In addition, the walk-in traffic generated by a downtown location would have made a working studio unthinkable.
“In downtown Aspen, the stress would have put us under,” Meadows said. He pointed out a shelf that featured a piece by Beatrice Wood – “one of the most revered artists of the past century” – and below it, a piece by 30-something Mikey Walsh, whose cups sell for $120. “We wouldn’t have been able to show all the work we love. It would have been only high-end stuff.”
Going hand-in-hand with the diversity of work is another sort of accessibility. Harvey/Meadows cultivates a sense of community by representing numerous local artists, and by hosting frequent openings and events. This past summer, the gallery had an opening reception for an exhibition that featured works by Casebeer, Nakazato, and a group of 14 contemporary Japanese sculptors. Neither mentioned whether the work sold well, but they went into detail about the scene at the opening: 250 people showed up, forcing the artists to move their talk outside onto the communal space.
“People love coming to see the work,” Harvey said. “It’s a really engaged process. We’ve been putting on a show a month, which is crazy.”
With the studio in place, Harvey and Meadows expect to move the public conversation to a different level. As a model, they bring up Trax, a combination gallery/ceramics studio in Berkeley run by potter Sandy Simon. Meadows refers to Simon as his hero for integrating art-making with art-exhibiting and selling.
Casebeer sees the addition of the studio as an invaluable educational tool. “A lot of times you can see art in a gallery and you don’t connect the act of making the art with what you’re seeing,” he said. “They’re going to put in front of you the making of it, so there’s a visceral quality of making the work along with the finished product.”
“We want to demystify it. We want it to be a bridge: ‘Oh, this is how you made it, and this is how it comes out,'” Harvey said. “We’re hoping people will come watch us work, learn about the materials, the processes. So we’ll have a greater knowledge base.”
Building the studio not only fulfills the original plan for Harvey/Meadows, but it goes another step further in adding life to Aspen Highlands, which has always been a goal for the gallery owners. They mention LivAspenArt, another gallery/working studio just across the plaza, and even Cloud Nine Brownies, which recently opened a combination kitchen/cafe at Highlands. Like Harvey/Meadows, they are places where the activity is more than buying and selling.
“Art-making is a verb,” Harvey said. “It’s an action. It’s a process that someone can see.”