A Gallery That Helped Create the American Art World Closes Shop After 165 Years

New York Times 1 December 2011
By Patricia Cohen

After 165 years, Knoedler & Company, one of the oldest and most prestigious art galleries in the country, is permanently closing its doors. Opened at a time when there were no major museums in New York, Knoedler helped shape the tastes as well as decorate the homes of America’s new class of wealthy barons.

Although the gallery’s history is long and expansive, its statement Wednesday evening about closing was short and sudden: “It is with profound regret that the owners of Knoedler Gallery announce its closing, effective today. This was a business decision made after careful consideration over the course of an extended period of time. Gallery staff will assist with an orderly winding down of Knoedler Gallery.”

Nothing was said about what will happen to one of Knoedler’s most valuable properties: an enormous library that includes letters, photographs, sale records, stock books and catalogs going back to 1863.

News of the institution’s demise was met with surprise at Art Basel Miami Beach, an art fair where leading artists and gallery owners from around the world have gathered this week.

“Goodness me, that’s pretty stunning,” said Lucy Mitchell-Innes, president of the Art Dealers Association of America, who was at the Art Basel fair. “My reaction is one of tremendous sadness. This is a very venerable institution that provided great art to a number of the great collections and great institutions in this country.”

Knoedler, at 19 East 70th Street, has been rattled by a series of changes over the past three years, including the recession in 2008. In October 2009, Ann Freedman, the gallery’s president and an employee of 31 years, resigned. Two months later, the gallery put the landmark Italian Renaissance-style town house that it has occupied for the past 41 years on sale for $59.9 million. This past February, the building was sold for $31 million.

Most recently, a civil lawsuit involving the Dedalus Foundation, a nonprofit organization created by the artist Robert Motherwell, put Knoedler in an embarrassing light. The foundation accused Ms. Freedman of selling forged paintings by Motherwell while she was president of Knoedler, an assertion she has denied.

Knoedler will be better remembered for its history of bringing the American art world into existence, however. The gallery, which has occupied eight different homes since it was founded by Michael Knoedler in 1846, has hosted works by the titans of American art, including Frederic E. Church, Winslow Homer, George Bellows, John Singer Sargent, Jackson Pollock, Milton Avery, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella and scores of others.

From its tiny beginnings as the American representative of the French engravers Goupil & Company, Knoedler built a long list of private and institutional collectors like Andrew Mellon, J. P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, and the Tate Galleries in London. His eldest son, Roland Knoedler, took over the business, eventually moving it in 1925 to 57th Street and Madison Avenue, which became a new center for art dealers.

Knoedler’s prospects darkened considerably after the gallery passed from the family’s control. A move to the East 70th Street town house in 1970, accompanied by expensive renovations and mismanagement, put the business on a precarious financial footing. A year later, the financier and art collector Armand Hammer bought the teetering gallery for $2.5 million. The Hammer Foundation holds a controlling interest in the gallery, and Michael Hammer, Armand’s grandson, is the chairman.

In 2004 and 2005, Knoedler once again remodeled its town house, restoring original 1909 details and constructing a new exhibition space below the main gallery, where up-and-coming artists could be shown in exhibition.

The decision to close the gallery came without warning. Even after the announcement Wednesday evening, the gallery’s Web site said an exhibition of Charles Simonds’s sculptures would run through Jan. 14, while callers heard a recorded message that insisted, “We are open, but unable to answer your call at this time.”
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