That Little Art Thing

by Robrt Pela on July 14, 2015 A Diary of a Mad Desert Gallery Owner

cute puppiesI am sitting on a cold vinyl bench wearing a backless dress made of paper. My annual physical is winding down and, having drawn my blood and looked in my ears and placed her finger up inside me, my doctor is writing things on a clipboard and making small talk. I’m nodding and smiling and thinking about the pancakes I’m going to eat as soon as I get out of here, when she asks a question that both breaks my breakfast reverie and makes me want to kill myself.

“How’s that little art thing you’re doing?” she asks.

That little art thing. There it is, again. I live in the fifth largest city in the country, populated by millions of people, and the longer I live here, the more worried I become that most of my friends and neighbors don’t know what an art gallery is.

I know how snooty that sounds. But last fall, about six months after I opened R. Pela Contemporary Art in the downtown Historic Roosevelt district, one of the women who works for the mortgage broker next door to my gallery stopped in while I was installing the next month’s exhibit.

“These are quilts made from bits of hammered tin,” I told her, pointing to the giant assemblage pieces I’d been hanging all morning. “They’re about empowering women.”

“So, are these things for sale?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “This is an art gallery. All the art is for sale.”

“Huh,” she said. “My sister takes these great pictures of her dog wearing different superhero costumes. They’re so cute! I should have her bring some of them in here to sell!”

“Well,” I said, after counting silently to ten. “That’s not really how it works. I sort of—well, curating isn’t easy to explain, really.”

“So you usually know the people who make the art, then?” she asked. She didn’t appear to be kidding.

“You see—” I started to say, and then didn’t know what to say next. Finally, I closed my eyes for a very long time and, when I eventually open them, she was gone.

Hey, I thought to myself. I guess we’re even. I don’t know what mortgage brokering is.

A few days later, I attended a house party where I bumped into a childhood friend. “So, how are things at your studio?” she asked.

“I don’t have a studio,” I replied, trying to sound jovial. “But if I had a dime for every time someone called my art gallery a studio, I wouldn’t have to worry about how to pay my rent.”

My old friend looked confused.

“Oh,” she frowned. “I thought you sold pictures or something.”

I was feeling spiteful. “Actually, I rarely show photography, if that’s what you’re asking. Mostly painting and sculpture.”

She cocked her head to the side. “So, do you make the pictures yourself?”

Something in me snapped. “Yes,” I replied. “I make all the art myself, in my studio. Pictures, mostly. People I’ve never met before just show up with art, and I hang it on the wall and then other people come to buy it. Pictures of dogs dressed like Spider-Man are especially hot right now.”

She appeared to be thinking about what I’d just said. “That’s pretty wild,” she finally replied. “As long as I’ve known you, I never would have pictured you working in a museum.”

Robrt Pela is columnist for Phoenix New Times, and an essayist on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” He owns R. Pela Contemporary Art in Phoenix, Arizona.  

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