By Ben White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 11, 2005
NEW YORK -- Some art majors embrace abstract impressionism. Others go for post-modernism or neo-cubism. Erin Crowe opted for Alan Greenspanism.
Fascinated by the Federal Reserve Board chairman's inscrutable visage and towering reputation, the 24-year-old University of Virginia graduate spent the better part of two years working on unauthorized portraits of Greenspan. She wound up with 20 paintings and sketches.
Looking to make a few bucks before heading to graduate school in England this fall, Crowe decided to display the works over the summer at a family friend's gallery in Sag Harbor, Long Island, vacation home to many Greenspan-worshiping Wall Streeters.
From the moment the Greenspan images appeared, people began wandering in off the street to gaze at the paintings, which capture the Fed chairman's face in a variety of expressions ranging from exasperation to perplexity to mirthful amusement. Titles of the works include "If You Say So," "I Gotta Tell Ya" and "Humpf."
Several visitors to the gallery bought paintings, telling stories of how they adored the Fed chairman, how he had saved the world and made them millions.
But things really exploded on Tuesday after financial news network CNBC aired a couple of brief segments on the paintings. Gallery owner Sally Breen's phone immediately started ringing and did not stop until all 18 paintings on display had been sold for prices ranging from $1,000 to $4,000. (Crowe didn't sell two of her Greenspans because they were not quite complete.)
Hedge fund adviser E. Lee Hennessee bought one for $2,000 and said Wednesday she could turn around and sell it to one of her hedge fund manager friends for $10,000, no sweat. (She said she hung it in her company's boardroom instead.)
"It was overwhelming. I've never experienced anything like it," said Breen, the gallery owner, of reaction to Crowe's work. "I had money managers calling form Nevada, Dallas, California. I had one woman call, I don't know what she did for a living, but said Greenspan was her hero, and she had to have a painting."
Another prospective buyer wondered if the artist would take a commission to do a big new Greenspan to adorn an office lobby. Crowe is considering it.
Greenspan worship is hardly a new phenomenon. Songs have been written about the Fed chairman's stewardship of interest rates and inflation and his oracular wisdom regarding all things economic.
The clamor has increased as Greenspan's 18-year run as Fed chair draws to a close. He is expected to step down early next year, and many on Wall Street fret that no one will be able to steer the economy through bursting bubbles and international financial crises the way Greenspan could.
But why would a young art student from Virginia fall so hard for the man in the big glasses?
"Partly it's just because his face is so interesting -- his lips, his ears, his hair," Crowe explained.
"And partly it was just the image of the man I wanted to play off of. He's been around for so long. Everyone recognizes him, and he seems to span the political spectrum. He's not a Democrat. He's not a Republican." (Greenspan is, in fact, a member of the GOP.)
Crowe, who minored in American politics at U-Va., said she likes Greenspan but had no special interest in him before she started the paintings. She has never met the man and has no idea if he is aware of her paintings. (A call to Greenspan's office Wednesday was not returned.) Crowe said her dad, who used to work at the Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers Inc., is a big Greenspan devotee.
The Greenspan project began after Crowe graduated in 2003. She was doing some work for an arts festival in Charlottesville. The theme was the dollar sign. And who personified the dollar more than Greenspan, Crowe thought. So she started watching video of the Fed chairman's testimony before Congress and searched for images on Google.
She did five paintings for the festival, and they were an immediate hit.
"People were funny, they loved taking pictures in front him," Crowe said of the Greenspan images. "I've never had people respond so positively to my work." Crowe received a post-graduate art fellowship from U-Va., $5,000 to do whatever art she wanted for a year.
But what to do? More Greenspan, she decided.
At first her fellowship advisers were less than thrilled. "They said, 'Erin, you really have to stop,' " Crowe said. But as her work progressed they became more supportive.
This summer, Crowe finally decided it was time to do things the Greenspan way and make some money. Her friend's gallery in Sag Harbor offered the perfect spot. "I really wanted to get them outside of Virginia, and Sag Harbor is the playground for so many rich Wall Street guys," Crowe said.
Still, despite her hunch that there might be some interest, Crowe said she and Breen were not at all prepared for the fervor the paintings generated. "We didn't expect it to be this huge at all. I figured I'd sell a few before going to grad school."
But she didn't count on the passion that Wall Street pros have for Greenspan, particularly hedge fund types like Hennessee, who have reaped enormous riches in recent years. "A huge part of Wall Street gives Greenspan the credit for much the financial successes they've had the last 18 years," Hennessee said. "And I thought the paintings were an interesting tribute."
Crowe, meanwhile, delivered several of the paintings to her customers in person. She said it was tough to let her Greenspans go.
"It was like when a breeder goes to meet a puppy's new parents," she said of the experience. "I kept asking, 'Where are you going to hang this?' "