Kathleen Ewing Shutters Her Photography Gallery After 33 Years
Friday, May 1, 2009
In 1976, when a 28-year-old Kathleen Ewing ditched her National Gallery of Art job and decided to sell photographs instead, photography was struggling to make its place in the art world.
So, for that matter, was Kathleen Ewing.
Over the subsequent 33 years, the market for pictures mushroomed. All types of galleries now vie to hang photography, and dealers also sell work online. Where once photographers needed galleries to earn legitimacy, shops that specialize exclusively in photography are nearly obsolete these days.
And now Ewing, who is widely regarded by curators, collectors and artists as the doyenne of Washington's photography community, bids adieu to gallery life. Tomorrow, Ewing, 61, will shutter her P Street space and return to private practice. She will work with clients out of the very same Cleveland Park townhouse where Kathleen Ewing Gallery began in 1976.
Once a player in the creation of a national photo market as well, Ewing no longer sees the point of having a gallery.
"The nature of the gallery business has changed," says Ewing, referring to the Internet's effect on her business. "It never occurred to me that people would buy something they've never held in their hand. But they do."
Why pay rent on a gallery when you can sell via e-mail? Why stay open when fewer and fewer folks stop in?
When Ewing started, outsize photography dealer Harry Lunn Jr. towered over Washington's photography scene. Lunn, who favored rumpled seersucker suits, was credited, in his 1998 New York Times obituary, as an international dealer "who played a major role in creating a fine-art photography market." Although he left Washington in 1983, Lunn introduced the city to Walker Evans, Ansel Adams and other luminaries.
"If I'd been really smart, I would have asked Harry to work for him," Ewing says. "I would have learned a lot about the business. But I was so stupid and arrogant I decided to go on my own."
In addition to Lunn and Ewing, the city had dealer Gerd Sander. Grandson of esteemed German photographer August Sander, Gerd favored European artists.
"It was a very exciting time in the '70s because photography was beginning to take hold," Ewing says. "At that time, the National Endowment for the Arts was giving small grants to regional museums to establish photography collections. Many were buying contemporary photography because it was cheaper."
In 1979, Ewing helped found the Association of International Photography Art Dealers, an organization she would help lead for more than two decades and bring to prominence internationally. Dealers the world over knew Ewing as the driving force behind the association's annual New York City fair. But because she embraced the local, her impact was strongest here.