Metro Pictures’ founder: ‘New York had a real reputation as a place where there were a lot of creative people’

Last week, Metro Pictures closed, after what would have been its 42nd year in business. I talked to two of its founders, Gerald Chan and Vadim Heller, who were celebrating the early exit with a party at the Bourbon Steak in Georgetown. The marriage of art and architecture is a labor of love for both men. Chan was editor of Metropolitan Magazine in New York City in the 1960s and Heller is currently artistic director of Textile Design in Brooklyn. I asked them about their generation of influential DC artists and how they made their mark. Here’s what they said:

Chan: There were strong artists in New York and Paris in the 1960s, and I was one of them. The fact that artists like Diane Arbus, John Szarkowski, Tom Sachs, and Teresa Margolles all moved to Washington was a positive influence for us, and because of that, I think Washington had a real reputation as a place where there were a lot of creative people. If there were 50 people working for Gensler, I would bet every single one of them would be an artist.

Heller: I got to know Gary and his wife, Helen, early on. I had been involved in a group that established the Alexandria Art Festival to put on an annual exhibition in downtown Alexandria. The group had several artists as founding members, and Gary, who worked as a landscape architect, was one of them. That was after I moved back to Washington in the late 1960s. We started talking about opening an art gallery together in 1987 or 1988. Gary and Helen had run a foundation in Lexington, Virginia, that sponsored a group of artists. I took him to open the Frederick Phillips contemporary gallery in Georgetown. The staff was a mix of both of us, one person from the studio, and one who made prints. It became very successful, and we had a studio in the back that we used to produce our own prints, which we marketed. Then we became part of the Gensler tradition.

Chan: It was so nice to work in a place that would support this. The Gensler facility in Alexandria hosted what I could consider a daily opening of a solo show. The studio manager would come in, unpack the trunks that were packed with their products, and would hold our show the night before. I don’t know if I could have done that in New York, because I wasn’t comfortable with being in the living room, in an intimate setting. There were young, up-and-coming artists who always had to compete against the traditionalists, like Sam Francis and Robert Motherwell. They were willing to show below-ground but not above, or below-floor but not below-floor. Sam Francis was in a full bedroom above his art studio in Georgetown with a fireplace. For a young artist, it wasn’t what you would call an ideal situation. We always felt in Alexandria that we were aboveground. I can only imagine in Georgetown in the 1970s what it would have been like if the Armory Show was held there.

Heller: On another level, we weren’t a gallery specifically committed to contemporary art. To create a community and create a foundation with other artists, that’s been the challenge. We don’t always go out of our way to display work from other artists, or, as far as I’m concerned, people that aren’t interested in the work that they have, as opposed to people who are making work that is more for general public consumption. We have never really allowed that to be the direction of the gallery. We get two or three people from each gallery every year who come over to say, “Have you seen our work?” That’s a joy for all of us.

For more coverage of Metro Pictures closing, go here.

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