Discovery Enlivens Gallery Near Boston

The exhibits often exude whimsy, but matching artist to patron is serious business for owner Meredyth Moses

MEREDYTH HYATT MOSES would like people to think of her art gallery as a library, not as a place only for the elite.

As owner-director of the Clark Gallery in Lincoln, Mass., Ms. Moses says that her primary goal is to educate people about art. Her communication skills, keen sense of art, and marketing prowess have made this small gallery in the suburbs succeed during a time when other city galleries have folded under economic hardship.

In an interview, Moses - dressed in gray tones, adorned with art jewelry, and surrounded by furniture designed by craftsman Tommy Simpson - talked about her role as a gallery owner.

Although Moses doesn't like her establishment to be described as a ``suburban gallery,'' but it is, in fact, located in a shopping village in the well-to-do Boston suburb of Lincoln, Mass.

``A mall? ... in Lincoln?'' she says with a frown, mimicking how people first reacted back in the early 1970s when Moses and two partners decided on the space. It was about 15 miles from Boston's Newbury Street, where many other galleries were and still are located.

But they trusted their instincts and opened in November 1976. (Moses bought out her partners in 1983 in an amicable agreement.) Today, patrons come from all over the Boston area to view the month-long exhibits.

Moses says she has always trusted her intuition. She credits her success as a gallery owner to personal strengths such as visual-art savvy, an ability to problem-solve, and ``never letting ego interfere with good sense.'' She and two assistant directors put in many long days. Patrons and the press have been good to Clark, too, she notes.

Trained as a painter, Moses, who is also a mother of three, was a successful fiber artist in the 1970s.

Later, she found that although she loved the process of making art, her strengths lay in organizing installations, matching patrons with artists, and working with people. Now, Moses says, ``I think I'm doing my most creative work.''

During the early years of the Clark Gallery (named after one of the original co-partners, Eleanor Clark; the other was Grace Nicholls), the focus was on blue-chip art, such as valuable prints that were ``in'' at the time. But something was missing, Moses recalls, and ``that was discovery.''

Today, most of her artist base is from the New England area, although sometimes an exhibition features artists from all over the United States.

In its 2,800 square feet, the gallery is currently showing two whimsical exhibits: ``Out of the Woods'' - furniture, objects, paintings, and jewelry by Connecticut-based artist Tommy Simpson (see story, left); and ``Clocks'' by various studio furnituremakers across the country.

Although the years 1991 and 1992 were quite tough economically, 1993 showed that things may be improving, Moses says, keeping in mind that business is unlikely to be as prosperous as it was in the booming '80s. For Clark Gallery, the mid-'80s brought banner year after banner year.

``When the recession hit Boston, it was a nightmare,'' Moses recalls. For support, she and other gallery owners founded the Boston Art Dealers Association; they still meet once a month to discuss problems, consider solutions, and establish a national voice.

To ``make it through'' Moses decided to nix some advertising in national magazines, cut back on travel, and keep art prices low. Today, most pieces cost between $200 and $10,000. Also, Moses has worked out a collaboration with Gallery Naga in Boston, which means the two galleries split commissions, but ``you get all the artists that you want,'' Moses says.

What sells these days?

Mostly painting, sculpture, objects (such as clocks), and studio-furniture art.

Moses also plays it safe by balancing exhibits, hosting a cutting-edge show one month and a ``popular'' show the next. An exhibit's appeal hinges on many factors and is highly subjective, says Moses, explaining that it often depends on ``where you are in your life.''

Moses's gumption may stem from her outgoing personality. Elegant and upbeat, she says she is enthusiastic about art, is good at what she does, and as a result has earned clients' repeat business.

She is discouraged by the condescending attitudes of some other galleries she has visited - particularly in New York. She says she despises pressure salesmanship.

Here, hovering just doesn't happen. ``What you can do is inform people in an enthusiastic way and then back off. You can stand up from your desk when they walk in the door and say `Good morning. Hi. How are you?' You can call someone up on the telephone and say, `You know, there's this wonderful piece I think you'll be interested in.' ''

She provides what she calls extra services - where she might make personal visits to a client's home to view the space and help find art that's right for the person.

``I have this God-given gift ... that I can see things that other people can't see. I can walk into a space and know instantly what's wrong and what's right. Now that's my aesthetic, and you may not agree with it, but I can do that,'' she says.

All this could be lumped into the category of marketing strategy and Moses might not dispute that.

``I think that we're known for being good marketers, and that's a talent. There's nothing dirty about that. Some people think that's a dirty word: Selling. That's a good word. I'm kind of a master at that. But you have to be careful....

``If I compromise myself, I'm nothing,'' she continues. ``I will never push you unless I think it is absolutely terrific for you to have this piece for a specific reason - because it fits over your couch, because it's part of what you're thinking about as an adult person, whatever it is that I think connects you to the piece.... It has to be about the matchmaking.''

Moses says one of the most successful marketing tools is one that most galleries use, but works especially well for her. ``I have always felt that the cards sent from this gallery are my most important advertising,'' she says. In the 18 years that the cards have gone out - about $1,000 a run - only six or seven times has the piece featured on the front of the card not sold.

* Both `Clocks' and `Tommy Simpson: Out of the Woods' exhibitions will be on display at the Clark Gallery through Jan. 28. Other Simpson works are at Lincoln's DeCordova Museum through Feb. 6.

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