Dealer's Notebook: Douglas Dawson on Ethnographic Art and Taxidermy
Was there art on the walls when you were growing up?
I grew up on small farm. There was no art on the walls, but my parents encouraged curiosity. More important, my great-grandfather collected artifacts, natural history curiosities, and folk art, all of which I inherited at age 8. It was an obsession as a child and I showed it at my own “museum,” which I called Smithsonian Jr. Even today many of my most prized possessions are from that collection.
What is the first work of art you remember being affected by?
My great-grandfather sculpted in stone, and I have very early memories of a bust of George Washington in a classic folk art style that he must have made around 1910.
How did you choose your specialty?
I’ve been interested in non-Western art since childhood. After living and studying in Japan for several years, focusing on ceramics including ancient material, I had a grant to study pre-Columbian art in Latin America — mostly in Guatemala. There I discovered textiles while doing research. At that time the material was still in the field. When I returned to the U.S., I realized that this was an overlooked area, and for a while I ran a folk art import business from a commune on a farm in Iowa.
When did you first open your gallery, and what drew you to the business?
In the fall of 1983 I moved to Chicago. With my shop experience I decided naively to open a gallery. It turned out to be good timing, because contemporary art was very hot here in the early ’80s, and I had set up my gallery right in the middle of things. The gallery specialized in tribal textiles for the first 10 years, then broadened to include other areas, but I always sold to a lot of crossover collectors.
What is the most challenging part of running a gallery today?
There is a great deal of political baggage heaped upon the antiquities market. Material that has been in the U.S. legally for decades is now in collecting limbo if it lacks paperwork documenting its excavation prior to 1970. There needs to be a reevaluation and a new set of standards. Dealers, collectors, and museums need to collectively and creatively resolve issues of repatriation and stewardship.
How has your market been changing?
The interest in using ethnographic art as a decorative theme in commercial venues like banks and law firms has waned. The trend is the same in the residential market. Presumably this is fashion and will change again in the future. But it’s clear that the interest in photography, mid-century modern design, and Minimalism has negatively affected the market for tribal art, and particularly tribal textiles. There are few thematic collectors with sophisticated connoisseurship guiding them. The challenge is to find a young audience for non-Western art who can replace their aging parents as collectors and enthusiasts.
In which art fair do you most enjoy participating?
Favorite contemporary fairs are Art Miami and Expo Chicago. That said, the International Fine Art and Antique Show in New York in the fall is exciting for the high quality of people who visit it. Art fairs are absolutely essential to our business. Approximately 80 percent of our business is a result of fairs. We participate in about five a year. Generally I find contemporary fairs more interesting than antique fairs. The audience is larger, more enthusiastic, and for many, their first exposure to ethnographic art — we are often the only exhibitor of tribal art in such fairs.
What has been your strangest experience in the art trade?
For some unknown reason people call me with bizarre questions. I once got a call asking if I knew where to get a Styrofoam horse head. In fact I did. While in high school, I got a certificate in taxidermy, so I was able to refer them to a taxidermy supply house. Maybe that’s why I get so many weird calls.
If you could own any artwork in the world, price no object, what would it be?
The Intihuatana stone from Machu Picchu, Michelangelo’s unfinished Awakening Slave, the garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto — all rocks!
This article was published in the November 2012 issue of Art+Auction.