Art museums and galleries have come a long way. There was a time, during the early 1960s when one could walk into some of the massive main galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and be totally alone. The rooms were like echo chambers, devoid of anything human anywhere except on their walls and sometimes precious little of that. There wasn't even a place to sit down. A trip to a commercial gallery wasn't much better--a receptionist doing her nails or reading a book at her desk, hardly so much as glancing up when a "customer" walked in. The man-on-the-street cared little about art and they knew it. Often they were largely the reason. Art and art spaces were intimidating, if not intentionally so, at least no one seemed to care. Art sales did not come from the street crowd. They came from well-heeled collectors who made appointments for showings or came to invitational openings to "sip the cheese and eat the wine."
Gradually that changed. One of the reasons is that department stores started opening art galleries. Sears had one in Chicago, J. L. Hudson opened one in their Detroit store. So did Eugene Ferkauf in his store on Long Island. Who was Eugene Ferkauf? Perhaps you've heard of E. J. Korvette. His was the first discount department store. One rode the escalator up one floor to the "penthouse" and there found three-thousand square feet of watercolors, collages, lithographs, etchings, books on art, even a few canvas paintings--all original, all tastefully lit, warm, cozy, and inviting. Today, it would be like Walmart starting to sell fine art. At first, there was some traffic as shoppers finished buying their groceries or hardware and trekked around out of curiosity. Then as the sales people, fresh from the furniture department or automotive, began to feel comfortable, so did the customers. They began to ask questions. They began to get answers. And, they began to make sales. What began as Mr. Ferkauf's pet project began to make money.
Jeanne Frank, who once managed the department, recalls people coming in regularly to look around, either on a daily or weekly basis--getting their "art fix" as she puts it. One "regular" was so inspired by the place he eventually opened his OWN art gallery. Gradually, people from all over Long Island began coming to the Douglaston branch just to visit the gallery. Lectures were held, special exhibits were organized. The response was often overwhelming. Crowds five times larger than expected often showed up. Ms. Frank tells the story of one elderly little lady who came to the gallery every Saturday at 11:00 a.m. laden with shopping bags. After a quick look around the room, she always ended up with Rouault "Qui ne se grime pas" (The one who Does Not Wear a Mask), sometimes called simply, "The Clown." One day, she found the picture gone. Ms. Frank gently informed her the painting had sold. Stunned, it seems not to have occurred to her that the paintings were for sale. Tears formed in her eyes as she left. They never saw her again. Today, sadly, very few department stores have art galleries.