Grudge Match

If Gerald Peters, Talley Dunn, and Ted Pillsbury are all smiling, why go to court?

One of Pillsbury's challenges over the last year has been to decide whether to attempt to reconcile with artists who left to work with Dunn. Some of Gerald Peters Gallery's top talents--David Bates, Vernon Fisher, James Surls, Joseph Havel, Sam Gummelt--followed Dunn to Dunn and Brown, and most seem satisfied. Bates sold out his October-November solo show at Dunn and Brown, and Havel's latest exhibition, One Dozen Veils, just opened to critical acclaim and brisk sales. Gummelt, who creates geometric abstracts in oils and polyurethane enamels, pulled all of his art from Gerald Peters Gallery within days of Dunn's resignation, a decision he explains simply. "I'd been with the gallery for years, since Marguerite [Steed] was director, and I think I'd met Gerald Peters twice," he told the Dallas Observer in September 1999. "I never had a written contract with him or with any other gallery that represented me."

Based on a long tradition, art galleries seldom operate with written contracts in artist-broker relationships. To rebuild his roster, Pillsbury quickly used his knowledge of the best of Texas art to lure Houston- and Dallas-based artists such as David McManaway, Richard Stout, and Frank X. Tolbert away from existing galleries to the Pillsbury and Peters stable. Hardest hit in Dallas by the powerful new alliance was Cynthia Mulcahy, of Mulcahy Modern in the Bishop Arts District. In a few cases, Mulcahy's personal commitment to foster long-term relationships with her artists didn't stand up to the star quality of a player such as Pillsbury. "I think it's the nature of the business to an extent," Mulcahy says of gallery-switching, but adds, "Inasmuch as Dallas is a small gallery community, long-term loyalty is more of a factor. You work hard together toward developing their careers. You shouldn't have to worry about their leaving in mid-development." She's philosophical now after losing Tolbert, McManaway, and Stout. "I am keeping my focus on showing a small number of artists who are doing very edgy, challenging work," she says.

Pillsbury also recently retrieved Surls, a sculptor who calls both Dallas and Houston home, from Dunn and Brown. Surls says his admiration for Dunn is unshaken, but returning to his former gallery to work with Pillsbury makes more sense for him now. "I mean, my God, the chance to work with Ted Pillsbury is incredible," he says from his Colorado studio. "Talley has the same aspirations, but she's still young."

Dunn says she'd rather not comment on Surls' defection but, in general, says her gallery has broken into national markets quicker than she imagined, after only 15 months in business. "I'm selling more on a national basis than I ever have and working on exhibitions in museums I've never worked with before," she says.

Pillsbury points to one of Surls' sculptures on a tour of the renovated Fairmount Street gallery, which has more than tripled in size. The new complex contains 5,000 square feet in three gallery spaces, an atrium, and a 4,000-square-foot sculpture park still under construction. Pillsbury's stamp is already all over the expanded space. One hallway that connects the former Bifano Fur Salon building to the former Peters gallery is lined with precious Picassos--paintings and drawings priced from $2.5 million for "Arlequin au Bicorne" to $165,000 for "L'écuyère." Tom Wesselmann's models for his wall-sized sculptures, called maquettes, are also on view and for sale in the hall. "We'll continue to show the work of a strong, regional group of artists, Texas and Texas-related artists, and find the work of other contemporary artists," Pillsbury says.

Certainly, Peters didn't set out to change the face of Dallas art when he scrambled to replace Dunn, mustered attorneys to wage a legal battle, and maneuvered to stop the bleeding as his gallery artists left. Surely, Dunn didn't expect to start a chain reaction when she decided she'd fight for the right to go out on her own. Only Pillsbury, who discovered the opportunity of a lifetime, seems to have a sense of what has, can, and will happen.

Even a casual observer might wonder whether any further point remains to Dunn's and Peters' legal wrangling. The Gerald Peters Gallery no longer exists. Dallas has two new art galleries with different missions and methodologies, different artists, different leadership styles. Each is poised for success in its own right. Perhaps a little hindsight is warranted, then everyone can get on to the next big thing.

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