Grudge Match

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

Hindsight doesn't interest Gerald Peters. He didn't get where he is today by looking back or wrestling with "what ifs." It's more in his nature to look forward, to survey his mini-empire of art galleries in Manhattan, Santa Fe, and Dallas, to surround himself with people who take care of his operations while he schemes ahead. His colleagues, friends and foes alike, say foresight is Peters' forte. To hear them tell it, the sequence of events embroiling his Dallas gallery during the last 18 months is a testament to his ability to react quickly, respond to unforeseen challenges with swift decisions, and to get on to the next big thing.

If Peters ever did look back, he'd find both reinforcement and regret for his tendency to delegate. It's serving him well today, as the former Gerald Peters Gallery rolls out a huge expansion. In its new incarnation as Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art, with Dr. Edmund P. "Ted" Pillsbury as CEO, the gallery's scope will be unprecedented in Dallas. Peters seems content to let the respected and well-connected Pillsbury run the new show. "The day-to-day operations are all Ted," Peters says from his Santa Fe headquarters. "He's the person on-site. I'm involved in more strategic planning and thinking and the large deals."

But delegating has backfired big-time in the past, when Peters turned over the reins of the Gerald Peters Gallery, the top-producing commercial gallery in Dallas, to a 25-year-old protégé named Talley Dunn.With Peters largely absent from Dallas, she ran with her new responsibility, selling even more art and fostering relationships with gallery clients, artists, museum curators, and collectors. Dunn became the face of the Gerald Peters Gallery, and when she decided to leave, Peters sensed a real threat to his operation and, insiders say, his considerable ego got in the way of good sense. Sources close to the situation say Peters gave Dunn a version of the "you'll-never-work-in-this-town-again" speech, banking on a noncompetition clause in her employment agreement to back him up. But Dunn shot back by opening her own gallery, Dunn and Brown Contemporary, with colleague Lisa Hirschler. Several Gerald Peters Gallery artists followed Dunn, and herH new gallery's success still seems to stick in Peters' craw. Dunn sought to protect her ability to sell art in Dallas with a lawsuit against Peters, which he responded to with a countersuit.

For a while in Dallas, the Dunn-Peters conflict was all that anyone in the art world could talk about. Artists struggled with divided loyalties, and collectors wondered where their next paintings would come from. Speculation ran high that the Dunn and Peters tug of war would spill over into a spate of artist-stealing and hurt other local galleries by introducing two high-powered competitors instead of one.

The high-stakes battle hangs over Peters' and Dunn's heads today, with a trial scheduled for May 15. Neither will discuss matters relating directly to the lawsuits, but Dunn will say she was nervous when she opted out of her position at Gerald Peters Gallery in June 1999. "I had no idea what my future was. Zero," she says. "I see all my decisions at that time so much as a personal thing. I didn't see it as any larger issue than what I was going to do with my life. Unfortunately, it's become a much larger issue."

Dunn's resignation and Peters' search for a replacement got Peters and Pillsbury talking about a joint venture in commercial art in September 1999. Pillsbury is an international art player, former director of the Kimbell Art Museum, former private consultant to Steve Wynn's "let's bring the Louvre to Las Vegas" Belaggio Hotel, and a man who, after considering his options for a third or fourth career at age 56, had decided he wanted to run his own commercial gallery, probably in Fort Worth. "The longer I was away from museum work, the more I missed contact with people," Pillsbury says. "A museum is really nothing more than a soapbox for a good teacher. So having lost my soapbox, I thought, 'What am I going to do?'...I thought it would be interesting to run a gallery."

By November 1999, the two men reconfigured the Dallas gallery into a full partnership, with Pillsbury as CEO and Peters as president. The new arrangement suited Peters, who hadn't had time to pay much attention to Dallas, focusing instead on big projects in New Mexico and New York. Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art emerged from the potential wreckage that Dunn's departure could have caused to Gerald Peters Gallery, and Pillsbury says Peters encouraged him to start looking for more space. The two men discussed expanded programming in the context of a larger physical facility, and Pillsbury was suddenly in his element. The opportunity to parlay his worldwide contacts, museum experience, art scholarship, and a vast network of the art elite was serendipitous, and for Peters, it became an opportunity to turn the situation into something very good and unprecedented in Dallas.

"To say this started from something bad is wrong," Peters says from his home in New Mexico. "Nothing started bad. Talking to Ted wasn't bad." Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art will open its expanded space on March 29, and Peters will be in town for the invitation-only gala event.

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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