Unfinished business

From the looks of things, the Gerald Peters Gallery is as placid as its neighbors, a collection of renovated vintage homes and tasteful commercial buildings lining Dallas' "gallery row" on Fairmount Street. The gallery's spacious and quiet rooms offer a soothing experience to patrons, who can enjoy a tranquil stroll among the artwork untroubled by gallery employees, who disappear after a brief, cordial welcome. The gallery's alliance with an A-list of Texas-based, nationally recognized artists is legendary, and the fact that most of its works sell before the opening night of their exhibitions is apparent, as a predictable rash of red dots pop up next to each painting or sculpture or drawing, like an enviable case of measles. The gallery's ability to move artwork is unmatched by competitors on Dallas' commercial gallery scene; its record for professionalism unblemished; its up-turned nose fairly clean.

Until now.

Suddenly, all is not calm at Gerald Peters Gallery. Behind the scenes and beyond its reputation as Dallas' most profitable commercial gallery, a festering abscess of ill will has burst into public view. On August 23, Talley Dunn, the Gerald Peters director who resigned in June amid speculation that she would begin her own gallery, has played her hand by filing a $1.4 million lawsuit against the gallery, seeking to invalidate the noncompetition clause in her 5-year-old employment contract. She now claims that the 1993 covenant she signed is overly restrictive as to time (it forbids her from working at another gallery for three years) and geographic scope (she cannot work with any Dallas, Fort Worth, or Santa Fe gallery, or any New York gallery that represented a Peters artist). In short, she says the contract is too "oppressive, inequitable, and unconscionable" for her to bear.

The suit also demands an accounting of Peters' Dallas gallery sales, claiming Dunn has not been paid all of the commissions and profit-sharing due her, which court papers allege is between $623,626 and $666,224 for 1994-1998. She is further seeking an additional $800,000 in damages that she says resulted from Peters' failure to honor the terms of her contract.

If the court were to invalidate the no-compete clause and allow Dunn to ply her trade, the ruling might be Gerald Peters' worst nightmare. Dunn and her attorney, Dan Hartsfield, neither of whom returned the Observer's phone calls, must firmly believe in the merits of their case, because at least one gallerist-member of the Dallas Association of Art Dealers has been told by Dunn that she already has plans to open a new gallery on McKinney Avenue as early as October. And Dunn, in her own gallery, would be an art force to be reckoned with.

Dunn's rise to power and respect at the Dallas gallery is a Cinderella story about how a young, low-level registrar, hired just out of college in 1990 to catalog, handle, and install art work at Gerald Peters, could be named its director at age 25, after three years on the job. Gerald Peters himself made the call, after Marguerite Steed, the gallery's director who hired Dunn, left in 1993. Dunn had been selling art for about a year and fostering personal relationships with gallery clients, artists, museum curators, collectors, and the art community at large. She began planning exhibitions with artists, developing their projects, and building a fresh approach to Texas contemporary art for a gallery that was suffering, as all galleries were, through the early-1990s decline of the art market. After she became director, she worked to develop the gallery's current stable of 20 mid-career, established artists that commanded critical respect and often five-figure prices for their work, and according to her strongly worded petition, she believes she got most of them by herself.

Dunn, now 32, may have been the face of this gallery as its director, but Gerald Peters' name is on the letterhead, and he's no slouch, creating a mini-empire in Manhattan, Santa Fe, and Dallas with three successful art galleries. Peters travels the world in search of art, patronizing and pacifying the art world's elite.

For 25 years, Peters, while largely absent from the Dallas gallery, focused on New Mexico and New York, opening a 32,000-square-foot showplace of a gallery in July 1998 on Camino del Sol in Santa Fe. People called it a museum, or a "supermarket of art," and they lined up -- some 15,000 in the first week -- to see Peters' acclaimed collections, including contemporary painting and sculpture, examples of modernism, photography, Western art, wildlife art, and works by artists of the Taos and Santa Fe schools. Criticized by his peers as approaching his life's work with a peddler's mentality, Peters has called himself a "little old art dealer" who's as happy to sell "cowboys and Indians" as he is to amass what is reported to be the world's largest collection of Georgia O'Keeffe paintings. Earlier in 1998, he expanded his New York division into a high-rent, five-story brownstone off Madison Avenue. Gerry, to those who know him, is both loved and hated. He and Talley Dunn, it seemed, had at least that much in common.

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Annabelle Massey Helber