The grand dame of Dallas art: Edith Baker

Edith Baker knows Dallas better than you know your own kids, but that means she knows one hell of a fickle community. As the owner-director of one of the city's most venerable art spaces, the Edith Baker Gallery, she's been to hell and back in this town. Times of boom and bust, of hype and disappointment. "I've stopped trying to predict what will sell," she says. "Every time I put up a show, I have an idea of what people will respond to, and I'm often surprised by their choices."

But Baker, ever gracious and thoughtful, has never let commercial concerns guide her choices. She's known for her exquisite taste, no doubt, but she's in all things a maverick. She stands behind her artists no matter how experimental their work, sticks by them no matter how precarious the economy. It's the way of a stoic soul who has learned to call the shots despite the city's wax-and-wane persona.

The art at Edith Baker, in fact, is often striking, viscerally keen, and rarely easy. For her, Texas art isn't about the region, but about the artists' individual visions -- and her space isn't about pleasing a mass audience, but about creating a dialogue with the area's savvy art lovers. Aesthetics as disparate as Roger Winter (new to her stable and a top-seller) with his monumental photorealism, Brian Bosworth with his raw-edged wit, and Mark Smith with his hyper-glazed geometrics all have shared equal billing.

When Baker entered the art-dealer ring 22 years ago, she opened a space with a couple of partners in North Dallas, called it Collector's Choice, and specialized in prints by top artists like Picasso, Chagall, and Miró. "But I knew I wanted to open my own space under my name," Baker says. "I didn't see any other gallery really specializing in contemporary Texas art. I felt this was what I wanted to emphasize."

For a while, her burgeoning Edith Baker Gallery resided on Royal Lane -- her early stable included Judy Youngblood and Julie Lazarus, who are still part of the Baker roster. Twelve years ago, she moved her shop to the tony corner of Cedar Springs at Maple, picking up such strong talent as Gary Richardson and Denise and Frank Brown along the way. "I love this space," she says of her bright, subtle venue. "It's got such a good feel. I only wish I had a garden or patio so I could show more sculpture."

When asked about the size of her stable, she smiles. "Do you really want to know?" There is the wincing laugh of a dealer so committed to all of her artists. "Around 25 at any given time, give or take a few." Baker is known for showing two artists at a time, the spotlight divided between an oddly complementary combination of two very different artists whose thematic links are often felt rather than seen.

Not surprisingly, Baker's role in the Dallas Art Dealers Association has always been pivotal -- she was the one who organized and hosted the early meetings. "I wrote letters to all the gallery owners and told them, 'This meeting is not optional. You must attend.'" For her, the annual Gallery Walk is about showing her strongest artists as she kicks off the art season. "I give each artist his or her turn, and I try to spike it," she says. "I'll often show one really well-known artist and one lesser known. But all very strong work." This year, though, Baker is going with two local power players, Norman Kary and Tom Pribyl (see "Gallery walk, run, or saunter"). "We've had up to 300, maybe 350 people walk through during Gallery Walk," she says. "Extended hours have helped spread the crowds a bit."

As newcomers and longtime supporters will see this weekend, Baker's profile strongly reflects her regional leanings. "We've expanded a bit, brought in a few artists from outside the state," she says. "But we're still about 90 percent Texas artists. It's what I'm passionate about."

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Christina Rees

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