Nonprofit gallery showcases 20th century Indiana artists

'The Gray Hills of Winter' by C. Curry Bohm. Image courtesy of Eckert & Ross Fine Art, Indianapolis, Ind.

‘The Gray Hills of Winter’ by C. Curry Bohm. Image courtesy of Eckert & Ross Fine Art, Indianapolis, Ind.

NASHVILLE, Ind. (AP) – Jim Ross spends a majority of his life searching.

“As an art dealer, you are always looking,” Ross said. “I am always trying to find things that other collectors haven’t seen.”

Ross, Brown County Art Gallery board member and owner of Eckerd and Ross Fine Art in Indianapolis, uses his expertise in early Indiana art to help the gallery procure paintings and transport them in his white Ford Transit Connect.

To ensure that what really is a small treasure trove of art doesn’t get jostled, Ross places layer upon layer of cardboard and padding in between the paintings, which are transported vertically.

“We take care, but we don’t overdo it,” Ross told The Herald-Times.

A large part of Ross’ work is focused on the collector’s interests.

What excites the collectors changes as people enter and exit the market, Ross said.

“Right now, past scenes are what most collectors are into,” Ross said. “Paintings exhibited in their time are always desirable.”

Ross particularly enjoys the thrill of the chase.

“When you see something that is published in books and you find it, it is a neat treasure to discover,” Ross said.

One of his most prized finds is a painting that was best of show in the 1945 Hoosier Salon, The Gray Hills of Winter by C. Curry Bohm. He discovered the piece, long overlooked, in an Indiana State Museum collection.

While Ross goes giddy over the hunt itself, other collectors enjoy putting the works they own on show to the community, something they’ll be doing this coming week in Nashville.

From its beginning in the 1980s, the Collector’s Showcase has always been rooted in the appreciation of state and local art.

When a group of people who enjoyed each other’s Brown County art realized they could sell tickets to viewers, the casual get-together transformed into a fundraiser for the nonprofit gallery. Although the event passed out of the public eye a few years later, one woman’s unique passion rejuvenated the program in 2005.

“Over the last few years, we have gained the trust of a lot of collectors who own these things, which are worth hundreds and thousands of dollars, and it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see these paintings,” said Lyn Letsinger-Miller, president of the Brown County Art Gallery.

The T.C. Steele showcase in 2007 and a Will Vawter exhibit two years later attracted significant interest and resulted in increases in attention and attendance.

For this years’ showcase, more than 70 paintings will fill the walls of the gallery, a significant jump from past years’ showcases of around 50 or 60 paintings.

“As it has grown each year, a lot of collectors want to take part,” Letsinger-Miller said. “It builds a history of the painting and it adds to its value.”

While past showcases have been limited to displaying the works of one person, the 2013 Collector’s Showcase will be broader, as suggested by its theme, “Treasure Hunt 2.0.”

“The basic premise is that the art is supposed to be bought from an auction or found at a yard sale or some other fun story that goes with the painting,” Letsinger-Miller said. “We try to tell that story while exhibiting the art and it makes it interesting.”

All of the paintings date from the same period, 1907 up through the 1950s.

Visitors will see depictions of everyday life and scene from Nashville and Brown County. From florals to still lifes, the artworks project a taste of the landscape, people and animals.

The Collector’s Showcase serves a dual purpose.

Not only does it provide visitors a unique opportunity to see paintings that will go back to private homes immediately after the show closes, it also raises money for the gallery’s capital fund drive.

“We laugh that we are the only fund raiser that borrows work from private collectors and then makes them buy a ticket to see their own paintings,” Letsinger-Miller said.

The goal of the drive is to raise $2 million to double the size of the gallery. Between the Indiana Heritage Art Association, the Collector’s Showcase and the gallery foundation, the Brown County Art Gallery and Museum has so far raised $1 million.

“We probably have 350 paintings … that we own of early Indiana art and that lets us fundraise and take advantage of being a nonprofit to keep the doors open and the lights on,” Letsinger-Miller said. “And it takes all three groups, not just one.”

The fund has grown dramatically with the sale of art that’s on consignment to the gallery. Last year, a single weekend in November brought in a quarter of a million dollars. The Collector’s Showcase is the driving event that has brought a flock of donors to the fundraising effort, but most of the money from the event itself goes to operating expenses.

“We joke that we want the Cadillac and right now we can probably buy the Buick,” Letsinger-Miller said.

The long-term goal is to get the expansion done and to create more exhibit space so the artwork can be left up for a longer time, allowing more people can see it.

“Not many private, nonprofit galleries tackle something like this,” Letsinger-Miller said.

Even though a staggering amount of fundraising is done, the addition of two new galleries reflects the important role donors play in the thriving of the Brown County Art Gallery.

One gallery will feature Bill Zimmerman, a famed bird artist who illustrated all of The Birds of Indiana.

“The inclusion of the Bill Zimmerman exhibit is going to bring a whole different kind of art lover into the art gallery,” Letsinger-Miller said.

The other major attraction can be found in the Sexton Gallery, a show that highlights woodblock artist Gustave Baumann, who came to Brown County in the 1900s around the time of T.C. Steele.

Physician Robert Sexton, who is lending some of the pieces he owns to the showcase, started collecting old Brown County art 25 years ago. His interest in collecting has developed over the years, partly because the works connect him to childhood memories of the county.

“My interest in collecting had a lot to do with coming to Brown County when I was a kid,” Sexton said. “I can remember sites by visiting those pieces that are in my collection.”

Before the days of high quality photography and reproduction, Baumann studied woodcarving and learned techniques involved in wood block printing, specifically with colored wood blocks. While enhancing his printmaking technique, he spent time with the Brown County Art Colony, along with C. Curry Bohm, T.C. Steele, Bill Zimmerman and many other renowned artists. Baumann’s estate has sent a few items to the gallery that will appear in the exhibit alongside eight of Baumann’s gouaches and his walking stick. The gouaches are valued at $30,000 each.

Although the gallery has made a name for itself over the past few years, building recognition and credibility was a daunting task. For example, the gallery’s 2007 plan to exhibit the Steele works was greeted with overwhelming doubt at the time.

“We were told that we wouldn’t get anyone to give us anything for the collection, but we had about 700 people show up to see it,” Letsinger-Miller said.

“We like to think of ourselves as the little gallery that could.”


Information from: The Herald Times,

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'The Gray Hills of Winter' by C. Curry Bohm. Image courtesy of Eckert & Ross Fine Art, Indianapolis, Ind.

‘The Gray Hills of Winter’ by C. Curry Bohm. Image courtesy of Eckert & Ross Fine Art, Indianapolis, Ind.