A passion for art drives this astute gallery owner.
by PAUL GREENBERG
Arthur RogerHis dad, a New Orleans streetcar driver, died when he was 16 years old. His mother mortgaged her Ninth Ward home to enable him to open his first business—an art gallery on Magazine Street—in 1978. That was when Magazine Street was not yet home to chic, urban galleries and couture shops, but rather funky, left-of-center boutiques and second-hand shops. He is Arthur Roger, a name that when mentioned among those-in-the-know in the world of contemporary art, carries weight. In Seattle, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Chicago and the select few other major art hubs in America, Arthur Roger is a name to be reckoned with. In person, in the stunningly-appointed French Quarter home he shares with Ariel, his 11-month-old basset hound/chocolate lab mix, he’s articulate, humble, grateful for his success and only forward thinking.
Still, when he talks of that moment that he asked his mother to help him out so many years ago, he is wistful and somewhat astounded. “You know, at age 20 I selfishly thought that was an appropriate request, and now that I look back on it, it is probably the most amazing thing I ever asked anybody to do,” Roger says. “We were from that generation where the parents lived to see their kids have a better life than they had. In some ways it caused me to have a warped sense of what that meant—a sort of sense of entitlement.”
Talk to anybody who knows him well and it is clear that Roger’s youthful sense of entitlement has given way to boundless energy, intense commitment to the approximately 30 artists he represents and an unwavering devotion to the task of bringing fine contemporary art to the masses. “Almost immediately I realized what I had done by asking my mother for help,” Roger says. “It was a time when galleries would just close in the middle of the night and disappear, owing artists sums of money. It was, and is, a very tough business, which I caught onto right away. But even though I knew I could probably get a waiter job and pay off my mother’s mortgage, I just couldn’t abandon ship—I had to make a go of it somehow.”
Then the breaks started to come. A shift in aesthetics emerged in New Orleans to include contemporary artwork in corporate buildings and hotels. The gallery installed several major corporate collections in the city including those at the Hotel Inter-Continental, the Pan-American Life Insurance Company and the Aquarium of the Americas. By 1984, the Arthur Roger Gallery was taking its place on the national landscape after being selected for participation in the Chicago International Art Exposition, where it has continued to exhibit each year. The gallery has also been included in major art fairs throughout the country. In 1984, the gallery played a central role in arranging the large Louisiana Arts exhibition at the World’s Fair in New Orleans, while the next year it presented a successful month-long group show in New York at the Exhibition Space at 112 Greene St. in SoHo. It seems safe to say the mortgage was paid.
By 1988, the little gallery that could on Magazine gave way to Roger’s 5,100-square-foot space on Julia Street. A second location—the Arthur Roger Gallery Project —opened in 2003 in the Renaissance Arts Hotel on Tchoupitoulas Street. Widely-recognized artists such as John Waters, Dale Chihuly and Blake Boyd have been featured this year in the galleries. This month in the Julia Street gallery are Jacqueline Bishop’s alternately striking and disturbing interpretations of man and nature. At the Tchoupitoulas location look for Francis X. Pavy’s vibrant, colorful expressions of Louisiana Cajun country. It is no accident that both artists have strong ties to Louisiana.
“I’m interested in demystifying art, making it accessible to as many people as possible,” Roger says. “There is a wealth of talent and vision among artists who have lived and worked here, but only recently has there been a support system for them to stay here, only in the last 20 years or so.”
The support system about which Roger speaks carries itself into his own home, where a grand, imposing Dale Chihuly chandelier has taken its place high above the stairwell in his three-story house. So why does a man who is surrounded all day in his gallery by some of the best contemporary art in the country choose to similarly grace his home with their works? “I really do have an understanding and a connection to artists and what it takes for them to create their work,” Roger says. “That’s my bond with my artists. I feel privileged and blessed by it, and I don’t take credit that I had this incredible vision of what was going to come from it. I just feel fortunate.”
Creating his home has been a labor of love for eight years, a personal evolution of the complementary spirit of art and architecture, Roger says. “I hope I’m in this house for the rest of my life. I love it and I feel a very deep connection to it.” •