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Diary of a US dealer: Douglas Heller. Crafting a market for contemporary glass

As the SOFA fair of contemporary decorative arts comes to New York, we talk to a leading dealer in the field

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Dealer Douglas Heller and his brother Michael have established a gallery devoted to crafts, primarily glass. While his client base is relatively static numerically, prices for work are skyrocketing. Mr Heller is also involved in a number of glass organisations and he frequently serves as a jurist and panellist for glass expositions and symposiums. He has curated “American glass art: evolution/revolution” at the Morris Museum of Art in New Jersey. In recognition of his service, the American Craft Museum honoured him with its 1999 Visionaires Award.

The way your gallery has moved around town seems to say a great deal about the evolution of this speciality.

We began on Madison Avenue in a space formerly taken by Tiffany glass dealer Minna Rosenblatt and then Leo Kaplan. Now Gianni Versace is in there. We moved to the Terry Dittenfass Gallery because I saw that the level of contemporary crafts I was showing demanded an art gallery setting. After eighteen years, I watched a number of high profile art dealers move to SoHo so I followed them. Two years ago, I moved to the meat market, euphemistically known as the Gateway to Chelsea, so now I’m near dealers like Matthew Marks and Barbara Gladstone. Our 7,200 square-foot gallery is in the perfect setting.

To me, the moves reflect the evolution of the demand for this art form, from an Uptown to a Downtown clientele. My locations complement my artists’ achievements. The artists have grown in sophistication and stature just as their art and the audience has. Look at our upcoming show of the Czech glass artists Libensky and Brychtova. The old stereotype was that art glass was too precious to be serious. Their new pieces weigh from several hundred pounds to thousands and the prices are from $30,000 to $150,000.

To what extent are you cultivating the growth of popularity in glass?

Our ongoing commitment is to take an educational approach—supporting young artists while nurturing clients. In the past, we have underwritten exhibitions in the Czech Republic and Japan. Nine years ago, we developed the Prague Art Glass Prize and held the largest glass exhibition ever there. It was a way to find and develop artists in that country. We started a similar prize in Tokyo and followed it up by organising the first major documented Japanese studio glass exhibition.

I’m also on the board of Urban Glass in Brooklyn, which is instrumental in teaching and supporting a wide range of glass artists. For the Creative Glass Center of America in Millville, New Jersey, a glass exposition attended by several thousand (this year 13-15 July), we help underwrite the attendance of curators from the Metropolitan Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Los Angeles County Museum and the High Museum in Atlanta. I see this as an important venue for exposing curators to new artists. The fact that there are on-site glassmaking demonstrations helps educate people more about this art form.

Here in the gallery, for the past twenty-three years, we have been holding an invitational for forty artists. This year it will take place in July and August to coincide with the city’s summer art scene.

How do you measure results from those efforts?

In both Sotheby’s and Christie’s catalogues, the gallery is now included in the provenance of works. In a broader sense, look at the explosion of interest in contemporary glass. Consider the attendance for SOFA. Now 10,000 attend that fair in New York; Chicago had 30,000 visitors last year.

To what degree is the client base changing?

An increasing number of clients are new to collecting. They come totally fresh to this field and find the art alluring and the educational activities captivating. I also see more European clients from the UK, France, Germany and Switzerland. We work with more museums now and approximately 8% of our stock ends up in institutions from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the V&A. Frequently, we work with curators to find patrons for works of art.

Besides contemporary crafts, what else are your clients collecting?

Approximately 20% of our clients collect contemporary art. Some are Seattle-based and collect paintings and photographs by artists such as Chuck Close, while others collect work by modern masters such as Picasso, De Kooning, Warhol and Francis Bacon. To me it’s the highest complement for a work of contemporary craft to sit cheek by jowl next to a painting by a major artist.

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