Jane Haslem - watercolor by George Harkins
Thirty years ago last month, Jane Haslem told this newspaper that she was about to relinquish her gallery’s daily operations to her assistant. Arts reporter Jo Ann Lewis wrote that Haslem, having just staged her 25th anniversary show, “is tired and no wonder.”
At the time, Haslem recalls, she did think of her 25th anniversary exhibition as “the last show. I had one picture by each of the artists I’d handled up to that time,” a list that included such realist painters and master printmakers as Edward Hopper, Leonard Baskin, John Marin and Billy Morrow Jackson.
“It was a terrific show,” she adds, but it turned out not to be a splendid farewell. “I kept the gallery,” Haslem says with a smile. “I just went right on.”
“You see an artist who’s really fine,” she explains. “And you see they really could use some help. And you know you can help. And it just gets you.”
Now, though, Haslem is intent on going out of business. “I have had my last show,” she says.
Haslem has outlived many of her gallery-operating peers, and some of the ones still around have been retired for years. Longtime admirer Jack Rasmussen, director of the American University Museum, remembers that “I met her when I opened my gallery in Washington in 1978. And she was sort of an old pro then. I kept my gallery open for five years, and it almost killed me. So I know what it takes to keep a gallery going. And for 54 years, my God. It’s staggering.”
Haslem isn’t quite finished selling art. When she left her last commercial space in 1987, moving to a townhouse near the Phillips Collection, she took over 4,000 works. That gradually has been reduced to about 800. The remaining pieces are still available for inspection by appointment, although some of the inventory is being sent to auction houses.
Haslem recently turned 80, which seems improbable, given that she continues to oversee the gallery and Artline.com, a Web site she founded 20 years ago. She opened her first gallery in Chapel Hill in 1960. Her husband, finance scholar John A. Haslem, was then working on a PhD at the University of North Carolina, and she was caring for their young sons.
Haslem planned to be a painter, so she rented a studio near the campus. As other studios in the building became available, she took those, too. Eventually, she had the whole second floor, for a monthly rent of $50. She remembers when she and her husband painted the space: “Jack said, ‘What are you going to do now?’ And I said, ‘I think I’m going to open a gallery.’ And I didn’t even have the vaguest idea of what a gallery was.’ ”
She took a series of train trips to cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest, learning the business. She also used the space to teach art to children, which made more sense to some local residents than selling art. “When I started, it was the only gallery in North Carolina,” Haslem says.
She saw sculptor and printmaker Leonard Baskin on the cover of Life magazine, and called him to offer a show. “I was so nervous that the phone just kept sliding out of my hand,” she recalls, but he agreed. Through Baskin, she met the period’s leading printmakers, many of whom also were professors.
“Baskin said, ‘You probably ought to get Gabor Peterdi at Yale,’ and he said, ‘You ought to get Rudy Possatti at IU.’ And they said, ‘You can’t leave out Mauricio Lasansky at Iowa.’ ”
“They took me under their wing,” Haslem says. “They showed me their studios, how you make prints, what’s good, what’s bad. So I had a really outstanding training in printmaking.”
Soon, she notes, “I was handling, only I didn’t know it at the time, the real innovators in printmaking.” Many of them showed at Haslem’s galleries for decades after that.
“What they did was create prints which competed with paintings for space on the wall,” she says.
And because they were teachers, they sometimes had young artists to recommend. “It was really very easy for me,” Haslem says. “ ‘Chuck Close is a good student,’ Peterdi said. ‘Get his work. I think he’s going to do well.’ ” Close became one of the most famous artists of his generation.
Her husband began teaching at the University of Wisconsin, and Haslem opened a gallery in Madison. When he took a new job at the University of Maryland, Haslem says, her intention was to keep the Madison shop and not start a new one. But “while the movers were moving our furniture into our house, I was down in Georgetown looking for space to rent to open a gallery.”
That was 1969, just a year after race riots had scarred some D.C.neighborhoods, but Haslem wasn’t intimidated by Washington. After all, she was coming from a late-1960s campus town. “When we had Kent State and the rioting,” she remembers, “I could look out the front window of my gallery and see the tanks going down the street.”
Haslem’s first D.C. location was in the area now called Book Hill. One of her first shows there featured Josef Albers prints and Edward Hopper prints and drawings.
“The prints were $925 and the drawings were $1,200, and I didn’t a sell a single thing,” she says, laughing. “Those same pieces today are like $37,000 to $48,000, and I wish I just had bought them. But I didn’t.”
In the 1970s, Haslem moved to a bigger space on P Street, just west of Dupont Circle. About a dozen galleries were there then, drawn by the Phillips Collection and the Jefferson Place Gallery, which had introduced the Washington Color School a decade earlier.
“You didn’t have a chance to sit down, get a drink of water or anything, because people were always in the gallery,” Haslem recalls. “Those were really good years. If [Washington Post critic] Paul Richard would write up a gallery, by the time you got there to open, there’d be a line of people outside waiting to get in.”
“The 1970s on P Street and the 1980s on 7th Street were the boom years,”says Ramon Osuna, one of Haslem’s few cohorts from that era who’s still in business, now from a warehouse in Kensington.
Haslem began showing comic strips and political cartoons, including a selection of Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” strips. “Nobody had done that before. And I didn’t have any idea of what to expect,” she says.
Before the first show, which was to benefit the National Women’s Political Caucus, she took Trudeau and his date, actress Candice Bergen, into the gallery’s office and told them not to expect a crowd. Then she looked out the door and saw a mob scene. “There may have been 2,000 people there. And [then-Rep.] Bella Abzug was directing traffic.”
When her landlord sold the P Street building, leaving Haslem and several other galleries without a home, she joined the migration to 406 7th St. NW, which is partly occupied by Hill Country Barbecue. Osuna was there, and Adamson Gallery, which is currently at 1515 14th St. NW.
Business was good for a time, Haslem says, but then “pretty much fizzled out.” It didn’t help that the building’s manager had a rent dispute with the owner, and the gallery owners ended up in to court with their cancelled checks to prove they’d paid their share.
In the early 1990s, Haslem received a PhD in art history from the University of Maryland. She also began studying, on her own, what was then an even more arcane subject than mid-20th-century American printmaking: computers.
She began scanning her inventory, and showing it via floppy disc and CD-ROM. “I was the only one at the big art fairs,” she says. “People used to come over to my booth and say, ‘What the heck is it you’re doing?’ ”
Before many people knew what a Web browser was, Haslem decided to start a Web site. “In those days, if you wanted a domain name, you could do anything you wanted,” she says. “So I just said, ‘I’ll take Artline.’ That’s easy. It starts with ‘A.’ ” She allied with seven art dealers associations that represented about 850 galleries worldwide.
“She was always very, very professional,” Rasmussen says. “But I think she’ll be known for what she did with Artline. When she started talking about showing and selling art online, I thought she was just completely crazy.”
Artline has competed with larger, better-financed operations; currently the Goliath is Artsy.net. Haslem and a committee of gallerists and others are discussing the site’s future. Artline is likely to become more scholarly, with an emphasis on Washington artists.
Despite her enthusiasm for the Web, Haslem laments the arrival of digital print labs at art schools. “They changed their wonderful print workshops to all computers,” she says. “So the people that are coming out today, many of them haven’t the slightest idea of how to do an etching. A mezzotint. They don’t even know the word. So the print world sort of has had its peak.”
She also notes that the recession that began in 2007 has not ended yet for art dealers, and that it’s the worst one she has seen in five decades in business.
Plus, “people almost don’t look at art anymore. People don’t have that patience anymore. They want an event.” She pauses. “This may have happened in part because of all the art fairs.”
So maybe it really is time to end that nearly 55-year career.
“I don’t believe she’s really closing,” Rasmussen says with a laugh. “She’ll be around for a while, I hope.”