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The Meddler

Making A Statement: Should Artists Have to Starve to Express Themselves?

Jenni Kirby, owner of Crossroads Art Center, calls her "extremely intense." Artspace founding member Henrietta Near says Bogen-Garrett's "quite outspoken." Bogen-Garrett says she's just trying to improve Richmond's arts scene.

She has inserted herself into the arts community with persistence and hard work. She's earned respect and ruffled feathers. And like art itself, she is full of contradictions: She is anti-business, yet considers art a business. She left one gallery because it focused too much on sales, then worked to increase sales at another. She says artists don't have creative freedom as long as they have to sell their work, and in the next breath says she tries to help the artist connect with the viewer, who also is a potential buyer.

Bogen-Garrett's mission is to create opportunities for artists. She's pushing to get Richmond galleries to join forces and work together. She would like to see an umbrella nonprofit work with all nonprofit galleries. She's full of ideas … theories … suggestions. And whether local artists agree with her, Bogen-Garrett, 47, is determined to make an impact on the arts community.

"I think there's something innate in the Jewish psyche — we tend to want to leave the world a better place than we found it," she says. "People don't always understand that about me. I'm always trying to make things better."

Bogen-Garrett sees herself as a promoter of the arts. "I'll tell you why I do that, because I think it's insulting to artists to be charity." Though she likes to create opportunities for artists to show and sell their work, she says it's difficult for artists to truly express themselves in a capitalist society where the people who are most likely to buy an artist's work are society's business leaders.

Such views, along with an appreciation of art, are rooted in Bogen-Garrett's upbringing in a liberal, creative family. Her parents were educators who taught her to work for the government because business could not be trusted. She grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., frequently attending the many rotating exhibits at museums in Manhattan. Her grandfather was an industrial-art teacher and her older sister studied painting with Ad Reinhart, one of the artists from the New York School.

Her aunt worked at Yamanaka and Co., a high-end, Japanese-owned store in Manhattan that sold goods from the Chinese imperial throne. During World War II, the business was confiscated by the government's Office of Alien Property Custodian. It hired an auction house to sell off the goods, with the proceeds going to the war effort. Bogen-Garrett became aware of the injustice through her mother, who was hired to work for the auction house. Her mother also passed on a reverence for the beautiful kimonos, lithographs, embroidered objects and paintings on silk that she acquired. "It taught me a respect for these objects that I could transfer to other objects of art," she says.

Throughout her life, Bogen-Garrett has stayed true to her parent's anti-business beliefs. After leaving the film-studies program at New York University, she came to Virginia in 1976 to join a friend on a commune near Lexington. After she left, she filled her resume with government work. She spent time coordinating historical exhibits at the Library of Virginia; she was a graphic designer at the Virginia State Lottery Department; she was exhibit coordinator at the Andrews Gallery at the College of William & Mary; and she taught graphic design at John Tyler Community College.

Today, her Taurus wagon is plastered with stickers announcing her beliefs, both political ("Attack Iraq? No!") and humanitarian ("One Human Family"). Along with flying an American flag at her Stratford Hills home, she flies a navy-colored flag with a picture of the Earth. Her license plate reads "ARTS GAL," which also is the name of her Web site,, and her art and design consulting business.

Bogen-Garrett also is an artist herself, primarily a photographer. Yet she seems to spend most of her time kibitzing. And sometimes that creates a poor fit with the Richmond gallery world.

Bogen-Garrett was active at the soon-to-be-closed Shockoe Bottom Arts Center. Her involvement with the tenants' association led to the founding of the Crossroads Arts Center. She helped find the building and originally was hired to curate the gallery at Crossroads, but soon clashed with the gallery and its mission.

Originally, says Crossroads' Kirby, the center's organizers were "looking for a working artist space, but the rent here is too high so it's more of a selling space." In one of the early exhibits, Bogen-Garrett says she came under a lot of fire when a juror picked a painting that depicted a man with horns coming out of his head. Some people thought it was Satanist and she received anonymous letters from people involved with the gallery, accusing her of trying to sink the center. Bogen-Garrett says those people didn't understand the artist's painting, derived from one of Michelangelo's paintings of Moses.

"In the arts, you're expected to accommodate the public's sensitivities," Bogen-Garrett says. And the fear of being controversial is heightened in a retail-oriented gallery. Although people may not realize it, all art is for sale except what's shown in museums, she says. "Artists are small-business people — just showing isn't enough."

Bogen-Garrett ran into more problems, she says, when certain artists wouldn't show their work in the gallery because of what they perceived as a lower quality of some of the work in the retail spaces that artists rented to show and sell their work. But it wasn't until one day that a woman came in with a swatch of her couch, looking for art to match, that Bogen-Garrett says she realized "Crossroads wouldn't work for me." She split from the gallery.

Bogen-Garrett says she believes art should address the social issues of the times. Though her photography doesn't project a social conscience, she says there is an underlying message: the universality of people. For the last 20 years she has found that in roadside attractions around the country.

She tightly frames the inanimate subjects, eliminating all context and scenery. These are portraits. There is the huge chicken promoting the "Ham and Eggery" in Golden Glades, Fla. In the Northern Neck, she selected as a subject a 2-foot wooden statue of a fishing boat captain wearing a yellow rain slicker with a pipe in his mouth. At the Blue Mist Motel in Sunny Isles, Fla., she discovered a pale blue alien-looking sea-angel holding a crescent moon with stars coming from her hair. In such examples of odd Americana on the back roads, Bogen-Garrett says you learn about common bonds. We're all the same, she says, "one human family."

Is this good art? Bogen-Garrett says it's really a personal decision. She believes artists in Richmond get too involved in theory and that unless you're buying art for investment, she wishes more people would just buy the art they love. "There's no crime in liking or judging art on an emotional level. You may start out with a taste for rabbits on a stick, but that's fine, who's to say that a more sophisticated taste is better?"

Walking the line between fine art and retail art is risky business for someone looking to be taken seriously, especially in a university town. With Virginia Commonwealth University students, faculty and graduates responsible for the majority of work at galleries in Richmond, academic thought and criticism dominate the gallery scene. Nonprofit galleries typically don't buy into that thought. Artspace founder Near says "the greatest artists have never followed the academic pattern of the times." She points to the impressionists and says they have been poor as a result.

Bogen-Garrett has gravitated toward such thinking - and toward such nonprofit galleries. She says she is a proponent of "connoisseurship," a trained appreciation of art, rather than the theory-driven academic view of art. She hopes to familiarize people with art to make them more interested in and comfortable with it, and as a result, more apt to take it home.

"I personally would like to see more critical thought and discussion about the value of art to the artist and the public," Bogen-Garrett says. "I would like to encourage dialogue, I mean, What is art?"

Last year, Artspace accepted Bogen-Garrett as a member on the basis of her photography and digital work. The nonprofit, member-owned gallery shows many skilled and professional artists while also often providing a forum for untrained artists. After six months at Artspace, Bogen-Garrett created a spot for herself on the board as fund-raising chair.

"She sort of formed her own committee," Near says. "We didn't have a fund-raising person and she thought it was important that we have one." And just like that Bogen-Garrett was on the board. She also has converted an apartment above Artspace into more gallery and studio space, helping to fulfill Artspace's mission to serve the community while also bringing in some money for the financially strapped organization. She found artists to rent the studios, while she herself rents the gallery space, where she has started a series of juried shows.

But not all of Artspace's members have embraced Bogen-Garrett's long-term visions, Near says, such as her idea to make Artspace an umbrella nonprofit for all other nonprofit galleries in town. Bogen-Garrett also has created some friction because she believes art is a business. Near says money is Bogen-Garrett's main focus.

"She is pretty strong-minded and she may have ruffled some feathers," Near says. "We're a nonprofit gallery so there are other motives than [making money]." Near cites the current Latin American art festival as an example of a community outreach project. "In the past we've tried to do good community work and attract [support that way]."

Despite such conflict with some in the arts community, Bogen-Garrett has earned respect for her work ethic and dedication.

"I think Petie certainly gets a lot of respect for her ideas and her willingness to work," says Susanne Arnold, a painter and emeritus member of the 1708 Gallery who used to work with Bogen-Garrett at the Library of Virginia.

"She's been a tremendous help at Artspace, giving us a lot of ideas," Near says. "[She has] tremendous drive and a really good mind and she just feels the needs of certain things and just goes out and does it, she's a very active person." Near has been so impressed with Bogen-Garrett's work with Artspace that she has asked her to be on the board of VSA arts, a nonprofit organization that serves the community of artists with disabilities.

Such work hits close to home. Bogen-Garrett lives with her partner, Martha, and Martha's son, Eric, 22. He is severely disabled and entirely dependent on them. He cannot speak, and Bogen-Garrett attempts to communicate with simple hand gestures and cares for him with a great deal of patience. She seems to be passing her ideals and passion for art along to him. Two giant posters illustrating guitar chords cover a wall in his room. Many days his wheelchair is pulled tight to a desk with a television in one corner and an electronic auto harp called a Q-Chord in the other. He tinkers with the demo song, The Beatles' "Michelle," changing the chords and tempo by pressing the many buttons. Bogen-Garrett hopes he'll move beyond the demo to create his own songs.

Bogen-Garrett's small office, separated from her living room by a brown beaded curtain, reveals her identification with the '60s — a bookshelf is filled with old records, "The Beatles Anthology" and Joan Baez's autobiography. An old guitar rests in the corner, waiting to be turned into art, she says. "I'll let it suggest to me what it wants to be." Her characteristic personification of art objects reveals the vitality of art in her life.

Her connection with the '60s has a twist. Her distant cousin is the activist folk singer Arlo Guthrie. Yet she had never met him, until she wrote a letter to him in 1989. They arranged to meet after a concert at the Carpenter Center and remain in contact today. Bogen-Garrett, Martha and Eric go see him whenever he is within a day's drive. After the shows, they visit with him backstage, though "we're lucky if we get a breakfast with him in the morning," she says.

Guthrie also introduced her to a spiritual leader at the Kashi Ashram, an interfaith spiritual community in Florida with roots in Hindu philosophy. Bogen-Garrett occasionally attends services at the church and visits the guru. She is not a follower, she says, but being in the presence of the guru is healing. "We all experience a lot of painful experiences that we don't always deal with," she says, "but in a setting like that, you deal with it."

One of the things Bogen-Garrett likes best about the guru is the Kali Yoga, her teachings about giving yourself to others. That desire to be of service, Bogen-Garrett says, is what drives her in life. She hopes to be remembered as someone who cares enough to take risks to make things better. "I don't think the world has to be this zero-sum game where there's somebody on top who wins," she says. "I want success but I want it for everyone."

Through her work as a curator, Bogen-Garrett acts as a bridge helping the artist reach the public. She compares herself to a music producer, taking the raw energy of the artist and emphasizing the elements that make it accessible to the public.

Rather than working on her own art, Bogen-Garrett spends most of her time looking for ways to expose artists, like the juried series she curated at Artspace. Sixty-nine hopeful artists paid an entry fee to submit their work for consideration in the March still-life show. A juror of Bogen-Garrett's choosing — this time it was Bill Barnes, acting chair of the Department of Art and Art History at the College of William & Mary — selected 29 pieces for the show. If the show is well marketed and the juror is well respected, typically entrance fees pay the rent and anything more than that covers the costs. "This is not something I make a living off of," Bogen-Garrett says, "but after covering my expenses it's nice to go to lunch afterward."

None of the 29 pieces sold during Bogen-Garrett's juried still-life show in March. When asked what sells in Richmond, Bogen-Garrett says residents have very quirky tastes — primitive art, folk and outsider art sells well. Then she thinks better of her answer and says what sells: "When someone has a lot of friends and they bring them to a show and they buy art because they feel obligated."

Juried shows often are a first step for artists looking to get involved in showing their art; they also are a way for others to stay involved in the local arts community. "I'm thrilled to see what people will do to be involved," she says of a mute woman approaching her 90s whose work appeared in the last show.

Bogen-Garrett tells the story of one woman who came in holding a box from which she lifted a small piece of pottery with careful detailing. The woman asked Bogen-Garrett if she thought it would qualify. Bogen-Garrett replied simply, "it looks like art to me." And the juror loved the piece. "Some people would call this craft," she says of the piece, "but I'd call it fine craft. These are a lot of boundaries. I like to find those boundaries and explore them."

Now Bogen-Garrett's primary project is pulling together members of the arts community, business leaders and city officials to start an arts center akin to the recently closed Shockoe Bottom Arts Center. Bogen-Garrett sees it as a great draw for tourists and wishes the state tourism board would get involved, too.

"I think we can be a cultural destination," she says. "Anything I can do to facilitate that I want to do. I don't have money but I have ideas and ability, negotiating ability."

Although her primary motive is what she calls "creating opportunities for artists," she says she also hopes that through this new project she will have another venue to do her curating and consulting. "I think the galleries need to learn how to be more cooperative and that's a difficult thing," she says.

Crossroads' Kirby says she has a tough job ahead, likening it to "herding cats." 1708's Arnold wonders about the timing. "This is a time of more compatibility than ever before [for galleries]," she says, "but it doesn't mean that anybody can afford the time to give to a big project at this time." Still, Arnold points to Rusty Davis' work at Shockoe Bottom Arts Center. "When he opened that, nobody wanted to give him a chance, now [everybody's making a fuss] that he's closing."

Bogen-Garrett says she's driven by the altruism and the desire to be of service but that even she gets frustrated. "Sometimes I think about just going into real estate, no joke!" She even took real-estate classes but stopped short of getting her certification. She always is drawn back to the arts and to the altruism, the kali yoga. S