A NICHE PLACE - Former New Yorker Wendy Cooper Makes Her Way In Madison's Busy Art Market

Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI)
Published on August 10, 2000
2000- Madison Newspapers, Inc.
By John Aehl

Evidence of Wendy Cooper's intelligence surfaced quickly last week as she discussed her decision a year ago to open a small gallery for contemporary art on Madison's near East Side.

She confessed to trepidation in making the move. When I started this I was afraid, to a certain extent, Cooper said. This was a very big risk for me. I didn't know what was going to happen. . . . I didn't want to start a business to have it fail.

It has not, and Cooper exudes optimism as she looks back -- and forward. Now that a year has passed, I can kind of see that there was a successful formula that I didn't understand like I do now, she said.

Basically it's this: Take a person with 17 years of experience selling art, dealing art, framing art, restoring art, dealing with all sorts of different clients in a very competitive city like New York, in a contemporary art world of movers and shakers.

Now take that person and move her to Madison. There is something about this city that gave me a sense of safety and freedom, to do something new. Now I feel that this is a community that is embracing me from different corners -- business, art, first-time buyers.

I'm happy to say I have exceeded my first year's expectations and my financial goals. I had a number in my head for gross sales that I needed to stay in business, and I exceeded that. It wasn't that simple, of course.

The Wendy Cooper Gallery at 824 E. Johnson St. is in a 100-year-old white frame building that has been fixed up considerably by Cooper, since it was in poor condition when she bought it.

Since she formally opened the door on Sept. 25, 1999, Cooper has displayed the unusual, the colorful, the puerile, the complex, the simple, the outrageous, the romantic, the abstract, the realistic -- whatever the fascinating panorama of styles and media that comprises what Cooper calls cutting-edge contemporary art.

I show art that I like, but I also try to show artists that I really think are good artists, even if I wouldn't necessarily buy them myself, she said. They may work well in a theme or may be appropriate for a certain type of clientele. I try to experiment as much as possible, with different styles that interest me.

As for her personal tastes, she said, I like so many different kinds of art that I can't define my likes. The more you look at art, the more educated you become, and your tastes change because you are looking at new things all the time.

With, as noted, extensive experience in the world of dealing with art and artists, Cooper came to Madison from New York City four years ago when her husband, Ken Wine, relocated to a new job.

She said she maintained a fairly low profile, showing art and selling art in people's homes, and working in somewhat alternative spaces, just to get a feel for what people were interested in. It gave me the idea that, in order to have a more consistent business life maybe I should open up public space somewhere. . . . I just felt there was room for a gallery in which you could see really new stuff and buy it.

She said she found there is a good-sized community of contemporary local artists and people interested in contemporary art.

I was counting on there being some kind of pent-up demand, she said. I looked at the different niches, and I said to myself, 'What can I provide to this community that no one else can provide? And what's it going to cost for me to do it?' Buying the Johnson Street building gave her the freedom to be as creative and innovative as she wanted to be.

The present exhibit of Flora and Fauna may not define Cooper, because no one should be defined on a single-example, short-term basis, but it can be described, though inadequately.

In this not-large, white-walled room-and-a-half are juxtaposed, (a) little bunny rabbits and plastic doll parts and plastic flowers and resin lawn ornaments and more, arrayed on a small section of plastic-grass-covered floor; (b) a mixed-media installation that includes a few prints on the wall and some sort of an elongated open-top white box, inside of which videotapes of odd things are running on television sets, such as Arm Float Carrot and Elefoot Dancing, and (c) a frankly phallic pair of charcoal-and-enamel drawings with titles that can't be printed in the newspaper.

It is all out there, presented in a matter-of-fact way.

When she began, Cooper said, she had the names of more than 100 artists she worked with in New York City who were willing to show their work in Madison. But she wanted to exhibit the work of local artists as well to remain relevant to Madison. She met people like Nancy Mladenoff, an assistant professor of art at the UW-Madison whose deceptively simple, near cartoon-like work has been exhibited in many locations across the country. Mladenoff's work opened the gallery last September.

She was local and had a strong following, Cooper said. Hundreds of people showed up.

Since then Cooper has mixed non-local and local artists, usually with a theme. Local artists became a referral agency, alerting Cooper to other people who were working professionally in the community whose work had not never shown here.

They started calling me, Cooper said. When you open a place, people contact you. I'm trying to provide a place where people can come where they can exchange ideas with me and we can work together on projects. . . . I feel like I have become a partner to the community.

In connection with her exhibits she has had musical events at the gallery. She plans a World Wide Web site to catalog her inventory and her exhibits.

She is pleased that some of her business has been in sales to corporations, and finds she is doing well in the secondary art market - when someone wants to sell something, I can find buyers across the country, or, vice-versa, when someone wants to buy something I don't have, I have many contacts. There are niche galleries all over the place. Cooper also acknowledges that she would like to have more space, especially for storage, but for right now this will have to do me.

State Journal photo/Craig Schreiner

Gallery owner Wendy Cooper poses by an installation by artist Colin Beatty, an example of the contemporary art she carries.


Copyright Ⓒ 1998-2018 Katherine Shaughnessy