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20 years of fortitude


Crash “Wanted,” 1989.

Crash “Wanted,” 1989.

This year marks Steven Vail’s 20th anniversary in the gallery business. His exhibitions here, of internationally renowned artists, have usually received more media coverage from New York, Germany and even Hong Kong than they have in Des Moines. How did he manage to survive?

“Luther Utterback (Des Moines artist) took me to New York City when I was 23. The first friend he introduced me to was Jan Frank. We hit it off really well, and I would end up moving into a part of his loft on Bond Street,” Vail began.

Frank has long been a legendary arts figure in Greenwich Village, connected to the scene much like Andy Warhol was a generation earlier. Chuck Close became Vail’s friendly neighbor. Vail also met Christo, Claes Oldenburg and Joseph Kosuth. All three were intrigued that he came from Iowa.

“They knew two things about Iowa — that it looked green from the air and the Des Moines Art Center,” Vail said.

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Vail acknowledges that his timing was fortunate. “New York was the hub of the art world then. Now people split their time between there and Hong Kong or Berlin. That was also a time of ideas. No one was networking. We hung out at Il Buco, a gathering spot for artists. One regular I knew only as David — he always carried a bunch of notebooks tied in twine. Sometimes he would read a poem to us. Much later I learned he was David Byrne. We’d walk Jan’s dogs to a tiny dog park. One day he introduced me there to a guy named Keith and told me to talk to him. I took him for a vagrant. He was scraggly and mumbled so badly I couldn’t understand a word he said. I told Jan to never do that to me again. He stayed mad at me for days and finally told me that guy was Keith Richard,” Vail reminisced.

Vail also met famous collectors and gallery owners like Mary Boone and Barbara Gladstone. “Being from Iowa made me stand out, and I cultivated that identity.”

Then, 20 years ago, he realized he knew enough people to become a dealer. “So, lacking money, I audaciously asked Davis Sanders to build me a gallery in Des Moines.”

Sanders agreed, to Vail’s astonishment. The result was Vail-Giesler Contemporary Art on Fifth Street by the railroad tracks. Their first sale was CRASH print. Vail had tracked the artist down after the New York Times wrote about his graffiti.

The Des Moines gallery also held an exhibition from the estate of the legendary collector Harold Rosenberg. It included original works of Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, etc. Only six locals showed up for the opening. Insurance and other overhead costs there persuaded Vail to move to a more secure space in the Financial Center. Then the ease of doing business over the Internet convinced him to close that space. Four years ago, architect Kirk Blunck talked him into reopening in East Village.

“That was not a business decision but a cultural one. East Village reminded me of Greenwich Village decades ago. We only did $30,000 business in 2009. That steadily increased to $1.3 million last year. Less than 10 percent of our sales are local, yet we attract some amazing things. We mounted the first-ever exhibition of Chuck Close self portraits. I called him to interest him in a photography show. He seceded from that and gave himself his own show. I didn’t argue,” Vail explained.

Vail’s latest move, with the Moen Group, is to open a new gallery in the Packing and Provision Building in downtown Iowa City.

“Marc Moen’s partner Bobby Jett made just one request — that we have a CRASH exhibition. I love that symmetry,” Vail said. CV

Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.

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