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(re)Focus 2024: Fortitude at 50: A Resilient Five Decades at Gross McCleaf Gallery

Interviews: Estelle Gross, Sharon Ewing, Martha Armstrong and Bill Scott

Estelle Gross | Sharon Ewing
Martha Armstrong | Bill Scott

Click the names above to read the full-length interviews

(re)Focus 2024: Fortitude at 50: A Resilient Five Decades at Gross McCleaf Gallery - Interviews: Estelle Gross, Sharon Ewing, Martha Armstrong and Bill Scott - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Estelle Gross in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, May 13, 1979

Excerpt: Estelle Gross interviewed by Marina Pacini on April 5, 1989, (transcribed) Smithsonian Archives of American Art Philadelphia Project

Marina Pacini: Was there any sort of--did you set out to specifically work with realist or abstract art?

Estelle Gross: I really didn't. When I went to college obviously we were taught that abstract expressionism was the most important American movement in art that had ever been. I mean as far as I'm concerned we're still living at the end of the abstract expressionist era. But I didn't set out to get them... I was more interested in the New York school who followed the abstract expressionists and used all the things they had learned from abstract expressionism and I thought gone beyond it and gone back to subject matter. 

MP: Let's talk about the Philadelphia artists that you did show. At some point you obviously shifted over and did start to show the work of Philadelphia artists. Is there some sort of watershed year when that happened or was it just something you drifted into?

EG: No, I didn't drift into it all. In 1971 I realized that I couldn't keep on showing New York artists because there was no way to build up the reputation and to sustain it since I was doing this on a show by show basis. Whereas, I discovered that local artists had local followings and I met the artists because they came to the gallery and they would invite me out to see their work. I also realized that, my goodness, just because they lived in Philadelphia didn't mean that they didn't have talent. What it did mean was that they didn't have the reputation and they were not asking the prices that New York artists were. So I decided that I would try showing some of the artists whom I liked and again, it took a while by the time I met them; say their work; set up a show. It was probably 1972 before I really showed Philadelphians. 

(re)Focus 2024: Fortitude at 50: A Resilient Five Decades at Gross McCleaf Gallery - Interviews: Estelle Gross, Sharon Ewing, Martha Armstrong and Bill Scott - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Opening of Marlin McCleaf Gallery in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, August 31, 1969

MP: How did their work sell?

EG: Oh, it sold very well compared to New York artists.

MP: Oh, really?

EG: Oh, yes.

MP: Why was that happening? Was it because Philadelphians weren't interested in New York artists or that would just as soon go to New York and buy in New York? 

EG: Oh, basically I don't think most of them were buying anywhere. In other words, I don't think there was a big demand for art in Philadelphia. People now who are written up and who was that they've been collecting for the last ten years. I don't see how you can have a collection in ten years, do you? Collecting is something you do over a life time. The Philadelphians were very loyal to other Philadelphians. They would buy artists, say if they had studied in a class for adults with someone like Pittman or someone like Jimmy Lueders. They would come into see his work and, of course, the work was a lot less expensive than New York work. People would come in, take a look at Red Groom's drawings. We never sold one Red Groom's drawing. Not one and they were great. There's nothing you can do about it. We had not created an art scene here and to just bring in people whose work started at about fifteen hundred dollars twenty years ago, it was not possible. 

MP: Many of the galleries with the longest history in Philadelphia have been run by women.

EG: Yes. Well, women are willing to take less than men in any field, I think. You know, they're willing to settle for being an anesthesiologist even though they may have a gift for surgery because people will tell them that they're not going to make a good surgeon or they can't have a family if they're going to be a surgeon, that kind of thing. So women will settle for a little less and I think women who like the art field will say, well, they can't make a lot of money, but...

MP: Do you feel that there's been any sort of change that makes the climate more hospitable for women artists?

EG: Well, I think there's probably less active prejudice against showing a woman. I mean it would never occur to me not to show someone because it was a woman. On the other hand, there are far too many women painting today so that it's difficult... Women are sometimes too negative about themselves. I mean they come in and practically say, "You wouldn't want to handle this, would you?" It's very easy to say, "No, as a matter of fact I wouldn't." [laughs] They practically set it up for you. 

(re)Focus 2024: Fortitude at 50: A Resilient Five Decades at Gross McCleaf Gallery - Interviews: Estelle Gross, Sharon Ewing, Martha Armstrong and Bill Scott - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Photograph of Painter's Jury at the 1949 Annual Exhibition at PAFA. 

MP: There are plenty of people in Philadelphia with enough money to be buying, aren't there?

EG: Are there? I don't know. I honestly don't know. I don't know how many of the Fortune 400 live in Philadelphia. I know that in Houston, Dallas, New York and Los Angeles, Santa Fe--yes, I men they're all over the place, but in Philadelphia I'm not so sure how many there are. I don't know. It's a moot point because if they're not here, obviously they can't buy. 

MP: Is it that they've got the money and they're just not spending it?

EG: I don't know. You know, Digby Baltzell may be right. You don't have to flaunt it in Philadelphia... Even museums can't afford to buy today. So there's something strange happening and it's very discouraging, I think. 

(re)Focus 2024: Fortitude at 50: A Resilient Five Decades at Gross McCleaf Gallery - Interviews: Estelle Gross, Sharon Ewing, Martha Armstrong and Bill Scott - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Aubrey Levinthal, Tangled Anxieties, 2015, 48" x 48" Oil On Panel


Excerpts: Sharon Ewing with Elizabeth Johnson, Fall 2023, edited by Matthew Crain

Elizabeth Johnson:  Estelle said, “I was more interested in the New York school who followed the Abstract Expressionists and used all the things they had learned from Abstract Expressionism, and I thought, 'Gone beyond it and gone back to subject matter.'” Given Philadelphia’s realist tradition, did she or you distinguish between artists who had gone abstract and those that were loyal realists? What changes did you make in running the business or choosing artists after you took over in 1992?

Sharon Ewing:  By the late 1980s/early 1990s GMG had developed a reputation for showing “painterly realism." Richard Rosenfeld, who opened a gallery in Old City, became known as the “abstract gallery.” Although neither of these characterizations was absolute, that is how people saw us. Although Estelle had been suffering from cancer, she died suddenly. As an employee, I was not prepared for her death and was in the throes of some personal issues myself: in 1992 I had three kids at home, my dad had just died, my mother had health issues, and my daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. My mission initially was just to keep things going. Fortunately, I had the support of my stable of artists and a good assistant who made it possible. Also, my husband! Because I had competing concerns in my life, I did not make a lot of changes initially.

Most shows were scheduled one or two years out (I remember getting a call from an artist right after Estelle died, and her major concern was about her show that was scheduled six months from then). I also started to rely on my assistants to identify promising younger artists. For many years, in August, I would allow my assistant director to curate a show with artists of their choosing. Throughout the year, we would hang small exhibits, two-person shows, and group exhibits to try emerging artists. That is how Aubrey Levinthal started out. Now she’s a big star in New York. 

EJ: In Estelle's 1989 interview with Marina Pacini, she states, "Most of us are not in a position to spend a hundred thousand dollars or more on a work of art, no matter how much we love it or appreciate it..." Was the middle-class market key to sustaining Gross McCleaf's longevity?

SE: Yes, I would say so. Estelle never promoted buying art as an investment. That is not to say that some work we sold didn’t appreciate in value. But investment was not the chief motive. The artists who showed with GMG were professionals, most of them were on faculties of prestigious art schools. They made quality work, but many times clients bought paintings for the wrong reasons: because it matched the couch or was the right size. It was only after a while that the owner realized that the painting was visually valuable to them long after the couch had worn out.

(re)Focus 2024: Fortitude at 50: A Resilient Five Decades at Gross McCleaf Gallery - Interviews: Estelle Gross, Sharon Ewing, Martha Armstrong and Bill Scott - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Leigh Werrell, Pool Party, 2014, 11" x 9" Oil On Panel

EJ: Estelle talks about corporate collections becoming important and individual collecting for prestige rising in ’89. Was that still the case in 2020? Estelle quotes Digby Baltzell as saying, "You don't have to flaunt it in Philadelphia." I guess this means that buying art for prestige is less natural for Philadelphians. Was this maybe a Quaker influence? If prestige buying was becoming popular in ’89, does it flourish today?

SE: Corporate collections definitely became less important to GMG later on. The last really big job we did was for Princeton Hospital, at Plainsboro, in the 2010s. I don’t really know about the prestige factor. My experience is that there is a very small population of people who appreciate owning original artwork. Many old-moneyed Philadelphians have inherited art and that is what is on their walls. Most of the clients I worked with bought paintings because they loved them or because they had a connection with the artist or the subject matter––not to impress other people. 

EJ: Can you recall how you felt in 1989 about the trajectory of feminism? Did you and Estelle talk about the challenge of representing female artists?

SE: Estelle was basically a realist and an optimist... She was also very practical. I remember her talking about prices and cautioned artists about pricing too high initially and establishing an unrealistic price structure for their work. She said, “No one wants to

end up being the biggest collector of one’s own work.” I think at the top tier of art, where the big dollars were being made and spent, there was still a lot of bias against women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ artists. They were marginalized. But at GMG, at least women were well-represented, and sales of their work constituted an important part of our revenue. In 1989, I was juggling having a career and raising a family. I was lucky to have a husband who had a good job and was supportive of me and to have Estelle who valued me and was flexible enough so that family needs could be met. Some of my friends in other fields such as law, medicine, the financial world, and even academia were not so lucky. I felt very optimistic about the trajectory of feminism.

Excerpt: Martha Armstrong with Elizabeth Johnson, Fall 2023, edited by Matthew Crain

Elizabeth Johnson: Your bio on your website says that you started showing at Gross McCleaf Gallery in 1974. You've shown with the gallery almost 50 years! How did you connect with Estelle Gross? What stories can you share that illustrate her unique personality and her way of running a business and handling clients and artists? If it is typical for an artist to leave a gallery after a decade or two, what explains the longevity of your bond with GMG?

Martha Armstrong: I knew three galleries in Philadelphia: Makler, which was closing; Marian Locks; and Gross McCleaf. I showed work to Estelle, and she took it. She gave me a show in 1974. She said this was a marriage of convenience, and if my work sold, I would stay. I changed and changed as a painter. I had a lot of ideas and had to pursue them. I brought in a lot of huge collage abstract images, and at one point she said, “But Martha, you are a Fairfield Porter painter!" I liked Fairfield Porter but felt he was in the past. In general, Estelle didn't comment negatively about new ideas I presented to her. She was supportive and a very good businesswoman. I was always paid promptly. Her shows were well-managed, well-advertised, and I was almost always reviewed. Estelle brought European liberalism and Jewish knowledge and intelligence to the art world and her art business. And courtesy! And grace!  

Sharon Ewing, who had graduated from Wellesley College in art history ten years after I graduated from Smith, was working for her. How lucky I was. I never thought of leaving. I just wanted a place to show my work and to keep on painting and learning. Because I changed so much every time I took in new work, I thought I’d be asked to leave. It didn’t happen. 

(re)Focus 2024: Fortitude at 50: A Resilient Five Decades at Gross McCleaf Gallery - Interviews: Estelle Gross, Sharon Ewing, Martha Armstrong and Bill Scott - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Jimmy Lueders with a student, 1978

Courtesy of PAFA Archives

EJ: Do you have personal stories that can shed light on how feminism intersected the art world in Philadelphia in the early ’70s? Did you participate in the movement and/or do you recall any Philadelphian artist-feminists?

MA: Feminism was all over the place in the early ’70s: Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, Linda Nochlin, and other feminist writers and critics. I was an outcast! I had a husband and was told I shouldn’t get any help but leave it for women who need it. I had children, which were discouraged. What foolishness was that?! 

Estelle said my children were my counterirritant. She never had the sharp tongue of the feminist movement. I thought a lot of the politics was scary––but fascinating and true. It was distracting from what I considered my preoccupation, my job. I was lucky to be able to paint, but painting is a lonely, isolating occupation. I regretted I wasn’t teaching regularly, though I taught at two community colleges and taught for Fritz Janschka at Bryn Mawr. In retrospect, teaching takes your time and is emotionally consuming, and a lot of my women friends who taught were not painting. Once my children were in college, I taught a lot more; I learned a lot from the profession.

I did belong to a conscious-raising group, mostly Haverford and Bryn Mawr faculty and professional women in science, music, and education. We discussed issues, told stories of our present and past lives. For most of us this exchange was a new experience. 

(re)Focus 2024: Fortitude at 50: A Resilient Five Decades at Gross McCleaf Gallery - Interviews: Estelle Gross, Sharon Ewing, Martha Armstrong and Bill Scott - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Rose Naftulin, 2005 Exhibition

EJ: Does your memory of the times match Estelle's experience? If female dealers did have noticeably less clout in 1989, does the inequality persist today?

MA: Estelle was telling what she experienced, and things are not so different today. Katy Hessel, who just published a book titled The Story of Art Without Men, writes that today in Europe and the United States the percentage of women in galleries and museums is 5%. I checked that against what I could find online. Sales of work by women artists is 2%. Women alive today held in galleries and museums is 13.7%, yet of artists working today 51% are women. My sense is women don’t do what men do in painting. Their directions, motivations are different. I was puzzled for a long time about the artist Berthe Morisot, a woman highly respected by her male contemporaries, but she disappeared after her death. My colleagues at the Kansas City Art Institute felt she was the weakest of the

Impressionists. Standing in a large room of Impressionist paintings at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, she looked fundamentally different. She was creating a space, opening a space. Her male contemporaries were filling up a space. She was expressing herself. There was a statement of different intentions.

Philadelphia is a conservative city. The art scene has been dominated by Thomas Eakins and Andrew Wyeth. Arthur Carles was more New York than Philadelphia. Alfred Barnes tried to bring Modernist painting to Philadelphia and was so persecuted by the public, he closed his collection. Meanwhile, New York City’s MoMA was filled with the latest works of European avant-garde artists. The Guggenheim was another cutting-edge modern collection. 

Are things different today? We are going through a highly misogynistic time. It is destructive of women, especially poor women. It is as if we should save every maple seed, make it grow, and then punish women for not tending to all these maple trees. What are we thinking? What does it say?

(re)Focus 2024: Fortitude at 50: A Resilient Five Decades at Gross McCleaf Gallery - Interviews: Estelle Gross, Sharon Ewing, Martha Armstrong and Bill Scott - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Jan Baltzell and Sidney Goodman at the Peale House, 1986

Courtesy of PAFA Archives

Excerpt: Bill Scott with Elizabeth Johnson, Fall 2023, edited by Matthew Crain

Elizabeth Johnson: It's notable that you, a male artist, gravitated toward strong women such as Jane Piper, Berthe Morisot and Joan Mitchell. You were on the board and chair of Collections Committee at Woodmere Museum and show at Hollis Taggart Galleries in New York. Looking back, how do you characterize women having a significant role in creating the Philadelphia Art World? 

Bill Scott: First, except for the galleries specializing in earlier works––Robert Schwartz, Newman, David David, and Robert Carlen––most of the galleries showing contemporary art were owned and operated by women. Earlier Philadelphia galleries owned and operated by women included: Gladys Myers, Ellen Donovan, and Pearl Fox. Dianne Vanderlip had a gallery on Sansom Street until 1970, when she became the director at the Institute of Contemporary Art. There were probably others. In addition to Marian Locks, there was Helen Drutt, Janet Fleisher, Sande Webster, Roslyn Hahn, and Hope Makler. A little later there were others: Suzanne Gross, Margo Dolan, Jessica Berwind, Noel Butcher, and Jane Steinsnyder. Vivian Goldstein, Suzanne Reese Horvitz, and Sandra Lerner were the pivotal figures who ran Nexus, the co-op gallery on Chancellor Street. Julie Courtney ran Tyler University’s Gallery on Walnut Street; Elsa Weiner

Longhauser ran the art galleries at Moore College; the late Eleni Cocordas was the director of exhibitions at PCA; Judith Stein the curator at PAFA organized its Peale House Gallery exhibitions and later its Morris Gallery exhibitions; the late Marion “Kippy” Stroud ran the Fabric Workshop. The artist Edith Emerson still ran Woodmere when I was in school. The newspaper critics and magazine art writers were mostly women: Nessa Forman (The Bulletin), Dorothy Grafly, Victoria Donohoe (The Philadelphia Inquirer), Joan Horvath (Philadelphia Arts Exchange), Ann Jarmusch (ARTnews), and the late Doris Brandes (Art Matters). Anne Fabbri Butera was a critic and curator. And, of course, there was Anne d’Harnoncourt at PMA.

EJ: You started at PAFA, in 1974, during artists: women, the first Focus show at GMG. The participating artists were Lorraine Alexander, Peggie Bach, Kaye Freeman, Kiisel Greenwood, Maria Hart, Jeanette Johnson, Edith Kaplan, Fran Lachman, Enid Mark, Nancy McIntyre, Jane Piper, and Doris Staffel. Did you become friends with any of them?

BS: I didn’t become a full-time PAFA student until the fall of 1974. But in 1970, I began attending Friends Select School, which is two blocks west of PAFA. I was a terrible student and used to cut study halls, walk over to PAFA, and look at its exhibitions. The student exhibitions were what most inspired me. Seeing the Annual Student Exhibition presentations by painters Mary Nomecos, Stephania Lestier, and Susan Van Campen (who later exhibited at Gross McCleaf) were what prompted me to apply to PAFA and abandon my earlier desire to go to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In the fall of 1970, when I was fourteen, my father took me to Washington, D.C. to see the Mary Cassatt exhibition organized by Adelyn Breeskin for the National Gallery of Art. And in May 1973 I saw the two loan exhibitions PAFA organized of works by women artists. The first, The Pennsylvania Academy and Its Women, included fifty-two works by forty-two women artists born between 1819 and 1899. Its concurrent exhibition was a retrospective with fifty-two works by Susan Macdowell Eakins, the then little-known wife of Thomas Eakins.

(re)Focus 2024: Fortitude at 50: A Resilient Five Decades at Gross McCleaf Gallery - Interviews: Estelle Gross, Sharon Ewing, Martha Armstrong and Bill Scott - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Elizabeth Osborne's Studio at the Peale House, 1981

Courtesy of PAFA Archives

I wasn’t specifically looking for works by women artists. It was timing: there were a lot of contemporary women artists exhibiting back then and I was drawn to some of their works. In addition to Jane Piper’s exhibition in 1972, I was also moved by the January 1973 Memorial Exhibition of Paintings, Prints, and Drawings by Mitzi Melnicoff at the Philadelphia College of Art, where she taught for ten years before her death at age forty-nine. Seeing their exhibitions back-to-back was a Eureka moment for me because until then I’d never seriously considered becoming a painter. At that same time, I also saw Edith Neff’s painting, Girls on the Stoop, in the Museum of the Philadelphia Civic Center’s juried exhibition, Earth Art ’73. Girls on the Stoop was acquired by PAFA, and that fall was included in its New Acquisitions show. I wasn’t aware of commercial art galleries when Edith had had a solo exhibition at McCleaf in January 1971. (It was then called Marlin McCleaf Gallery). She returned to the gallery in the summer of 1979 for a second show. In between those two exhibitions, in 1977, Edith and Eileen Goodman had concurrent solo exhibitions at PAFA’s Peale House Galleries. Jane had a solo exhibition opening the same week at Gross McCleaf. And Eileen, who didn’t yet have gallery representation, began showing at Gross McCleaf after that show.        


When I was sixteen, I’d also seen the Whitney Museum’s two solo exhibitions of Joan Mitchell and Alice Neel. My last two years of high school I sometimes worked Saturdays and part of one summer for Marian Locks. I already knew Elizabeth Osborne, but at Marian’s I became aware of Edna Andrade and Diane Burko’s artwork. The three of them seemed inextricably linked with Marian’s gallery. And I met and saw the work of Elaine Kurtz, who also showed with Marian, and Louise Todd, who were the mothers of high school classmates. When I started classes at PAFA, I was hired as a part guard/weekend catalog salesman at the Museum of the Philadelphia Civic Center for its Cecilia Beaux exhibition. Organized by PAFA, the Beaux exhibition was presented there because PAFA’s Broad and Cherry Street building was closed while being renovated prior to the upcoming Bicentennial celebrations. I don’t remember if many people came in to see the Beaux exhibition, but I do remember spending hours looking at her paintings.

In the eyes of many artists, Woman’s Work: American Art 1974 was probably the most significant exhibition of all of these. Also presented at the Museum of the Philadelphia Civic Center, it included works by eighty-one living women artists selected by five women: three curators, one critic, and one artist (whose own work was included in the show). The only artist in it who had previously exhibited at McCleaf was Edith Neff. Martha Mayer Erlebacher and Nora Speyer, also included, would later exhibit at Gross McCleaf.

(re)Focus 2024: Fortitude at 50: A Resilient Five Decades at Gross McCleaf Gallery - Interviews: Estelle Gross, Sharon Ewing, Martha Armstrong and Bill Scott - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Jane Piper, 1974

EJ: When you worked at Gross McCleaf, which artists made the biggest impression on you? Did you curate group shows?

BS: There were a lot of artists showing there. Part of the gallery was a mess, and I was never certain what I’d be pulling out of the racks when waiting on a potential client. To better learn who the artists were and what was there, I organized the artworks in the storage racks, putting each individual artist’s work together. I was surprised there were no PAFA faculty members showing there. Hobson Pittman was one of the first artists Estelle showed but he had died in 1972. Although there were a few of his works available as resales, there was no influx of new works. Jimmy Lueders and Bruce Samuelson had had solo shows in the 1970s, but shortly thereafter Bruce had gone to Richard Rosenfeld’s gallery, and Jimmy went to Marian Locks. Many of the artists with Estelle taught at the Philadelphia College of Art. Among them, in everyone’s eyes Larry Day reigned supreme. There were Jane Piper, Doris Staffel, and Eileen Goodman, as I’ve mentioned, as well as William Barnett, Steve Jaffe, and Mike Rossman. Gene Baguskas had left to exhibit his paintings with Chuck More at the nearby gallery he’d just opened with Noel Butcher. There were artists from other places too. Humbert Howard, who’d studied at the Barnes Foundation, was a big seller for Estelle and had a solo exhibition, I think, every year. And I remember hanging an exhibition of paintings by Alexis Gritchenko, a recently deceased Ukrainian artist whose works had been collected by Albert C. Barnes. Rose Naftulin, who had been showing with Roslyn Hahn, joined a month or so after I started. There were other women artists: Jan Baltzell, Edith Emerson, Carol Kardon, Harriet Knopman, Bertha Leonard, Valerie Seligsohn, and Barbara Sosson. Not all the artists stayed. Jack Bookbinder, Nick Coviello, Ben and Jane Eisenstat, Seymour Remenick, Charles Le Clair, Leonard Nelson, and others had one or more shows before leaving. I suppose Martha Armstrong has been with the gallery longer than anyone else.

I organized a lot of group and solo shows. The first group show I organized was works on paper by eight of the older, more established gallery artists. It opened in May 1981, five months after I’d started working there. One of the artists I put in the show was someone I didn’t yet know. They lived nearby yet never came in. I thought including them would be a way to reach out and say “Hello.” I learned how wrong I was when they came in a few days later to scold me vehemently for having put their work in a group show. Apparently, they wanted the spotlight all to themselves: from now on, they warned, only solo shows. I was thrown off balance by the barrage of jealousies, insecurities, and rivalries. Somehow, I became friendly with Dolores Gaughan, who was the secretary for PCA’s Painting Department, and though in different capacities, we were working with many of the same painters. We laughed a lot and teased that we should compare notes and co-write a book about all of them, but we didn’t know if it would be a comedy or a script for a horror film––which made us laugh even more.

One of the most pleasurable and creative parts of the job was when Estelle let me choose and invite artists to have solo exhibitions. Among those were the shows I organized for Louisa Matthiasdottir, Charles Cajori, Sideo Fromboluti, Emily Mason, Wolf Kahn, and Nora Speyer. I also helped organize solo exhibitions for Stanley Lewis and George Nick, who came to the gallery through Martha’s friendship with them. The first person who I invited to have an exhibition there was Joan Mitchell. She was in New York for one week and asked me to come visit with her, have lunch, and see her exhibition at Xavier Fourcade. I took the day off and went to see her. I told her about working in the gallery. I asked if I could organize a show of her pastels, which she liked and was open to. But when we spoke about it with Xavier, he immediately shut us down: “I’ve never heard of Gross McCleaf.” That was crushing to me, and I never told Estelle. I hated that the gallery was discounted, and that it sometimes had a reputation of being staid. All this instilled in me a desire to try to make the gallery a better, of higher quality, and a more important place.

(re)Focus 2024: Fortitude at 50: A Resilient Five Decades at Gross McCleaf Gallery - Interviews: Estelle Gross, Sharon Ewing, Martha Armstrong and Bill Scott - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

EJ: Do you remember Gross McCleaf as a mostly female-run gallery?

BS: With Rebecca Segall, Morgan Hobbs, and Emma Rose Cook working there now, I understand why Gross McCleaf Gallery is described as a female-run gallery. It’s not how I would have described it in the past. Even under Sharon’s watch, the gallery’s identity and appeal benefited immensely from the creativity and input of Mark Brosseau, Todd Keyser, and Evan Fugazzi. I and other people I know went to the gallery in those years to see the exhibitions they organized. I doubt it would have remained such a vital place without them.

Estelle owned the gallery for twenty-four years, from 1968 to her death in 1992. Sharon had it for the thirty-one years, and although Sharon never hyphenated her last name into the gallery’s, to me it really became her gallery. Now there’s a whole new group of artists who’ve joined since I left. I have immense admiration for some of them. I'd like to emphasize my belief that the gallery really exists because of Sharon, and now Rebecca.

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(re)Focus 2024: Fortitude at 50: A Resilient Five Decades at Gross McCleaf Gallery - Interviews: Estelle Gross, Sharon Ewing, Martha Armstrong and Bill Scott - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room