Douglas Dawson Gallery: 30 Years of Tribal Art

Douglas Dawson Gallery is a serene art destination hidden behind a steel entry wall off of Morgan St. in the heart of the Chicago's meat packing district. When you walk up the stone walkway under the cover of the wood trellis you are aware that you are about to enter a gallery unlike any other in the city. The gallery turns 30 at the end of this year, and for the occasion gallery directors and partners Doug Dawson and Wally Bowling spent some time over tea one rainy summer morning to talk about running a contemporary gallery that deals in ethnographic art and ancient artifacts. Unique challenges face them as they try to reach the next generation of collectors while managing new realities of sourcing and authenticity, but the two have relied on experience and perspective to get them where they are today. - GV


Doug Dawson credits his entry into the gallery business to a potent combination of naïveté and terror. 30 years ago, when he moved to Chicago from a political collective in northeast Iowa, Dawson had never been in an art gallery. He admits,  I very naïvely decided to open one. In retrospect it all seems like great strategizing, but in fact it was dumb luck.  His timing was also fortunate, since he happened to rent a River North loft space in 1983 when the area was just beginning to buzz. Dawson reflects he was delighted to find himself suddenly in the middle of what was fast becoming the hot contemporary art neighborhood of Chicago.

Today, the gallery has been in the West Loop for seven years. Dawson has seen many changes since opening the gallery three decades ago, but one constant has been the gallery's focus on tribal art. When he first opened he used a contemporary gallery model to hold openings and complementary activities like lectures, as well as thematic exhibitions. Dawson credits this structure with helping him reach a larger, more energized audience of contemporary collectors than just those who collected tribal art. The contemporary juxtaposition, he explains, means that someone who encounters an ancient piece doesn't have to have expert knowledge about Burkina Faso; it doesn't matter if you've never heard of the Ashanti tribe. A new context can dispel insecurities, and, Dawson says, help fill in the gaps later.

To continue to offer new contexts and to keep things fresh, the gallery occasionally showcases contemporary art, working with artists who see the ancient work in new ways – a strategy Dawson explains complements other pieces in the gallery. He says, "As much as we need to keep our clients interested we need to keep ourselves interested. In dollars it s a small part of the business, but in interest it generates a lot. It's harder and harder to do shows just on ethnographic art, so this helps fill our openings calendar as well as put older works in a new light." Many of Dawson s collectors are also interested in minimalism, conceptual art, even antiques, so parallels are easily found.  

Dawson and Bowling cross boundaries in other practical ways as well. Dawson explains, "We participate in contemporary art fairs – we actually prefer them to tribal art fairs. If you interview our collectors most will tell you they're contemporary art collectors. Collecting tribal art has a long and dynamic history that surprises many people. As Dawson says, "In fact, early French artists were collectors of this material too – they were affirmed and inspired by it. Their own art was ratified by it. Interestingly there has been a major paradigm change in that relationship. If you look at French artists in 1915 they were looking at tribal art and seeing in it issues they were dealing with in their own art. Today it's just flipped completely - it's understood and evaluated by looking first at 20th Century art. People come in and say 'That looks just like a Giacometti,' for instance. That's how it's validated."

All these overlapping interests would seem to indicate a broad audience for tribal art, but Dawson admits that engaging a young audience with this material can be challenging today. He says, "There's less interest in non-western culture. Young people don't travel like our generation did. There's a kind of ambivalence now. And tribal art certainly isn't cool. Someone can spend $200,000 on a pre-Columbian textile, for example, take it home, put it on the wall, have a party, and 98% of the people there will have no idea what it is, let alone how much they've spent. It doesn't make the kind of impact that contemporary art can for people who collect by the numbers. You can't brand it."

Another challenge that affects Dawson's market, as well as the antiques market he says, is what he sees going on with interior design. He notes, "All dealers are loathe to admit that's a really major engine in the art world but it is. Trends in interior design now seem very conservative, very corporate. We hear young people aren't really using interior designers anymore. They buy a loft and put in a TV screen bigger than the house we grew up in, a Crate & Barrel sofa and lots of electronic toys. That's kind of it." When asked to think about how much best-selling furniture and art at chain stores appeals to these same transient younger people, Dawson discussed how so many pieces are in fact inspired by, if not copies of, originals from far flung countries or long ago eras. As he sees it, "If people feel they can obtain an apothecary coffee table that looks like it came from a remote village in South East Asia with the click of a button – and free shipping – why would they seek out a well-traveled dealer who's actually gone to the trouble to procure the real thing from a real village?" Dealers, and individuals, he points out, used to have to travel much more to pursue such treasures. But Bowling adds that even if you travelled that way, especially on your own, you wouldn't necessarily buy such things anymore. He says, "So it's kind of a catch-22. When we used to travel more, it was more readily available. You'd get excited about pieces in-situ. People just got excited about the third world, but now it all looks very western. Villagers are wearing t-shirts shipped from the US. There are no ceramics. Instead, you see Michael Jackson's face printed everywhere. It's a different perception of the world now, generally."

The number of younger collectors who frequent the gallery is small, but Bowling cites a handful who are new to tribal art. He believes, "If you know you want to collect something, pre-Columbian ceramics are amazing. A lot of people think because of the age, prices must be out of reach; we do have to reflect the market, but if you look at what goes at the major auction houses today, these things are much less than contemporary counterpoints, and they have some history."

Dawson thinks any younger collector should first be curious. He advises,  "Don't expect to buy right away, but do look and wonder on any kind of level – aesthetic, technical, historical. When we were younger we used to go to so many galleries and just see and absorb. He is frustrated by art students who come in but don't really look at pieces in the gallery. He's lectured classes in the space, only to have no one come back, and he wonders where they are getting their messages. For me the ideal is being curious and asking questions, wondering about the people who made these things. It broadens my idea of human experience. That's what art is. I think it's important people know about the world."

A museum experience is naturally a quite different from the one a gallery provides, especially in a field like tribal art. Locally, Dawson looks to the Art Institute and its excellent collection. He says the head of the department that deals with tribal art is probably the best in the United States, but it still remains a department that has a very low profile in Chicago. He says,  "There s no energized community around this material here. That affects business. There are some other dealers in Chicago who are participating in the same market that we are, but no one is doing international shows and seeking the same national level.  I'm not demeaning anyone, but it would be nice if there were more galleries dealing in this kind of art in order to give people something to compare."

These awareness challenges are all the more reason that visitors should be attracted to Dawson's space and unique field. In the gallery visitors encounter prime examples of tribal art as well as moving insights into world history. Bowling, a trained architect himself, points out that the space was designed to look like the houses their clients might have. Small rooms and spaces allow you to discover things. He says, "There's an intimacy that you don't get in a museum. You can look at a piece here and respond in your own setting." Dawson says visitors are invited to come in, touch things, ask an expert questions. It's a rare point of access.  

Dawson and Bowling have gone to great distances to give clients that kind of up-close access, traveling the globe to art fairs and remote destinations to bring the best of the world s tribal art to collectors. Their specialty also involves regularly going through hoops. One of the primary obstacles demonstrates how recent issues of our own security have resulted in newer challenges off dealing in tribal art. Dawson says, "The Patriot Act really has become sort of a nightmare in the art business, where everything is suspect. Dealing with the Federal Government, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Customs – to get a clarification of what you can and cannot do, it's become almost impossible."

Dawson and Bowling say they travel a lot less than they used to, partly because of the recession, and partly because they haven't needed to replace inventory as often. Bowling says they do more domestic travel and less foreign, and that the overseas trips they do take now are more for pleasure. Still, they manage to travel about a quarter of the year, but art fairs largely dictate their schedule and destinations. Recent ventures to South America, Asia, and throughout Africa would make any globetrotter envious. Trips usually involve seeing contacts, visiting museums, and staying up to date with other collections.  

Travel is often not when acquisitions are actually made, since as Dawson points out, objects are almost never come from the country of origin. He explains, "We buy things that have impeccable provenance and authenticity, and to do that we must spend a lot of time going through a great deal of steps. We have a good museum business, and it's more and more difficult to sell to museums now because of concerns about provenance and authenticity. For instance, we're more likely to look to buy things from this country or Europe than we are from Mexico or Peru or Indonesia."

Authenticity is a serious matter, particularly since Dawson has a strong museum business. "Not long ago," Dawson says, "we had a large prehistoric African terra cotta figure and the head had been broken off. In that world of African archeological ceramics there's a lot of forgery - mixing of pieces and reconstructing things. The client wanted to be sure we had the right head for the body. We sent it to a firm in suburban Chicago for a host of tests, like thermoluminescence, which determines when a ceramic was submitted to a certain temperature. Both the head and the body came out equally correct in that test. Then, they ground up samples from both parts and those came out perfectly. They X-rayed. Then, they drilled into a point where the ceramic hadn't gotten hot enough to carbonize organic material, and they found animal hair that had been used as a bonding agent. These pieces are 2,500 years old. They pulled a hair out of the head, and a hair out of the body and did DNA tests. The hairs came from the same female goat. Ultimately they said it was highly likely – the most definitive statement they'll make – that the two parts were made at the same time, from the same lump of clay, by the same person. We will go that far to determine authenticity."

Regarding their base in Chicago, Dawson says it's a double-edged sword: "We do have some Second City syndrome here, where people will prefer to buy things in New York or Paris, particularly in the art world, since that has a sort of cachè. That said we have been here for 30 years. Chicago is a great city that draws a lot of people in for numerous events." He admits to a familiar dealer quandary, "We couldn't survive in Chicago just on Chicago. It's because we've developed a national reputation that we can do what we do here. But I think that's true of everyone. That's what keeps everyone open in this city." Dawson says that above all they've enjoyed a great run in Chicago. Most of the obstacles they've faced have in fact been in place from the beginning, and here they still are after three decades. He concludes, "For our space, this is a protected manufacturing district, so we are able to have this sculpture gallery and to make the gallery a destination. Obviously we could not have all of this in too many other cities."

Douglas Dawson Gallery