An Interview with a Dealer: Tom McCormick
Each week, CGN interviews a local art dealer to discuss the ins and outs of running a gallery in the city of Chicago.
This week we caught up with Tom McCormick of McCormick Gallery.
Gallery: McCormick Gallery
Name: Tom McCormick
Previous occupation(s): Drummer, Drifter, Antiques picker, Carpenter/Plumber/Electrician, Oriental rug guy
Hometown: Kansas City, Missouri
Chicago Gallery News: Please describe your gallery’s program in one sentence.
Tom McCormick: Terrific artworks offered by nice people.
CGN: How did you become an art dealer?
TM: First and foremost I was a collector, with a budget of about $10. In 1971 with a new BFA I got a job with John Wilson (of Chicago Art Fair fame) as an itinerate print peddler. I traveled the eastern two-thirds of the country selling original prints in one-day shows on college campuses while living at the Holiday Inn. I lasted two years before going back to school for my MFA. Back in school I started selling off the prints and antiques I had collected while employed. After graduate school I roamed the country buying and selling antiques, folk art and textiles, often lugging 300 pound wardrobes out of barn lofts for a $50 profit. (That’s a much younger me above, in my trusty Ford pickup out on the antiques trail.) One day in 1978 I bought an old painting for $75 and sold it immediately with a phone call for $800. The next day I was an art dealer.
CGN: What's the first thing you do each morning when you get to the gallery?
TM: We start planning lunch.
CGN: Thumbs up or down on art fairs?
TM: I’ve done art (and antique) fairs since the late 1980s. They used to be fun and profitable. Now there are too many, they are too expensive, and not much fun to do.
The big exception is EXPO CHICAGO… Tony Karman has really done a great job with our hometown art fair.
CGN: Who are artists you admire but don't represent?
TM: Francisco Goya, Odilon Redon, Richard Diebenkorn and Willem de Kooning.
CGN: What is the best sale you ever had?
TM: In September of 1971, on my very first outing as a print dealer at Ball State University I sold an Albrecht Dürer engraving to a student for $4,200. I was stunned. I didn’t actually believe anyone had that kind of money, much less spent it. I thought this art selling gig was going to be a breeze… needless to say I didn’t sell another expensive print for months!
CGN: What advice would you share with new or young collectors?
TM: Don’t pay any attention to your friends, or the “experts.” Listen to your stomach and look for something you can afford that really reaches out and grabs you by the throat. Find a dealer who is more interested in you being happy than in selling you something.
CGN: Which artist that you represent or work of art you have recently acquired are you most excited about? Why?
TM: I just bought a Classic Mexican Saltillo Sarape, c.1825, for my personal collection. I’ve been a textile junkie for nearly 50 years and a Saltillo collector since 1978. These works of art are incredibly rare and very expensive, and I have been waiting a very long time to find one I could afford. It is pinned to the wall of my office and I just can’t stop eating it up with my eyes. This, of course, has nothing to do with the gallery business, but I appreciate the open-ended nature of your question.
CGN: What major successes have you had this year? What about challenges?
TM: This has been an unexpectedly good year for the gallery. Our summer show of work from the estate of Perle Fine has sold extremely well. I have been slowly changing the focus of the gallery away from the vintage, estate works of mid-century painters over to more emphasis on our terrific group of contemporary artists. This is a bit of a challenge but one I’m excited about.
CGN: How do you view working as an art dealer in Chicago?
TM: Let’s face it, the traditional (old school) gallery scene in Chicago is a skeleton of what it was 20 years ago. Maintaining a retail presence in Chicago is expensive. We are blessed with certain advantages but still must rely on Internet traffic, out of town clients and the art fairs in order to remain profitable.
CGN: What is your favorite interest outside of the art world?
TM: We have a wonderful place in Sawyer, Michigan where we have been working on a native prairie project.
CGN: What is your favorite work of public art in Chicago?
TM: I don’t know who the artist is, but I love this crazy sculpture on South Lakeshore Drive at about 48th Street in Hyde Park. It is a very tall, skinny figure in some shiny silver material, who is staring up at the sky. Very whimsical but thoughtful. [Turns out it's Tom Friedman’s Looking Up]
CGN: What are your 5 favorite art spaces to visit?
1. Naoshima in the Seto Islands of Japan
2. MassMOCA, North Adams, Massachussetts
3. Smart Museum at the University of Chicago
4. Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico
5. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Tom McCormick is the owner of McCormick Gallery, located at 835 W. Washington Blvd. in the West Loop. For more information about his gallery visit: McCormick Gallery.
Image: Tom McCormick c. 1978 in New Mexico