CGN Interview Series: Joel Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer Inc


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 Joel Oppenheimer, owner of Joel Oppenheimer Gallery, The Audubon Gallery, and Oppenheimer Editions.

Age: 64

Current Position: Owner ofJoel Oppenheimer Gallery, Chicago, The Audubon Gallery, Charleston S.C., Oppenheimer Editions, LLC

Hometown: Chicago since 18 years old.

Previous Occupations? None


5 favorites from the past week

1. Resaurant: Spiaggio, not trendy, but still exceptional.
2. Shopping: Brooks Brothers, needed a dress shirt.
3. Book: John Gould The Bird Man, Gorden Sauer, researching for a book I am working on. Not recommended for pleasure reading.
4. Neighborhood: Michigan Avenue, River North, I don't go out a lot.
5. Music: Liz Phair


CGN: Tell us about your background and how the gallery came to be?

JO: I graduated from SAIC with a BFA in 1978. While pursuing my painting I apprenticed to the former conservator of Prints and Drawings from the Art Institute. He was establishing a private conservation practice. Eventually, I took over that business and it has grown into our conservation facility now conserving works on paper, paintings and photographs for private and institutional clients nationwide. Along the way, I acquired an expertise in natural history art and John James Audubon. We now have galleries in Chicago and Charleston, South Carolina. In 1999 I started Oppenheimer Editions, a fine art publishing entity that holds licensing agreements with major natural history museums and libraries in the U.S. and Great Britain.


CGN: Share a typical day in the life.

JO: Overseeing daily operations of our businesses, although my son David is largely responsible for that. Working on a new book about John Gould's Humminbirds that will be published by Rizzoli this fall. Still painting. In Charleston one week a month for business there and enjoying the relaxed local environment.


CGN: Best sale you ever had?

JO: That's a difficult question, there have been a few over the last 38 years. About ten years ago I was researching for a book I was writing about a rare 1860 Audubon folio. The book was published by WW Norton in 2013.  I thought the folio was undervalued and bought two of them during those years. I held them for quite a while but eventually sold both the same year, one to a museum and the other to a private collector for a pretty good sum.


CGN: Share some successes as well as challenges this year.

JO: For a brick and mortar art gallery to stay in business at all is a success today. We have a large and unusual inventory of rare antique works. Consequently, our internet presence has allowed us to adapt to the challenges that face all retail today.


CGN: What do you want a young person to know who is considering this business?

JO: Nothing has changed in that respect. Be knowledgeable, dedicated, reliable and work hard.


CGN: What do you look for in an artwork? When searching for yourself, what speaks to you?

JO: Whether you are looking at Audubon or Warhol it is the same criteria. Every artist who has created a large body of work has some that stands out above others. Condition and quality are paramount. You have to trust your eye, but your eye has to be an educated one.


CGN: What’s coming up next at the gallery?

JO: In May we will feature an exhibition of first edition hand-colored engravings by Alexander Wilson published in 1808. He is known as the father of American ornithology.


Joel Oppenheimer is owner of Joel Oppenheimer Gallery in the Michigan Avenue / River North area of Chicago. For more information please visit: Oppenheimer Inc.