Mark Jenkins, who writes the “Galleries” column for The Washington Post, was intrigued when he learned that Krause was opening his gallery in late 2011.
“At first I wasn’t sure what sort of work he was going to exhibit,” Jenkins says, but “after seeing several shows, it’s clear that he has a wide definition of what constitutes political art. I think that bodes well for the gallery, although it also makes it harder to explain the concept quickly to people who might be interested.
“It’s novel for a gallery to have such a thematic focus, unless it’s connected to some larger institution with an agenda,” he adds. “There are galleries and arts spaces that do only one medium—photography, say, or sculpture—but it’s rare for one to define itself this way.”
The exhibitions have been “strong and diverse,” in Jenkins’ view. “He’s not just showing agit-prop posters—although I wouldn’t mind that. The work has been well crafted, and the political aspects of it [are] often subtle.”
Despite its political content, the work Krause has exhibited has not exactly been polarizing or controversial. It’s hard to imagine any visitors being offended by Solidarity posters or works by Soviet Dissident artists, and even the recent show by Chilean immigrant Joan Belmar—despite the underlying suggestion that it’s a good idea to support immigrants, not deport them arbitrarily—is too abstract to raise political hackles.
I recently asked Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of American art at Penn whose interests include political art, to take a look at Krause’s website. In a sense, she says, it’s less provocative than political galleries like the Galería de la Raza in San Francisco or the Kenkeleba Gallery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which “tend to be on the fringes of the mainstream, in part because they emphasize work by artists of color, but also because that work can be both galvanizing and polarizing.
“But it’s nice stuff,” she adds. “He has the real eye for high technical ability and strong compositional strategies. And it’s so diverse—it’s really stuff from all over the world, isn’t it? I think in some ways it reads as postcards from his travels.”
The question of why contemporary-art museums (and, by extension, galleries) “tiptoe around” political work of all stripes is a complicated one, noted Randy Kennedy in a recent New York Times essay. “Partly it is a legacy of the ’80s and ’90s culture wars that threatened public funds for the visual arts and that continue to make many institutions wary of offending any constituencies,” he wrote. Another practical concern is that political art is often rejected by the public “as one-dimensional, as visually dull, as too divisive or as all of the above.” Which leads back to Krause’s early point—that his top priority is to show great art, not just art that makes an impact. (Krause also suggests that the fear of showing political art may be a legacy of the Cold War, when the American art scene was “traumatized and depoliticized as a result of the McCarthy era.”)
“What is it we value in contemporary art?” Krause asks. “What makes this artist’s work important and this artist’s work not? With the criteria we use, it would be just as valid to say that this piece demonstrates political courage, and that’s a trait that we want to encourage and is important, and therefore there ought to be a premium paid for art that accomplishes something. But that isn’t, right now, the way it is.”
Krause doesn’t try to hide the fact that if, by some miracle, he can push the American art needle a little more in the direction of dissent, his own collection stands to benefit from the bump. So far, for a very small gallery in a not-very-commercial section of town, one that often requires visitors to make appointments, Charles Krause/Reporting Fine Art has received a pretty impressive amount of press coverage, from The Washington Times to Artforum, Business Week to Eyemazing. Krause has also sold about two dozen pieces, though it’s fair to say that he has a ways to go before he’s in the black. “Everyone who comes seems to find all this very interesting,” he says drily. “They just don’t buy.” (As of late November, he was hopeful that the Hidden Treasure exhibition of works by Joan Belmar would break even, which would represent “a giant step in the right direction.”)
“I can’t forecast the commercial prospects,” says the Post’sJenkins. “Art is too quirky a business. I think this sort of gallery could do well in Washington, but attracting attention is difficult. There are a lot of distractions out there, and just keeping up with the museums in DC is a significant time commitment. I suspect it will take several years for the gallery to become reasonably well known.”
Krause agrees on that.
“I don’t know how this is going to turn out,” he says. “On the other hand, if you don’t follow your dreams somehow, you’re going to wind up bitter and kind of frustrated by the fact that you never really did what you always wanted to do. My brother-in-law died last February. And he had been ill for three years. And there were just a whole lot of things that kind of happened and came together that made me think that really, this is the time. I hope that I’ll see some light at the end of the tunnel one of these days, because if it doesn’t work, at some point I’ll be spending my retirement money on it.”
And yet, he adds: “I can’t imagine a better way to retire—because it isn’t retiring—than doing something you really have always wanted to do. At some point I’m going to have to be very cold and calculating about the money I’m spending. But for right now I think it’s going okay.”