BOSTON — This month, after 40 years in business, a signature art gallery on Newbury Street is closing its doors.
Painter Judi Rotenberg opened the Judi Rotenberg Gallery in 1971. Her daughter, Abigail Ross Goodman, took it over 10 years ago. Since then, the gallery has carved out a singular place in Boston’s contemporary arts scene, according to Nick Capasso, the senior curator at the Decordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln.
“It became one of the most important places to see advanced work in Boston consistently,” he explained.
The DeCordova has exhibited artists represented by the Rotenberg Gallery, and also holds a few of their works in the museum’s permanent collection.
On a recent afternoon, owner Ross Goodman worked with artist Douglas Weathersby to install the last show — a group show — in the Newbury Street space. The walls were covered with works by more than two dozen artists the gallery represents. Once all the art is up, the show will serve as a visual history, or retrospective, of Rotenberg’s evolution over time.
Ross Goodman said the decision to wrap up the family business wasn’t driven by economics. But still, she explained, it was a tough one.
“We’ve had a great run, it’s really a choice about time and being ready to move forward,” Ross Goodman said.
But it’s also an emotional choice, according to Ross Goodman, because she’s shown, sold and supported her roster of artists for years. The art world is built on relationships, she said. With the gallery’s closing, many of Rotenberg’s artists will, in essence, be single.
“For everyone we’ve represented, we’ve always talked about starting to work together as real marriage of sorts,” Ross Goodman said with a short laugh, “And, you know, I don’t consider this a divorce. I hope they don’t either!”
But that’s how Rotenberg artist Sean Micka felt when he got the phone call.
“I was like, this is kind of like a break up, but it’s not at all personal,” Micka said.
Micka traveled from Brooklyn to attend Rotenberg’s final opening last week. The Newton native said he was fresh out of art school when he started working with Ross Goodman in 2002.
Splitting up is sad, he said, because their relationship has boosted his confidence and his career.
“It just takes a really long time to get to know someone, I’ve been showing with her for many years now and we’re really good friends, so building up to that level of trust and understanding, you know, it will be hard,” Micka said.
Breaking up is hard to do — especially if you actually like your ex — but that’s how it goes sometimes, according to Anne Beresford. She’s one of Ross Goodman’s first artists, and said playing the field for a new gallery is actually called “dating” in the art world.
“When you first meet a gallerist that you like, you look at what they are showing, you look at their program, you look at the other artists, and date for a while before you get married,” Beresford said. “So, we’ll see, I may start dating again, but I’ll have to have a period of mourning first.”
This opening reception is more like a love fest than a funeral, though. The gallery is packed with artists, their families, collectors and other gallery owners.
Jill Medvedow of the Instiute of Contemporary Art shows up and gives Ross Goodman a hug. Eighty-six-year-old expressionist painter Jason Berger sits in a chair like a patriarch, taking it in. He’s one of Judi Rotenberg’s original artists, and he’s still working.
It’s pretty rare to have a second-generation art-gallery –- in this town or any other. Christian Holland, executive editor of the art journal, “Big, Red and Shiny,” says Rotenberg has been crucial to the development of its artists. Standing outside the gallery on the sidewalk, he likened the Rotenberg gallery to a guidance department — for art school kids.
“Artists who show at the Judi Rotenberg Gallery are at the beginning of their career, are mid-career, they’re more of less in their teens, I guess you could say,” Holland explained. “And for Rotenberg to suddenly leave, it’s as if a family of teenagers suddenly lost a parent, they’re suddenly out on their own.”
And, he said, it leaves Boston with one less contemporary art gallery willing to take risks on contemporary art.
But, as it turns out, this “art family” is changing. Former Rotenberg co-director Kristen Dodge is opening a new gallery — in New York. Dave Cole, an artist known for knitting gigantic American flags using telephone poles as needles, will be represented there -– along with a few other Rotenberg artists.
So it looks like they’re committed — for better, or for worse.
The Judi Rotenberg Gallery’s final show will be up through its last day of business, on June 19.