30 Years of Southwest Art

By Bonnie Gangelhoff, Kristin Bucher, Margaret L. Brown

On the occasion of Southwest Art’s 30th anniversary, we take a fond look back at what has transpired in these pages over the past 360 issues. We begin with a decade-by-decade chronicle of the development of the magazine and the art market over the last 30 years, examining how a guide to the burgeoning 1970s Houston art scene became the leading publication bringing the best of western American art to a national audience. Then we pay tribute to “30 Stars of 30 Years”—a group of some of the leading artists who have helped forge a path of excellence in western art.

Growing pains. southwest art.

Growing Pains
It was just after the dawn of the 1970s when two optimistic entrepreneurs founded Southwest Art Gallery Magazine in Houston, TX. William Freckleton [1931-1994] and Gary BeBout gathered together a talented group of writers and financial backers with a germ of an idea—that Texas could support a magazine focused on its vibrant visual arts scene. “It was a good idea. The newspapers didn’t give enough space to art, and we always had good galleries here in Texas,” says Ann Holmes, a contributing writer for the nascent publication.

Holmes penned the lead article for the magazine’s first issue in May 1971. In the article she reviewed Americans at Home and Abroad: 1870-1920, a show at Houston’s Meredith Long Gallery. In conjunction with the show and the article, Thomas Gainsborough’s oil painting Portrait of Ladies Erne & Dillon graced Southwest Art’s first cover.

The magazine’s second cover presented a blue-and-white, cartoonlike depiction of an exploding atom bomb by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. A third cover that year displayed a painting of a clown by Texas artist David Adickes. Whew. That’s quite a range of art styles and movements, you say. Indeed, like most fledgling publications, Southwest Art experienced growing pains in the ’70s as it searched for its niche or “voice.”

For example, a reader who signed up for a yearly $10 subscription in the early days could expect to encounter stories on everything from cowboy artists to modernists like Alexander Calder. Articles about living and deceased artists who worked anywhere in the world surfaced. And for a brief time it seemed as if the only qualification for artwork to land in the pages of the magazine was that it be currently showing in Texas. But there were also signposts pointing to the future. As early as April 1972, the magazine presented a southwestern landscape painting by Peter Hurd on the cover. It bore more than a faint resemblance to images that would grace the covers in decades to come.

While some gallery owners advertised works by modernists like Calder, there also were those who promoted artists who would become “household names” at the magazine in the future. In October 1971 Talisman Gallery in Bartlesville, OK, advertised a show for realist painter Richard Schmid. Later that year Texas Art Gallery in Dallas, TX, advertised works by sculptor Grant Speed, known for his bronze renderings of cowboys and ranch life. In the first anniversary issue, May 1972, Shriver Gallery in Taos, NM, promoted works by western landscape painter Wilson Hurley.

Throughout the ’70s the editorial content and the advertising base crept outward from Texas to encompass burgeoning art communities across the Southwest, including those in Santa Fe, Taos, Sedona, and Scottsdale. Stories and covers began to feature works by Woody Gwyn, James Rey-nolds, and R.C. Gorman, to name a few quintessential southwestern artists who became regulars on the editorial roster.

Meanwhile, as the magazine gained a foothold, institutions and prestigious exhibitions in the West were also springing up on the horizon. The Denver Art Mus-eum opened its doors on October 3, 1971, the first major museum built in the country since 1965. The National Academy of Western Art’s annual show (now replaced by the Prix de West Invitational) at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City, OK, was established in 1973. The exhibition was dedicated to showing the best in contemporary western art, and the magazine would eventually follow the show religiously.

The magazine increasingly reflected surging public interest in the landscapes, lore, and people of the West and in the artists who took it as their inspiration. By decade’s end what started as Southwest Art Gallery Magazine was called Southwest Art, and it seemed on solid ground as it moved into the 1980s. What began as a 28-page black-and-white publication had been transformed into a 146-page glossy magazine printed almost entirely in color. The last issue of the decade, December 1979, featured an array of stories that seemed to carve out a niche for the magazine—articles on representational artists who painted the West, including Robert Abbett and Bill Hill as well as historic artists Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell.

While the magazine searched for (and began to find) its niche in the ’70s, interestingly enough one of our first editors, Charlotte Moser, defined the editorial content in a way that we might echo today. In the September 1971 issue Moser wrote, “We hope to be relevant at Southwest Art, to speak to the public, and to remove art from its lofty, uninvolved pedestal. Perhaps through this and other efforts, art may one day regain its importance as a necessary part of every man’s everyday.”

Those words would stand the test of time.

good times and the bad. southwest art.

Good Times and Bad
Glance through the first few issues of 1980 and you’ll quickly realize that Southwest Art still hadn’t entirely settled into its niche. The February 1980 issue, for example, started off with urbanscapes by an artist from Bermuda and lush paintings of Maui. One gallery advertised a Rembrandt drawing in the March 1980 issue. And in September, the magazine opened with a feature on nine contemporary French naïve artists.

At the same time, however, the market for southwestern art was booming. One of the clearest indications of this explosion in popularity was the overwhelming success of the Cowboy Artists of America in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Consider, for example, that a painting by CA member John Clymer drew 485 intent-to-purchase slips at the group’s annual sale in 1979. Two years later in 1981, the CA’s annual trail ride was televised nationally on NBC’s Today show, and that same year’s sale grossed $1.76 million.

Soon Southwest Art began eagerly chronicling the wild success of the western art market in its pages. The May 1980 issue celebrating the magazine’s ninth anniversary featured western artists Frank McCarthy, R. Brown-ell McGrew, and Gary Niblett, all of whom were CA members. A year later, the May 1981 issue weighed in at a hefty 314 pages, an all-time high.

In an October 1981 article titled “Western Art: Accelerating Appreciation,” author Francis L. Bitney wrote, “Every western artist, art dealer, or art collector is aware that western art is steadily appreciating in price…. Russell paintings that were available only several years ago for $100,000 are now bringing $300,000 and more!” The article ended with a bold prediction: “[P]aintings available today at prices below $5,000 will, within the next five years, be worth as much as $500,000. It’s hard to believe. But disbelief won’t keep it from happening.”

What did keep it from happening, though, was the economic slowdown in general and the collapse of the oil industry, specifically, in the mid-1980s. Writing in the October 1983 issue, editor Susan McGarry noted the economy’s turn for the worse and the oil glut that had “rattled the underpinnings of many a western art collection.” The market continued its slide over the next few years. By 1987, “the value of works by even the most sought-after artists had plummeted an estimated 30 percent from previous highs,” according to Byron Price, former director of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, in an article on the history of the market [swa may 96].

Despite the plunging prices, western art remained a distinct and established genre, and the magazine continued to thrive. New columns and features too numerous to list were introduced to the pages of Southwest Art in the ’80s, including the long-running Graffiti column (subtitled “Signs of the times”) and the enormously popular Creative Process column written by artist Jack Hines. Among the many others were Trade Talk, 4th Dimension (which covered fine-art crafts), and Photo Finish.

New developments were happening outside the editorial offices, as well. Museums such as the Dallas Museum of Art, the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, and the Eiteljorg Museum of Amer-ican Indians and Western Art opened their doors during the ’80s, and a number of highly successful annual shows got started, including Sculpture in the Park in Loveland, CO, and the Buffalo Bill Art Show in Cody, WY.

Eventually the market began to recover its strength, too. In her January 1987 editor’s letter, McGarry shared her impressions of the October 1986 CA show: “Not only were opening night crowds enormous (1,300 people), but the acquisition fever was at a pitch reminiscent of the late 1970s,” she wrote. “Still, the proverbial questions arise: ‘Where are the arts of the American West going?’ … I trust the handwriting is on the wall that collectors have grown enormously over the last decade and that their interests have become more sophisticated and educated.” Although the market would never again experience the fever pitch of the late ’70s and early ’80s, western art had accomplished something far more important in the 10 years since then—it had proved its staying power.

the art market diversifies. southwest art.

The Art Market Diversifies
At the beginning of the 1990s, Texas dealers Tony Altermann and Jack Morris talked about recent changes in their galleries in a column called The $5,000 Question. “I’d say we are considerably more diversified than we were 10 years ago,” said Morris, citing a shift from primarily highly realistic western paintings and sculpture to a much broader spectrum of style and subject matter. Altermann noted that the price range of artworks they were selling had also changed, with smaller works under $10,000 joining the big-ticket items. “Our buying audience is broader and larger and has become more sophisticated,” he added.

This discussion in the February 1990 issue of Southwest Art proved prescient, for the changes listed by Altermann and Morris were all primary forces that shaped the western American art market throughout the decade. With the heyday ’80s—and the subsequent oil bust and economic downturn—behind them, galleries sought to broaden their client bases by carrying a more diverse selection of artworks and creating “entry level” prices to bring new collectors into the market. Throughout the decade, even such diehard bastions of “cowboy” art as Scottsdale, AZ, began to feature new genres—among them the exhibitions of Russian Social Realist paintings at Scottsdale’s Overland Gallery beginning in 1991.

A resurgence of interest in traditional realist painting took place in the 1990s, spurred in part by such groups as the Oil Painters of America, which held its first national juried show in 1992, and the Cali-fornia Art Club, which was revived under the leadership of Peter and Elaine Adams and held its largest exhibit in many years in 1994.

Jack Hines, in a 1996 Creative Process column, described the trend toward diversity as a revolution. “Whether by osmosis or by design, the abundance of art forms makes it impossible to identify any strain as ‘Amer-ican,’ much less ‘western American,’” he wrote.

This is not to say that traditional western art was on the wane—in fact, the converse held true throughout the decade. The first Southwest Art issue of the ’90s reported that the recent annual Cowboy Artists of America sale racked up $1.26 million in sales, and by 1999 the total had reached $2 million. The Coeur d’Alene Art Auction of western and wildlife paintings launched in 1992 and within a few years became the leading auction in the field. And as was reported in a 1991 Graffiti news column, “Even highbrow Sothe-by’s now regularly auctions works by living cowboy painters and sculptors.”

Diversity became a hallmark of the editorial content of Southwest Art as well. Mid-decade, the magazine began an exploration of the Califor-nia art market that introduced a whole new realm of artists and styles into its pages. Reflecting the artwork that was being seen in galleries across the West, the editors started featuring more emerging artists and even artists living east of the Mississippi. One of the most striking changes to the magazine in the 1990s was in the choice of images that appeared on the cover each month. Once strictly a venue for cowboy and Indian imagery, the cover began to showcase paintings of landscapes, still lifes, figures, and wildlife.

To commemorate its 25th anniversary, Southwest Art launched Covering the West, an exhibit of works by 64 cover artists that toured five museums in 1995-96. The roster of featured artists was impressive, and the exhibit, wrote Editor-in-Chief Susan McGarry, celebrated “a movement that, like the magazine, has come of age.” Collectors of western art, too, had come of age, becoming more knowledgeable and embracing a wider variety of artworks. “Gone are the days when an artwork was measured by how close it came to mimicking a photograph,” wrote Jack Hines in 1996.

Beginning collectors increasingly had the opportunity to purchase small, original works of art at affordable prices. This trend may in part account for the decline of the limited-edition print market late in the decade. With print prices climbing past the $2,000 mark in some cases and edition sizes expanding, many collectors began opting instead for original, one-of-a-kind artworks in the same price range.

In the late 1990s, collectors and galleries alike jumped on the Internet bandwagon, making the exchange of artist information and images easier than ever before. The Internet also offered a wealth of historical information, from artist biographies to pricing trends. Its importance will no doubt grow as the western art market moves into the 21st century.

Featured in May 2001