Story by Norman Kolpas • Photos by Chris Hinkle
What does it take to create a long-lived art gallery, one that is widely respected by collectors, artists, and other galleries alike? Ask Stuart Johnson—who founded Settlers West Galleries in Tucson almost four decades ago and has become a dynamic force in the western art market—and he offers an immediate, surprisingly simple answer: “It was total naiveté when my wife at the time and I said, ‘Why don’t we open a gallery?’” Johnson recalls with a wry chuckle. “We might as well have said, ‘Why don’t we build a submarine?’”
Although he was just 27 years old when he asked himself that fateful question, Johnson nonetheless came to the challenge reasonably well equipped for a career in art. He had just finished a master’s degree in American history at the University of Arizona’s Tucson campus, having already completed another master’s in business administration. So he brought to the endeavor an understanding of the nation’s past, as well as knowledge about how to run a commercial enterprise.
After a brief and unsatisfying job in Chicago, the Johnsons came back to Tucson and found an available space in the “trendy little shopping area” of Broadway Village. Investing $10,000 of their savings, they signed a lease and proceeded to “paint the floor red and put re-sawed pine on the walls to make it look homey or country.”
They decided to name their gallery Settlers West, after the title of a painting they’d seen in a book on the works of the early 20th-century western illustrator and painter W.H.D. Koerner. “We figured we were settlers out West,” Johnson recalls. “And I didn’t want to call it Stuart Johnson’s Art Gallery.” They bought some paintings from a few local artists and, in August 1972, were ready to open for business—with just $27 remaining in the bank account.
“We couldn’t have picked a worse time,” Johnson says. “Everybody had left for the summer. I went down to the gallery wearing my sport coat and necktie and pulled down the brown paper from the windows. Nobody came in. By one o’clock, I’d taken off the jacket and tie. Finally, the mailman came in, looking for the people who used to have the space. That’s when I knew I had to start looking for a job.” He found one as a night administrator at the university’s hospital. “After my shift, I’d go home and sleep for a while, and then go in to the gallery,” he says.
Sleep-deprived though he may have been, Johnson worked steadily to grow his roster of artists and collectors. He is modest about the expertise he had at the time, but his eye had been trained by a lifelong fascination with illustrations of the West by the likes of Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington, as well as a childhood collection of Indian beadwork. “But I really didn’t know anything about art,” he demurs.
Settlers West gradually signed on a few local painters, including wildlife artist Nick Wilson; watercolorist Joseph Bohler; and Kenneth Riley, who at the time was busy as one of the founding members of the National Academy of Western Art. “He didn’t think he’d have anything for us,” Johnson says about Riley. “We weren’t really established—I was a young guy with a pipe dream. But we hit it off with his wife, who had a curio store in Tombstone, and he gave me three paintings.”
Little by little, paintings began to sell. “Things started to plug along,” says Johnson. “Of course, our rent was $137 a month, a whole lot different than it is today.” A year and a half after opening, Johnson was able to quit his night job and devote himself full time to the gallery.
When asked how he managed to turn that crucial corner, he remains becomingly modest. “I don’t think there was a decisive moment. We just got more confident. Most customers are 50-plus years old, so when you’re 27, it’s hard to be a knowledgeable guru about western art. As you get a little older in the business, it gets easier to talk to buyers. Either you’re able to stick it out and learn, or you go sell shoes.”
Modesty aside, the keys to Settlers West’s success are well evident, revealed when Johnson muses about what he’s proudest of after remaining in business all these years. “We’ve maintained a very ethical approach to business,” he says. “We keep our word. It’s not learned in school, but it’s always been the best lesson, the way business should work.”
Such an approach to business, in turn, enabled Settlers West to break innovative new ground in the way western art was exhibited and sold. In the autumn of 1977, not long after moving to a more spacious location, the gallery mounted the first of its annual Great American West art shows. It has become one of the premier invitational events of its kind, widely considered a leading southwestern fine art showcase, and has grown to feature more than 50 artists.
One of the artists in that first show was the great Howard Terpning. At the time he was considered America’s foremost commercial illustrator, having created iconic images for leading magazine covers as well as movie posters. As he approached the age of 50, Terp-ning decided to transition to fine art, specializing in compellingly realistic depictions of the Old West subjects he loved.
Johnson had first met Terpning in 1975. The two hit it off, and Settlers West began to sell his early works. Within two years, the gallery represented Terpning exclusively and was perfectly poised for success as Terpning soon achieved western superstar status. He became a member of the recently formed Cowboy Artists of America in 1979. “The following year,” says Johnson, “people were standing in line for Howard’s paintings.”
Terpning was, of course, part of the lineup in February 1982 for Settlers West’s next big innovation, its first annual American Miniatures Show. “A friend up in Kalispell, Montana, told me that at Christmas time he’d had a show of small paintings by local artists,” says Johnson. He decided to try the idea for a midwinter event, contacting other artists with whom he’d built solid relationships and asking them for works measuring 9 by 12 inches or smaller. “I might have had 50 or 60 paintings in that first show, and I don’t remember if they all sold. But it was the first time a miniatures show had been done on such a broad scale.”
The scale has continued to broaden. Johnson estimates that this month’s 30th American Miniatures Show will feature more than 400 paintings by some 250 different artists, and it’s likely to sell out. The reason for that success is simple, he says. “Not every collector can afford a $20,000 or $30,000 painting by a well-known artist, but they can afford $3,000 or $4,000 for a miniature.”
Working at the opposite end of the financial spectrum in the western art world, Johnson joined forces in 1984 with Bob Drummond, owner of the Drummond Gallery in Coeur d’Alene, ID, and auctioneer Peter Stremmel to launch the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction, which has grown to become the single largest art auction in the nation devoted to 19th- and 20th-century western and American art. Now held each July in Reno, Nevada, having outgrown its original venue, the auction has set several dozen stratospheric price records, including $5.6 million for a painting by Charles M. Russell, $1.68 million for a Maynard Dixon, and $1.456 million for a canvas by Settlers West stalwart Howard Terpning.
Johnson doesn’t hesitate in naming the auction as his proudest achievement. Then, like a parent who can’t admit to having a favorite child, he immediately mentions the miniatures show, as well. But even though Settlers West has helped further the careers of many current stars of the western art world, Johnson is reluctant to accept any credit for their successes. “Most of the artists have had some reputation before they’ve come here,” he maintains. “I’m not really a proving ground for young artists.”
In a broader sense, however, Johnson has made Settlers West a sort of proving ground for western representational art, helping to raise its profile and the seriousness with which it is regarded as a genre. And he takes great satisfaction in that measure of success. “I have very few regrets,” he reflects. “Today, I come to work every day with as much enthusiasm as I had 25 years ago. I get to see people at their very best. My artists are happy. And nearly every one of my customers are happy, because their purchases are something they’re going to enjoy for as long as they have them.”
Featured in February 2011.