Douglas Udell Gallery
Doors locked, lights off, Douglas Udell Gallery closed.
Without fanfare, ceremony (or for that matter pre-warning) a grand contributor to cultural life of western Canada has closed its doors. Douglas Udell Gallery posted a rather low key message on the locked front entrance of its Edmonton Gallery. So there you have it; done.
Douglas Udell has operated distinguished leading galleries in three cities in western Canada since the 1960s. The flagship gallery in Edmonton operated from 1968-2016. This alone would have been an astounding legacy. The gallery expanded and ran important venues in Vancouver 1986-2014 and Calgary 2004-2009. In each instance the quality of the offerings and commitment to excellence was exemplary. The galleries’ exhibition programs were consistently, perennially ‘must-see’.
Contacted by email for comment the gallery replied that they were most proud of the long list of artists whose work they introduced to the west principal among them they list: “Gerhard Richter, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Peter Doig, Lucian Freud, Estate of Marina Picasso - Pablo Picasso, Adam Fuss, Wayne Thiebaud, Eric Fischl, Chris Ofili, Sigmar Polke, Joan Mitchell, Karl Appel, Pierre Alechinsky, Asger Jorn, - Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler, Anthony Caro, Kenneth Noland, The Group of Seven & Contemporaries, David Milne, Jean Paul Riopelle, William Kurelek, Jack Bush, Dorothy Knowles, William Perehudoff, Joe Fafard, Vic Cicansky, David Thauberger, Mary Pratt, Christopher Pratt, Alex Colville, Tony Scherman, Natalka Husar, Ann Kipling, Alan Reynolds, Robert Scott, Annie Pootoogook, Harry Savage, Sylvain Voyer, Jeffrey Spalding, Erik Olson & Kyle Beal.“ Many of the artists have been in association with the Udell galleries for almost 50 years. Udell served as the representative for The Estate of Jack Bush for a decade. Doug served on the executive of the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada now Art Dealers Association of Canada for a decade.
Udell Galleries was also one of the earliest Canadian participants in the beginning of International Art Fairs commencing with the Chicago Art Fair in the 1980s as well as LA, Seattle, Vancouver and Toronto. What set it apart from many Canadian galleries was the ease and frequency with which they interspersed works by international and Canadian talents.
The gallery placed the value of exceptional art above nativism; they encouraged their clientele to acquire the best, not the nearest. This is at the heart of what made the Udell galleries so unique. They didn’t open their gallery in Calgary to sell Calgary artists to Calgary collectors, or likewise its equivalent in Vancouver or Edmonton. They were excited about world art and Canadian art’s place within it. Last year Douglas Udell Gallery was listed as one of the ‘500 Best Galleries Worldwide’ in Blouin Modern Painters.
They helped me secure works for my museum presentations in Halifax and Calgary of works by the African-American women artists who created the powerful, moving exhibition “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” (Alabama). The rest of Canada is still way behind that curve.
To clarify, the Udell gallery indicates that although it will close its public exhibition component, that Doug Udell will remain active as a private consultant to share his wise counsel with collectors. That is a very good thing. After near 50 years Doug Udell is moving on with another phase of his life; it is his earned prerogative; we all wish him well.
But how will we do, in the gallery’s absence? All the catchphrases rush in: ‘as one door closes another opens’. I want to believe it’s true. A new generation of gallerists with different ideas, different criteria, priorities and artistic passions will surely come along to fill the void. Will they? There can be numerous new galleries. Astute aesthetic insights paired by commitment to public advancement are traits that are rarely conjoined.
My own life was immeasurably altered by access to the sensational, temple-like presentations of advanced art at the David Mirvish Gallery, Toronto. It challenged me; it schooled me. There are other fine examples as well. The superlative programs of the Equinox Gallery, Dianne Farris Gallery and Western Front in the 1990s far outstripped the performance of the Vancouver Art Gallery as the hotbed fostering access to developing new art. Perhaps it is now private foundations such as the admirable work for example of the Esker, Audain and Rennie that will make up for the shortfall?
Yet, the idea of the private commercial gallery as harbinger of the finest is perhaps at risk. Things change. Art commerce is moving to the mega-galleries, art fairs, and auction houses; it is pretty tough to make a living carrying the overhead and hence constant financial stress of operating a commercial gallery devoted to emerging contemporary art. Many esteemed galleries are teetering on the edge of calling it quits. So once again thanks to you Doug for 50 years. As well, thanks to our current generation of commercial gallerists. We take it for granted that it is our privilege and right to entertain ourselves by doing theSaturday gallery stroll through their private galleries, engage in casual art chit-chat and perhaps even drink their wine. Theirs is a tough business. Like magazines and newspapers, the very concept of commercial galleries is at risk, (at least those devoted to challenging contemporary art).
As an art fanatic, Udell Galleries made my life immeasurably more pleasurable; they delivered phenomenal experiential delights. As we thank the Udell Galleries for 50 years of service to us all, don’t forget; there is a gallery near you that is wondering tonight: do I open tomorrow?