“I will spend the summer figuring how to move forward under the new circumstances,” says Ruth Morpeth through her mask during an interview at Morpeth Contemporary in Hopewell.
Then, as if speaking for many in the current economy, Morpeth says, “But I’m not sure how to do it.”
And while people can come to her recently reopened gallery and see art by national and regional painters — including Illia Barger (Byram, NJ), Jody Olcott (Hopewell), Ruthann Perry (Lawrenceville), and Eric Schultz (Hopewell) — she says the fall season is in jeopardy and the entire “year’s schedule has been put on hold.”
But, she says, the current state of “completely unknown circumstances” is not “unlike our business in general.”
Then, pulling from her 23 years of experience of running a professional art gallery, she says, “Every art show doesn’t guarantee a sale. And there is no formula for success in this business. My brother is an accountant and says, ‘I don’t know how you live your life without the certainty of a paycheck. ‘”
But the financial uncertainty is only part of it. “I had a fire, and I had a debilitating illness where I couldn’t work. Then there was the (2008) recession – we lost a lot of income during the recession,” she says.
Then, taking a broad look, she adds, “I probably should have closed several times under different circumstances, but something comes along and saves the day.”
“This is a solely commercial business,” she says on why she is unable to take advantage of grants and donations to support the chancy proposition of selling art. “That being said I don’t feel I survive on my own merits. There is the concept of ‘it takes a village.’ (The gallery) is a business, but it has developed into a community of likeminded artists and clients who are interested in sustaining the place.”
As evidence, she cites artists flexible with sales and exhibitions, offering to watch her gallery during her illness, and generous landlords.
“Without a combination of all of this, I don’t think I’d still be here,” she says.
The New Jersey-born gallery owner’s path to Hopewell began in nearby Cranbury, where her Wilkes-Barre parents moved so her father could work at IBM in Dayton.
When her father died when she was 10, Morpeth says her untrained mother, who was offered and took an IBM job, began to stress the need for her children to find practical pursuits and strive for non-dependency.
So despite being a capable art student when she graduated from Hightstown High School in 1984, Morpeth focused on other work.
After a short time at the Rochester Institute of Technology, she briefly studied landscape architecture at Rutgers University. But neither experience helped her settle on a “practical” career path.
However, without realizing it, that path had already started years before when a high school boyfriend took a job at an AlJon’s Pizza shop located next to the DeLann Gallery in Plainsboro.
“(Deborah DeHauski) was picture framer and art gallery owner. I was looking for a job and went to her, said I was good with my hands, and I was a decent artist. She hired me and showed me picture framing. She was the only one selling original art in the area. I met a lot of artists and fell in love with the business.
“I am here today solely because of her — taking a young person into the gallery and exposing me to picture framing and selling original art.”
Another person she mentions is prominent regional artist and former Mercer County Community College art instructor Mel Leipzig.
Morpeth says while she worked toward an associate’s degree in graphic design at MCCC, she would attend Leipzig’s art history classes. She says his love for art reminded her of her own and influenced her 1997 decision to create her first gallery and frame shop in a Pennington cafe.
“This is what I wanted to be doing,” she says.
Then the challenges began. In addition to a strained relationship with her partner, a fire destroyed her workshop and forced her to find a new location.
“I was looking to move to Lambertville, but the rents were high. Then I saw this shop. I drove by and saw the glass window and that it was for rent. And I went inside.”
While she says many people in Hopewell remember the building being Allen’s Flower Shop, at the time it was a gift shop called Voula’s World.
Despite the space’s “high degree of neglect” and “Pepto-Bismol pink shelves,” Morpeth says she saw it as “a great gallery space” that had plenty of space to look at paintings and plenty of light.
And with the insurance money from the fire to help her begin again, she says, “I figured let’s give it a try. I just took it. It was a complete crapshoot. The rent was most affordable in Hopewell. I figured I wouldn’t lose my shirt.”
That was despite the reality that “it needed a lot of work and was costly,” and Hopewell’s currently bustling venues had not yet been established.
“When I moved here I didn’t know how the business would be,” she says.
But she learned one night while vacuuming when an unassumingly dressed woman arrived, looked at the artwork, shared some remarks, and said she wanted to talk to her husband before making a purchase.
Morpeth says she didn’t think much of it, until “five minutes later, a large stretch limousine pulled up” to reveal that the woman was Joyce Johnson, wife of the Johnson & Johnson heir and Grounds For Sculpture’s artist-founder Seward Johnson.
“I didn’t recognize the Johnsons,” says Morpeth. “They were moving to Hopewell at the time. They’re one of the reasons I survived the first year. The bills were piling up, and there wasn’t a lot of income.”
Morpeth also credits some of her early success from supportive established artists Robert Beck of Solebury, Pennsylvania, and Michael Madigan of Hamilton.
“They helped put me on the map” and “gave me the opportunity to bring their audiences to my space,” she says. “I’m eternally grateful for that.”
Other artists, she says, came through artists who knew artists who they thought would work well with her and her gallery. She would also “source other galleries and publications — like Gallery Guide” to find artists.
She says her selection of artists and works to exhibit is “visceral. It’s more an emotional connection to the piece. I have such a wide aesthetic. I love folk art and outsider art. I love minimal and nonobjective art. I can’t say there’s one thing. Most galleries specialize and tend to have their niche. That’s easier in the greater metropolitan area. I have to keep a broader range.”
Thinking more about selecting work, Morpeth wonders aloud about a statement attributed to influential 20th-century New York gallery owner and arts dealer Betty Parsons: “A good eye is a mysterious thing. You can’t teach it.”
She also says her love for creating art and working in the field help her choices. “It’s more of accumulating experience. I’m an artist pragmatic enough to open a business. Maybe if didn’t get into the business side, I would be a fine artist. But look what I’m surrounded by,” she says, gesturing to a filled gallery.
While her thoughts are on as aesthetics and her personal reaction, she wants “to make sure that the value of the art is merited” for her clients — a relationship that grew from her original impulse.
“When I first opened in Pennington, a person would come in, look around, and say, ‘This is nice. But who is going to spend a $1,000 on a piece of art?’ But I thought since I had the picture framing supporting the business, I could put what I wanted on the wall.”
About her move to Hopewell, she says, “I didn’t come with an established clientele. People started showing up. This is an affluent area, and people would come in and see something and say, ‘This is fabulous.’ People were putting art on their wall.”
Eventually, she says, the gallery got a reputation, especially for one community.
“One of the reasons I have done as well as I have is the transplanted European clientele, mostly from the pharmaceutical industry. They are much more prone to purchase original arts work. They are passionate about art. The pharmaceutical industry and Europeans help us to stay in business,” she says.
And while the future may fluctuate, Morpeth says she’s seen it before and adjusts as needed.
For example, while the business had been doing well in early the early 2000s, the 2008 recession caused a financial issue that led to a problem with the building she was renting.
“I told the (property owners) after the recession it was clear that I was not going to be able to sustain the business and can’t keep paying rent. The owners said they wanted to see the gallery remain in Hopewell” and arranged a sale of the property to Morpeth, who can live overtop of the shop rather than maintain another Hopewell property as she has done since 1999.
Now in the midst of a pandemic she is hoping to make a change by following a business pattern and focusing on the framing that initially supported the business until artwork sales were able to take over.
“I didn’t promote the framing for years. I have a small sign that says picture framing. But I didn’t promote it because I didn’t want to do it all,” she says.
But after the recession sales dropped and never regained the pre-recession level of approximately 80 percent of the business. “Now we are evolving the frame shop to support the business,” says Morpeth.
“We” includes Mike Vecchiarelli, the company’s 10-year manager and a veteran framer for Triangle Arts, Trade Art & Frame Company, and Roma Moulding.
Employing the same pluralistic approach used for arts sales for picture framing, the gallery’s clients range from families looking to mount “basic stuff” — diplomas and artwork by children — to collectors looking to reframe works by such major artists as Thomas Hart Benton, William Merritt Chase, and Andrew Wyeth. And through a reference by a museum, the company also frames the work of internationally known New Jersey-based painter Makoto Fujimura.
And while all this is positive, Morpeth says more framing affects her relationship with new artists and negatively impacts her ability to support the artists in a manner she believes they need.
She also mentions another relationship change: the ability for clients to find artists directly through the internet. “I knew (the relationship) was changing, but I didn’t know it was going to change so fast. And COVID-19 is making it happen it faster,” she says.
Consequently, she says, today’s “artists are better suited to represent themselves. More and more people are able to get work directly from the artists. And I understand that. People like it.”
To support those artists’ needs, the gallery is providing computer, digital photography, and others services to help artists to have a better online presence — skills Morpeth learned at MCCC.
And while she says, “How great is it (for an artist) to be able to post a painting on Instagram and make a sale?” she sees an unintended consequence. “It may hurt the artist not to have an exhibition and be written about and then go on to bigger galleries. That’s the problem. I don’t know how the value grows. (Internet self-promotion) doesn’t work as well as the gallery method.”
Taking stock of a career that is being transformed, she says “I keep thinking what can I do to make it less emotionally and physically challenging? The frame shop is a lot of physical work. And there are a lot relationships — I never knew the social aspect of this business when I went into it. Each year I think there has got to be an easier way. But I can’t think of what would be more reliable. And in this COVID-19 world who knows what it would be?
However, she answers the question with her 23 years of experience. “There is no formula. You just keep moving forward.”
Morpeth Contemporary, 43 West Broad Street, Hopewell. Summer hours: Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 609-393-9393 or www.morpethcontemporary.com.