George Gordon Interview
Transcript of November 5, 2014 George Gordon Interview
By Mary Isca Pirkola
We want to know where your interest in art comes from. When you were growing up, did you have art in your life?
I played the piano, I wasn’t any good, but I played the piano. When I found out about football, I gave that up. And then art came later on in Grand Rapids, I don’t know, but I started to every once in a while I would buy a painting for my house, don’t you know.
There was Frank Vander Mark, Henry, did you know him? A wonderful art man who had a gallery (Hefner’s). He took care of artists, many of them were hurting. Finally he got me, and I took on Armon Merizon. And that’s where I learned about art because Merizon was – you could see he was an artist. He’d do about two paintings a month. So I made a deal with him that I’d take all of his paintings – as long as I got ALL of them. I didn’t want to have six or seven gone, and then one left over for me. So that worked for several years. I gave, we used to sell paintings at my office every month or two, so I got to know about art, especially through Merizon, he used get down there with me and tell me about his composition and what to look for and who was a good artist.
At that time I remember asking him, “What about Mathias Alten, is he any good?” And he said, “Well, I’m not going to comment on Alten.” See, he was competition. So we went on, until we ran out of gas. Merizon developed macular degeneration and so he gave up. I got off him, so somehow I started collecting Mathias Alten.
I don’t know how I got started collecting Mathias Alten, but I had about 25 or 26 of his paintings and I used to show them off in my office. Right after the Grand Rapids Art Museum had a show about Alten, the head of the museum came in my office and saw how I had them hung up and frowned. She started going around and changing where they were placed. Anyway, they ended up taking about nine of them for the GRAM exhibition and about that time Don Lubbers came into the picture.
Henry help me remember the story that goes around about Lubbers – that he won them on the golf course, well that’s not how it happened. He heard about them on the golf course from a mutual friend. What eventually happened is that he made an offer to me that if I donated the paintings, Grand Valley would provide a gallery. So I gave 25 paintings. I thought it was a great idea because, after all, I didn’t want to have a hundred paintings, but guess what. Now I have a hundred paintings, not exactly mine, you understand, but a hundred paintings are different than 26.
It’s been a lot of fun and really gets to the end of this business because we have so many paintings now, we don’t know what to do with them. I just hope that it can continue for a few more years. There’s always another painting we can use, but the point is it works out good that we are full up. So in the next year we can probably only buy one or two a year – and they’ll be good paintings, ones we really need and we won’t just buy paintings.
After we are filled up here, it would be nice if we had another place to put Alten paintings. Maybe we want to have another show, like the one we had in Naples, Florida In other words, if we want Alten to be better known throughout the country, we’ve got to get his paintings out and show them to people. If we could do that, I think we could get another 15-20 paintings today. We could go ahead perhaps, and have everyone helping and thinking about where we could send some of these for an exhibition, such as northern Michigan. And I think, I heard at one time – I can’t think of his name, Henry you know who I mean. He did some work and had his daughters working with him – he had art and did art. He handled artists had some Altens and Merizons.
I always think about this true story, I needed an Alten self-portrait, so I went to this man’s gallery. His daughter worked there and we went round and round. What he did is call up Kim Smith and made sure he got enough for the painting. And so all those things occurred and I learned a few things. We did such things as putting these paintings in the art museum, we even had auctions there.
You know it’s not really an auction when you only have one person buying! It isn’t really what we’d call free competition. Not a perfect competition at all. So I often rescued these paintings. That was fun and good. Frank Vander Mark was helping me learn what was going on.
Do you remember what your first Alten acquisition was?
Yes I do and I never kept it very long. It was a good painting, so I bought it, and today you would probably pay twice as much for it. I want to tell you this because I think it’s funny. I was involved with another outfit up north, with land. I got in trouble up there and next thing I knew I had a new name: miscreant. That was in the Cadillac newspaper, so now that’s what I’m called by some people up there.
Anyway, to get on with the Alten...how far can you go, or should you go? So eventually we had to get more room and so we enlarged the gallery, and eventually added the one upstairs.
Which works out great, I think. Now were at the point where we need to make some decisions. Take the book project, we’ve discussed not using some of the paintings, and which paintings to include, it gets to the point where, you know, everybody likes one painting more than another. That makes it difficult sometimes because not everyone has the same favorites. Some upstairs are a little bit wilder, but I think they are wonderful and I’d hate to see them put aside. So when I go upstairs, I check to see if they are still there. He chuckles softly. WHICH ONES? But after doing all of this work, I think the most important thing of course is how you hang them on the wall.
14:30 That one over there (Chrysanthemums?) is an unbelievable painting, I think. I got that through the former Mayor Logie. I knew it was going to cost me to get that painting from him, and it was pretty bad. But by golly, while I stopped to think about the price, he reconsidered, saying, “Well I’ll throw this one in, too.” So pretty soon, I had a good deal. [Chuckles.] So we got a few extra painting that way.
Another one people like so much is the Picnic Scene, back here. They think it is so wonderful and probably is the best of that kind of work he ever did.
We have other paintings…this makes me think of Peter Wege who just gave a bunch of money. He used to buy paintings from my gallery, but he wouldn’t buy them for himself. He always brought ? bought something extra , which isn’t fair.
So one night when my wife and I were at his house, he commented that he didn’t like a particular painting he had, so we got that one for a pretty good price. A landscape – no, it’s a pumpkin picking scene. That worked out good.
So you get them in all sorts of ways. It took twelve years to get all these paintings because, as you know, they don’t come up for sale every day.
One thing that’s great is Kim Smith, as far as I’m concerned. He’s been such a great – I’ve worked with him for over thirty years and we’ve never had a cross word – it’s been a great opportunity for me to get a fair deal. I’m lucky to have a guy like him around. Lots of times he’d hear about something that was available and also in pricing paintings. He would get one, and he’d tell me about it – which he didn’t have to do, he could have gotten interest from other collectors.
I always think of this story. That painting back there, called Homesteader, or something…Just as I told you, Kim Smith is my best friend of all time. When that painting appeared, I finally got it from some attorney in town here – and he did not like it. It wasn’t one of his favorites because I didn’t get it from him. [Chuckles]. So that’s what happened. So then I was a miscreant because I did that.
But then we went on and developed a very successful trip to Florida. We took a bunch of them and we worked with some friends of ours who are still down there. So how successful it was: one night we had a dinner reception. And when they announced that supper is served, I was the only one that went into the dining room. Nobody would leave the show and they stayed there quite a while. So we learned that we had to leave some paintings out of the show, some really good paintings, and I missed that. I think, if you have a chance to sell your product, you have to show the best you have, but sometimes you just can’t do it.
Maybe you need a second Naples show?
The idea is if you can get enough room to show it. We found a gallery near the gallery where we had the Naples show. They sell Altens, not Altens, but friends Alten had in Spain, who also painted the ships. The gallery owner’s father was one of those painters. So I bought a couple and haven’t sold them yet.
What appeals to you the most about Alten’s work and has that changed over time?
I don’t know, I think all of a sudden I’ll come up to a couple of paintings upstairs, and they’re not the kind of paintings I liked ten years ago. And both of them are paintings I’m now crazy about – in fact when I go up there I check to make sure they are still there.
We have that whole wall up there. My favorite paintings are all the farm scenes and landscapes. But these are two – one is of the stone, Alten painted only seven of those and we got a good one. Across from that we have the other Alten painting, you know of the wild looking sky, I think it’s wonderful, and we had some others like that. We have another one that’s going to be shown at Kim Smith’s right now – it shows grain between the mountains, he’s never done that before, but he’s done… but the idea is we have to come up with some way to operate this thing through the – what do you call it, Friends of Alten?
How it’s going to work out.
How would you hope it works out?
I think – Bergsma. He sent some Altens to Purdue and they loved them. That’s one of the places that would probably be interested in a show now, don’t you know? Also there’s places up north, Henry and I know, such as Marquette. So anything like that is possible. But when you talk about something like – do you know how long it takes to put something like that on the road? Here we have everything it takes 2-3 years! I don’t have 2 or 3 years anymore.
Anyway, It does take a long time to get these things going.
So what do you hope your gifts will mean long term to the community, to Grand Valley, and to the broader world of American Art? We have the largest collection..
I think the way to do it is to go to places, like in Detroit, and if you move these paintings around a little bit, people become aware of them and they become quite popular. We’ve seen it happen before, people come here from out of town and see them and then they come back to see them again. So that’s the way to work. But once again, it takes time, and it’s a slow moving train. But you’ve got to take it.
You’ve created quite a legacy, not only with your own gifts, but in how they have inspired others, including Alten family members to contribute paintings and even family artifacts that belonged to the artist, such as sketchbooks…
Of course I’m so aware of that and we’ve been to see all the Alten Granddaughters. One of them, right here in town, Diana Boozer, when I went out to see her, she didn’t say, well this is $5,000, this is $10,000, she was happy to give me what I wanted, and even gave me one no charge – but she wouldn’t let me carry it out of her home by myself. She had to help me. She was just wonderful. She’s an awful nice lady and gave us some awful nice paintings.
Of course we’ve seen the others, too. Gloria, and I’m not sure how we got Gloria’s painting upstairs.
Henry says, “through conversations.” George then asks, “You stole it?” Henry laughs saying, yes.
George – I think one like that and one like this helps the gallery.
We have to, I think, the idea is to keep these paintings moving around and making friends with everyone at the college at the same time. That’s about all I can tell you. It’s going to be slow.
Do you remember when you had the first exhibition here at the gallery bearing your names, and how that felt?
The only thing, I’m trying to remember now. We had friends from all over who came to see the exhibition, and I wasn’t thinking so much that our names were up there, as I was worried that I might have to give a speech! That’s what worried me.
But the last one - The second floor expansion opening - We had a great turnout, and I think that it is a knockout. I think it helps this, first floor gallery and the two together.
You mentioned maybe getting one or two more paintings a year, are there particular ones you’d like? Or particular genres or periods to round out the collection?
I can’t walk by that place of Kim Smith’s without buying a painting, I guess. I think he makes me buy something every time I’m there. [Chuckles] We have some already that can come in. The problem is, you won’t get one or two a year, but rather six in two weeks. If you think about how long it has taken to get the 75-100 paintings, or whatever we have, like you know if you look at what he has done, and take a couple of his farm scenes and put them together, and boy you’ve got something going for you, I think. And some of his landscapes we’ve got back here are so great.
One thing I’ve always wanted to do and I should have done and I made a big huge mistake – like I’ve done a lot of…Kendall has, when I got involved with this, I was also involved with other artists. And so I gave them all to Kendall College, and one of them is an awfully good Alten that I should get. I think I may be able to make a trade with Isley at Kendall, for that Alten painting. It’s a bridge painting. He did that bridge painting over there of Conn., but everybody did that bridge. So if I can get that, it would help the collection.
What helps a lot is that we have people like the Renuccis and the Potters with good collections, and that helps me because I see paintings that I need. It’s not that I’m going to steal them, or buy them, but that’s something to look for don’t you know. Lots of places don’t have that going for them. Marge Potter’s got one that I’ve seen and she’s got two (Grand Rapids paintings) and that’s not fair because I have none. I’m not sure she even likes them. [Chuckles] Lots of times in the old days, when the paintings weren’t so expensive, you’d buy 2-3 at once. If you wanted one, you might have to buy the three. So some people have paintings they don’t want.
It sounds like you enjoy the hunt as well as the acquisition, one more than the other?
It’s fun finding the painting you’re looking for. There’s probably a lot of paintings in Grand Rapids that we don’t even know about. But, it’s fun to fill out, say Alten’s farm scenes. When I go up north, I go right through property where he painted. I see the sides of the roads and the rocks they had to deal with. In one painting I bought that you have here, Alten paints the excavation and all the harm from storms and hol es in the land, well I see those every time I go up there. So I finally bought a piece of rock up there – an Alten rock, that’s all it is. But he felt the same way as I do, so it’s that kind of thing you can do to fill in the collection.
Does Barbara share your passion for collecting and does she have favorite Alten pieces as well?
I asked her about that. She said the Picnic Scene is her favorite one. Of course I like this one behind me, Old Homestead. One reason I like it is because I got it without any help from Kim Smith, don’t you know? [chuckles] I don’t have to do everything with Kim Smith. He has helped – you know he took Altens down to Hillsdale College. Hung up pretty good –(“beautiful,” says Henry.) It’s tough to take those paintings and sell them to someone trying to pay their way through college. That’s one of the problems he had.
Did you purchase works by Alten because individual pieces interested you in some way, or did you start with a deliberate idea that he was a Michigan artist, or that you wanted a particular subject of paintings, or a particular site where he was doing landscapes?
Well I didn’t want to buy the same type of painting all the time, and if you look at these landscapes they’re pretty different and wonderful. So is some of his farming, they’re entirely different too. Like a painting I recently saw, that I want because it would fit nicely in here. It is very unusual and a wonderful painting. The woman who has it is 80 years old and climbing on her roof. I want to get that painting and you never can tell. It’s path in the woods, very well done with the leaves in the fall. It’s a large vertical painting it would be also nice to have it here and we might get it. She also has a Robinson painting – are you aware of that? (said to Henry) Oh boy.
She told me that our friend, working for us, was trying to buy the Robinson painting. That’s the way you have to work on these things. I think Kim Smith recently got one from California. A wonderful painting. It’s not as if we need any more corn stalks/corn husking paintings, we have plenty, but this is done so well that you really have to have it. I just got it and it will be up here soon.
What do you think about GRAM transferring those two big Alten lunettes to Grand Valley? It was in part because of what you’ve done here.
There was a little problem I had with GRAM, and I’m not going to go into it. Even though I had a problem with them, I kept giving them money every year. There was a time when they thought they owned all my Alten paintings – that I should give them all to GRAM! After the show they had – they had nine of my paintings in it and someone thought I should give them all. Well, don’t you know, I had signed papers beforehand of how many I was going to give them. Gosh, they got over it before I did and we have worked well together ever since. So I think it is wonderful if we can get them to give something like that – the lunettes.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you would like included in your legacy?
I don’t know if my son should be included in some of these things. He’s in Detroit.
He’s a journalist, right?
Yep, he called me up last night so worried about the governor getting beat in the election. He said his television station was hooked up with ABC and they had everything twisted and wrong. They had only 27% of the Republicans showing up and 47% of Democrats showing up. Which made it look pretty bad don’t you know for the governor. Anyway, he would be interested in something like that. I find as he gets older, he’s asked about some of these things. Politics and painting. He’s down to earth in those things. I told Henry, the way he takes care of those kids makes me look like a bum about being a father. He does so many things with those kids. He would be a great one to get involved in having the collection/painting sent someplace (traveling exhibits) he knows an awful lot of people here in Grand Rapids because, heck, he was an anchor here for a long time. One of his best friends when he was here was Matt McLogan. And they are still good friends. So that kind of thing might work out. Other things I’ve had him involved in, he’s likes to make sure things are done right.
Do you have other children?
No. He’s done a good job on other things we’ve done, he makes sure things are done right by me. He started in Big Rapids, went to CMU, then got put right on the TV station, they wore tuxedos, but fixed it so they all wore short pants. He did a lot of reporting in Big Rapids area.
Are there other artists besides Alten that you’d like to speak on?
Have you (Henry) seen the one Marge Potter has? It’s an important one…when I was taking on Merizon, he told me how some are underrated and some are overrated. I can think of one – Redfield? Yeah, anyway, he said it’s in the library in downtown Grand Rapids and you can probably get it for nothing. So I went down there and nobody could find it. Someone had already taken it for nothing. Anyway, Marge Potter has a wonderful one, it’s a Redfield, there are a lot of wonderful paintings out there but I’m not going to get involved with them, I’ve got enough to do.
The different subject matters we have here the Spanish, Dutch etc. Do you have a favorite period?
I think I like the Dutch paintings better than the Spanish. In fact this weekend at Mayflower Congregational Church, I thought about an Alten Spanish painting. The story about it is that I didn’t get it. But I didn’t remember that I didn’t get it – because I can’t remember anything anymore. So anyway, the painting is one of his great Spanish paintings because it wasn’t done over there, it was done at home in Grand Rapids. He did some of his best work when he didn’t have to follow the picture in front of him, but in his memory of it. He could change things any way he wanted to.