The Business of Art
Greg Thompson celebrates 20 years of bringing fine art to walls around Arkansas and beyond
To walk through the 20th anniversary exhibition at Greg Thompson Fine Art is both to stroll through the landscape of Southern art and to trace the trajectory of Thompson’s travels through it. Behind the reception desk in the middle of the gallery is an iconic monkey portrait by Donald Roller Wilson, one of Thompson’s original crew of artists. Around the corner, along a wall leading to the private viewing area in the back of the gallery, there is a painting by William Dunlap, a Mississippi artist whose wall-size painting in the foyer of the Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood caught Thompson’s attention during a stay there. And back by the top of the stairs is a brightly colored, mysterious portrait by John Harlan Norris, an art professor at Arkansas State University whose work Thompson first encountered at the Thea Foundation headquarters just down the street.
Thompson’s own trajectory through the arts is a long-reaching boomerang. It started in the halls and classrooms of the Arkansas Arts Center, which was like a second home to him from the age of 7. From there, it spun out to Hendrix College, where Thompson earned a degree in art, and then overseas to the great museums and cathedrals across Europe. It stalled for a couple of years in a frustrating, yet ultimately educational, stint as a graphic designer before finally circling back to this bright, airy space on the second floor of a historic building in downtown North Little Rock, just across the river from where it all started.
In the 20 years since Thompson went into business as an art dealer, he’s built a reputation as one of the premier gallery owners in the South. His Main Street gallery is an anchor of the Argenta Arts District—a can’t-miss stop for anyone interested in viewing and, of course, buying works from top-tier Southern artists. Thompson sat down with us recently in his spacious office—under the watchful eye of lipstick-sporting, dress-wearing piggy bank in Edward Rice’s oversized Icon, which hangs behind his desk—to talk about art, business and the future.
What was that initial spark that drew you into the arts?
I first went to the Arkansas Arts Center when I was 7 and was on a first-name basis with Townsend Wolfe when I was 8. He was a big mentor. I took classes at the Museum School there, and walking around the halls of the center was kind of like church to me. I was moved and inspired, and even though I didn’t know it at the time—and kids know it better than anybody—I found a connection with the divine there. That’s always been with me, deep in the marrow of my bones. I excelled in art classes at Central [High School] and won awards, but when it was time to get really serious about life and a career path, I’ll never forget—it was one of those kitchen-table conversations with my father. I said, “Dad, I’m going to major in art.” My dad’s a corporate lawyer, very pragmatic, a man of few words, the quintessential Southern gentleman. He said, “Well, son, do you think you can make any money in that?” And I said, “Yeah, I think I can.” And that was the beginning and the end of that.
You spent a year in Europe after you graduated from college. What role did that play in shaping your career?
I had this professor at Hendrix named Don Marr, and I loved the way he lectured. It was a great philosophy on life. He’d always say, “Now this is the Mona Lisa, and when you go to Paris and go to the Louvre, you’ll probably be amazed at how small it is.” He really made it concrete, and he made it personal, and even more important, he planted the seed. It wasn’t if I was going to go see the Mona Lisa, it was when. So when I graduated from college, my parents asked, “What do you want as a graduation present?” I said, “I want a ticket to Europe, open-ended for a year.” I saw everything I had studied. I saw the Mona Lisa. I went to the Hagia Sophia. I went to Ghent and saw the altarpiece. It was a wonderful experience. I’ll never forget being in the Musee d’Orsay, where they put all the Impressionist paintings from the Louvre. I would walk around the corner and, wow, there it was! There was Luncheon on the Grass by Manet. And I was just going, wow! Look at that! Then we’d go upstairs, and there was Cezanne’s Bathers and Degas. I think it shaped who I am today.
Your first job in the arts was working as a graphic artist for a building company. How did that set the stage for you to start your art brokerage firm 20 years ago?
They’d gone to a seminar one week about sales, and I had to take 12 hours’ worth of video from this seminar and condense it down to an hour. So I watched this video over and over, and I had all the key points: how to qualify clients, how to pitch a product, how to create value, how to always put the client first. The value of a relationship. And more importantly, I would watch these metal-building salesmen, and they’d get $1,000, $2,000 checks a week compared to my $300 graphic-artist check. After 2 1/2 years, they gave me a raise—of a quarter. I made the decision on the spot. I was going to open up my own business.
So I went down to the Arkansas Artist Registry and met Caroline Brown and said, “Caroline, I’m going to open up an art brokerage company. Can you show me all the artists in the state of Arkansas?” Out of 200 artists, I culled it down to 12 that I thought were exceptionally talented. I called those artists and said, “I’m opening up an art brokerage company.” They said, “What’s that?” “I’m going to sell your art. You interested?” Every single one of them said yes. I signed up about 10. I had my first show in my apartment in Hillcrest in 1995. I invited all my parents’ friends—doctors, lawyers, real estate agents. I sold two pieces of art that night, and I made more money than I did in an entire month as a graphic artist, and I knew I could quit my day job.
Why didn’t you open a gallery at that point?
I was like Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s brother. In Europe, there’s a lot of people that show artwork out of their home. I was really a private dealership. I picked about five more artists, so I had about 15, and they were the cream of the crop in Arkansas: Roller Wilson, Barry Thomas, Al Allen, Alice Andrews, George Dombek. I threw up a website because that was just about getting started after about two or three years in the business. So people could go online and look at art, and I would bring it to their home or office. The first year, I think I sold a quarter-million dollars’ worth of art. And then it became a business goal just to double my revenue every year. I hit the million-dollar mark, and I did that out of my apartment. But what I was doing was, I was building a client base. I was building a reputation, hopefully a good one. I was learning the craft of being an art dealer. And I was happy as a clam.
You’re one of the flagship members of the Argenta Arts District. What attracted you to this area back in 2008, after more than a decade of working from home?
My business was growing in a way that it made sense at that point for me to have a brick-and-mortar presence. John Gaudin, who owns a lot of real estate and does a lot of development here in Argenta, was doing some business with my then-wife, and she said, “You really need to go talk to John.” He showed me kind of the grand plan for Argenta. John and the Argenta Downtown Council had a very strong mission of turning this into a viable arts district, and they have. I’m really glad we got in on the ground floor of things.
How has the landscape of fine art, the business part of it, changed in 20 years?
The Internet. The Internet is our revolution. That computer, within the past 15 years, has revolutionized the way we communicate, the way we do business, everything. There’s no way on God’s Earth that I could run a business as successful as this one is without the Internet. Here’s a lead from somebody from Mississippi who wants to look at a $20,000 painting. I’ll call this person this morning. There’s a 50/50 chance I’m going to sell this painting to this individual, and I may never look him in the face. He’ll send us a check for five figures, we’ll FedEx him the painting, and we’ll maybe develop a client relationship that might last for years, which would have never happened if it hadn’t been for the Internet.
Your 20th anniversary exhibition features artists you’ve worked with or represented over your career. Can you talk us through the exhibition, about some of these artists and how you came to work with them?
These are all top-tier artists, not only in Arkansas and the South but the entire country. Almost all the artists we carry have works in a museum collection. We kind of used that as a litmus test early on, just as a way to kind of qualify the artist and give value to our clients. We first used the Arkansas Arts Center as that litmus test, and then it became, what other collections are they in? We deal all over the U.S., so if I’m talking to someone in Chicago or New York or Dallas about Carroll Cloar, and they’re interested, but they really want some assurance that if they ever wanted to sell it, they would be protected before they plop down $40,000 or $50,000 on a painting—the fact that the artist is in major museums is a very determining factor in that.
This is Roller Wilson, the guy doing the monkeys. We’ve sold his work for 20 years. I love his work. He paints like a Dutch master, with all the precision of a watchmaker, only it’s a monkey with a watermelon on its head.
I discovered John Norris at the Thea Foundation about a year ago. I saw his work and thought, wow, who the hell is that? He does these incredible portraits of people. It’s really about the human experience, that we are what we do. He kind of wraps his figures in elements of what they do. More than that, I think he’s just one hell of a painter. His use of color, there’s a sense of mystery, a what the hell is going on? We love that.
Glennray Tutor is a very important artist from Oxford, Mississippi. The CEO of Nike commissioned three or four pieces from Tutor, and he’s been in the Oxford American half a dozen times. He’s one hell of a realist painter.
Kendall Stallings is another artist we found through the Arkansas Arts Center. He won the Grand Award at the Delta Exhibition about eight years ago. He called one day and said, “My gallery is closing, my name is Kendall Stallings, will you take a look at my work?” I said, “Are you in any museum collections?” He said, “No, but I was in the Delta show and won the Grand Award,” and I said, “Come on down!”
Bill Dunlap is a very important artist in Mississippi. We discovered him when we went to the Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood. He’s got a huge painting in the foyer. I saw it and said, “We’ve got to pick this guy up.” He’s a very versatile artist. He’s in the Metropolitan, he’s in the Smithsonian, he’s in the Corcoran, and he’s a total kick in the pants. This is a series he did called Brand Loyalty. It’s all about the Civil War and fashion, the remnants of the war we all carry in our minds as Southerners.
We discovered Joseph Piccollo through the Arkansas Arts Center. We picked him up about 12 years ago, and we sell about one a month. We sell them to people in Dallas, New York and Chicago. We sold one yesterday to someone in Fort Worth.
Has selling art affected how you view art as a person? Do you look at it with a more commercial eye now?
It depends on which hat I’m wearing. They kind of bleed into each other. When I go to a museum like Crystal Bridges, I’ll be moved in such a way that money doesn’t enter into it. When I’m standing in front of Jackson Pollock, and he only did maybe 50 of that size—that’s a spiritual, visceral experience. Then in the same breath after I’m moved by it, I think, wow, who did they get that from? I wonder how much that cost. I can sell one of those. I bet they paid X amount of dollars for that. I wonder if that went through auction …
How did you come to specialize in Southern art and modern art?
It was a natural extension, and it was a strategic decision, too. It’s better to be the big fish in the pond than the jack-of-all-trades. It made good business sense on a lot of different levels. There’s a lot of talent in the state that needed to be showcased and sold that really wasn’t being sold anywhere else. We also had a lot of very successful businesses here in Arkansas who wanted local art for their walls, and we were the go-to person for that art.
With modern art, it was really kind of a business thing, too. It takes a village. So we sell a Sammy Peters painting for $10,000, and that’s great. It’s good for Sammy, it’s good for Arkansas, it’s good for us, it’s good for our client. We also sell Matisses for a quarter-million or half-million dollars—which is good for us, good for the client, and I just like it. I like getting a Matisse in here and holding it in my hot little hands. It’s a thrill. And it’s a good day at the office when you sell a Matisse.