Photography by Alise O'Brien
When William Shearburn opened his first gallery in the Central West End in 1992, art dealers operated “on a real simple model: You had a brick-and-mortar gallery. You represented a group of artists that you felt passionate about. You made an announcement card and had an opening…” He laughs, adding, “And you served wine and cheese.”
Then came the Internet—and art fairs. About 15 years ago, Shearburn began shifting his business model, expanding his client base at art fairs around the country. In 2012, he sold his building on McPherson Avenue and closed his public gallery after 20 years. For a short spell, he moved into Jim Schmidt’s former space in Grand Center, then went private.
“But I really did miss having a space,” he says, “and having the ability to organize an exhibition if I wanted to… There is no way to change that experience.”
Architect Phil Durham of Studio|Durham Architects (1856 Menard, 314-664-4575, studiodurham.com), who had designed the gallery space on McPherson Avenue, helped him hunt for a new location. “I think he has a great eye and a great sense of design,” Shearburn says. “We are completely simpatico when it comes to aesthetics.” The gallery owner’s list of wants and needs included a space of about 2,500 square feet, a central location, and high ceilings. One day, Shearburn drove past The Dorchester at 665 Skinker, across from Forest Park, and thought, “What about that place?”
As a Wash. U. student living on DeMun Avenue, he had come here when it was John’s Town Hall, home of the famous Medart burger. (“It was like a Cheers-type place, smoke-filled, lots of regulars, totally old-school St. Louis,” Shearburn remembers.) Though the kitchen remained, the body of the restaurant had been gutted. “I loved it,” Shearburn recalls. “I called Phil, and he came over and loved it.” It had every wish on the list, from the square footage to the location to the 14-foot-high ceilings.
Durham drew up the design, and work commenced last summer. The concrete floors were ground and polished. The floating gallery walls now feature a 5/8-inch reveal at the top and bottom. Shearburn loved the concrete ceilings so much, he left them exposed. But almost everything else is new: windows, doors, heating and air conditioning. The space also came with an unexpected perk: “I didn’t realize there was a garage below,” Shearburn says, “and it’s heated…so they are like radiant floors.” (Another plus is the square of green space just outside his front doors, which he’ll curate as a sort of miniature sculpture garden.)
There were a few challenges along the way, like the concrete support columns that weren’t going anywhere, but Durham hid them expertly behind walls. Now, there are two basic exhibition areas, their outlets and air registers placed with great sleight of hand to make them as subtle as possible. The gallery also has a conference space with a small library; offices; and a back room housing a kitchen and an art-storage area.
The new William Shearburn Gallery (665 S. Skinker, 314-367-8020, shearburngallery.com) had its grand opening in early April, with a group show that included work by the gallerist’s local artists (Sarah Frost and Andrew Milner), out-of-town artists (Mel Bochner and Bernar Venet), and blue-chip secondary-market work, such as pieces by Helen Frankenthaler, Jeff Koons, and Robert Motherwell. Shearburn plans to host shows at least twice or three times a year.
While he’s been away, he says, “St. Louis has changed. There’s a new group of people that don’t know me who I would love to get to know.”