Galleries vs. museums change viewing perspective on masters

Galerie St. Etienne.

One of my favorite galleries in New York — actually, anywhere — is Galerie St. Etienne. Located on the 8th floor of the art building on 57th Street, GSE specializes in fin-de-siecle Expressionism. Most importantly, it is a leading research hub for the Austrian Egon Schiele, one of my top-5 favorite artists.

I have visited the gallery on almost every trip to the Big Apple for at least 10 years since I first went for a Schiele exhibition.

To say it is a small gallery is an understatement. My doctor’s waiting room is much larger. One has to go up in an elevator and walk down a narrow hallway past the workout studio to a nondescript door. Push the button and wait until the door buzzes unlocked. Then step into a world of wonder.

An Egon Schiele self portrait.

The shows are of a consistently high quality. I have seen works, especially drawings, by Schiele, Kokoschka, Klimt, Modersohn-Becker and multiple German Expressionists.

The intimacy of the gallery means I am often alone, and I can get as close to the work as I want. I get to really examine the craftsmanship — the beautiful line work, the brush strokes, even the paper.


But there is another aspect that affects my relationship with the work. The first time I went, as I wandered around. I noticed that several of the labels had a small, round, red sticker attached to them. As any artist knows, that means it is sold.

But this was a Schiele. One doesn’t simply stroll down to the gallery and buy a Schiele, or a Klimt. Of course, I have been in many galleries where contemporary work is for sale (mostly out of my price range so it never really registers). But these are famous artists, the kind that are only found in museums.

It’s not like visiting a local art show where the prices are on the label. I had to ask Courtney, who is behind the desk and is always willing to chat about the work, how much one particular Schiele drawing cost. I felt I should tell her I had no intention of buying it and I was just curious — although it should have been obvious from looking at me. I think she said it was $475,000. I joked that I was only $474,900 short.

But someone had seen it, decided they wanted it, and written a check or swiped a card for the privilege of owning it. Technically, it could have been me. And that realization changed the way I interacted with the work.

Another view of Galerie St. Etienne.

When one tours a museum, one is automatically detached from the work in a way. These are pieces that have been selected for their cultural value. One is supposed to look at them with a degree of reverence, of awe. There is value to that, and I am certainly not immune to traveling to genuflect before great art like a pilgrim to a religious shrine.

But Galerie St. Etienne offers a different experience. It’s a shop. I can look at the work in the same way I look at the monthly art shows at The Art Studio, where I am a tenant, or the Art League, or any of the small galleries that can be found in many towns.

So now I play a game every time I go. I approach the art with the intention of buying. I am here to see which piece speaks to me, which one I want on my wall. The art is not just an unattainable and elusive object of worship.

And then I don’t buy it, because, obviously, I can’t afford it.

But I could if I had the money. Now where’s that Powerball ticket?


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