After 35 years, still a showcase for regional art
09/03/2014 07:10PM ● Published by Lev
By John Chambless
According to conventional wisdom, the Station Gallery shouldn't have lasted 35 years.
In 1979, when Nancy Bercaw opened the doors, she had no business experience, and the gallery was located in a small, nondescript strip shopping center in Greenville, Del. But here she is, still in business and enjoying every minute of it.
From Sept. 5 to 27, the gallery is inviting every artist who has ever shown their work there to be part of a retrospective exhibit. There's an opening for the show on Sept. 5 from 5 to 8 p.m. The roster of exhibitors is a who's-who of the regional art world, including George Martz, Helena van Emmerik-Finn, Jacalyn Beam, Louise Clearfield, Laura Hickman, Mitch Lyons, Terry Anderson and others
During a recent interview, Bercaw and her business partner, Alice Crayton, looked back at the decades they've spent in that little storefront, getting to know generations of loyal customers and artists who have passed through their doors.
Bercaw was an art history major at the University of Delaware, and worked at the Carspecken Scott Gallery in Wilmington for four years, where she learned how to frame artwork. She found out that the brand new shopping center on Route 52 in Greenville had a vacancy and opened the Station Gallery in January 1979, emphasizing framing over original art sales. The building sits next to railroad tracks that cross Route 52, prompting the name.
She almost crossed paths at the time with Crayton, who grew up in Philadelphia and had a great uncle who was a painter. Crayton attended the Moore College of Art and got a degree in art history. "I always thought I'd like to own an art gallery, and figured I needed to know how to frame," she said. "I got a job at a frame shop in Northeast Philadelphia. Then I married a man who was from Wilmington, so I moved here in late 1979.
"I asked my mother-in-law, 'What's the best gallery in town? Where should I work?' and she said, 'Carspecken Scott.'" Crayton worked there for about a year, and came to the Station Gallery in 1981, when it had been open for three years.
"She was our first employee," said Bercaw, whose original business partner at the Station Gallery sold her share of the business to Bercaw in 1981. In 1990, Crayton and Bercaw became partners in the business and have been the owners ever since.
They once thought about moving down the road in the 1990s, but decided against it. "In retrospect, it's just fine the way it is," Bercaw said.
"It's tight in here, but it works," Crayton added.
Both women laughed when estimating how many times someone has come in and told them, "I've been driving by for years but never stopped in." The relative invisibility of the gallery has been overcome by word-of-mouth advertising that has created two generations of customers. People who discovered the gallery in the early 1980s have brought their children to the Station Gallery as well.
"We are so fortunate to be in the location that we're in, and to have very supportive customers," Bercaw said.
Over the years, the framing has been a large part of the business, but art sales have steadily increased. Fine crafts and jewelry by regional artisans also proved to be steady sellers. The ups and downs of the economy have been smoothed by steady support of some well-to-do customers, although Bercaw admitted that the recent recession did strongly impact places that sell artwork. The first things people cut back on when the economy stumbles are non-essentials like art.
With the recent rebound, however, the gallery is busier than ever. As Bercaw flipped through a scrapbook, she pointed out the first postcard the gallery produced, for their debut show by artist Mitch Lyons. "I didn't know Mitch, but I live in New London, as he does, so I picked up the phone and told him I was opening a gallery and asked if he'd like to be our first artist," Bercaw said. The black-and-white illustration is little more than a smudge, and Bercaw laughed at how limited the early promotional efforts were.
Over the years, hundreds of artists have come and gone, and the gallery repeats solo shows every two or three years for some of them. Elizabeth Borne came to the gallery decades ago and has been a longtime favorite. "She was an artist from Philadelphia. We found her through one of our customers, who brought a piece of hers in to be framed," Crayton said. "We just loved her work and showed it for many, many years. She's in her 80s now."
Other favorite artists at the gallery include Laura Hickman, Louise Clearfield, Michele Green, Bill Renzulli and Emily Bissell Laird.
Laird was one of the artists who walked in off the street.
"She came by on the day after Thanksgiving," Crayton recalled. "She had these crazy, wild, bright paintings. We never say, 'OK, we'll give you a show.' For some reason, we said 'OK.' Then we thought, 'Who is ever going to buy these crazy blue and orange things?' Then, of course, it was a hugely successful show."
The gallery's open-door policy continues, and both Bercaw and Crayton have developed a keen eye for talent.
"You know as soon as they come in and show their work whether it's something that you could sell," Crayton said. "It's either knocking my socks off, or we suggest maybe they try the Brandywine Arts Festival or something like that. It's so hard sometimes. But when it's really nice work, we just know.
"And sometimes we just can't say no to people," she added. "We have taken pieces that sit in the back room. But when people come in, looking for art, we will pull out anything to show them."
On the other hand, there are artists that both women love, and their sales don't match. "We have a few artists what we can't figure out why their things don't sell," Bercaw said. "But it's still amazing how many people do appreciate and buy original art," she added.
At home, both women have art collections that reflect the gallery's stable of artists, including originals by Lyons, Borne, Clearfield and Hickman. They agree that once someone takes the plunge and buys an original artwork, it's addictive. Putting up a print just doesn't compare.
The Station Gallery has been part of the Art Loop in Wilmington since it began. Back in the early days, the loop didn't come out as far as Greenville, "so we took things downtown, and set up at different places," Crayton said. "We set up in a liquor store, at the Delaware Theatre Company, wherever we could."
Having marked 35 years at the same location, Crayton and Bercaw still enjoy what they do every day. Their grown children have their own careers, however, and aren't interested in taking over the gallery.
"Maybe someone will come along and buy it," Bercaw said. "That would be nice. But we don't have any plans to retire," she said with a wry grin. "Whatever retirement is."
For more information and a schedule of upcoming exhibits, visit www.stationgallery.net.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .