Virginia Barrett has an eye for a good painting and a considerable track record for selling fine art. In her backcountry gallery, over the years she has had works by artists whose paintings have hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She's a no-nonsense art dealer in the business of selling fine art - and not glamour. Her Fine Arts Gallery is located in the Banksville shopping center on North Street, far from upscale Greenwich Avenue.
"I chose a gallery with good light and space that is not too expensive so my customers can buy American artists' work at affordable prices," says Barrett. And she spends little on advertising. "I get it from newspapers and magazines because I make news. I do shows twice a year, this year in late June instead of late May as I'm busy with new patrons - and another show in November."
Barrett is of diminutive size with a large body of art-selling experience. Her halo of white hair bespeaks a life long lived. "I opened my first gallery in Chappaqua, N.Y. in 1964," she says. "I love to take chaos and turn it into something beautiful."
In her sunny gallery she stands before an arresting watercolor by artist Serge Hollerbach called "Beach at Night" with a sales tag of $6,000. "It's an aqueous-based acrylic. Hollerbach is a minimalist."
Most galleries, says Barrett, specialize in either figurative or objective art. "I have no limit in media or style as long as the artist has the tools of the trade. He has to know how to use his media and the media has to be top grade to last. No one is telling them how to paint. Their work has to visually communicate."
Barrett embraced the art business after her second son entered first grade. "My job was taken away from me," she says. "All of my friends were chasing balls - tennis, golf, bowling balls. I was allergic to horses. So what can I do with what I have? I went to the Metropolitan (Museum) every Saturday from the age of 14. I grew up in Manhattan. I lived on Central Park West. My grandfather was one of the founders of the Denver Museum. I had an art background. I went to the Traphagen School of Design. I did interior design."
"I have only originals," she says. "I do not have reproductions. I don't like them. I only have American art - no European art. Most of my artists are in "Who's Who in America." I have about 100 paintings. Eventually, I sell everything in this gallery."
Barrett's no-nonsense art selling approach extends to her lectures on the subject. "I lecture on how not to be taken in the arts. My lectures are fun. I did one for the Greenwich Women's Club that was a huge success. I teach on how to read the profile of an artist, how to differentiate between a print and an original. People don't know how to trust their own taste. You don't have to listen to anyone else. Fall in love with a painting and know where you want to put it. A painting lives forever. It's a beautiful thing."
She also offers tips on framing and placing a painting as well. "You never want to overpower the painting. I help the patron place the painting. You need to know where to stand. Broad stroke brushwork needs a distance to view it. In the dining room you don't want them too high as you are sitting down."
She has a cardinal rule for her artists. "I will not have my customers going directly to an artist to cut me out of my percentage. The first time they do that they're out of here. I'm paying their light, their heat, the rent, my expertise and my time. I pay their overhead."
"If I make a sale for $22,000," she says, "I only get half of that." Her highest prices, she says, are in the $40-50,000 range.
Barrett can tell stories about big names in the art world. "I've met Huntington Hartford and Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali," she says. She met Dali at the opening of the former Huntington Hartford Museum in New York in the 1970s-1980s. "Dali motioned me to him. `Oh darling, come sit with me,' he said, `Talk with me.'"
"What are you working on?" Barrett asked him. Dali told her, "I'm going to paint an orgasm - all art is a release of spiritual energy."
Barrett has her own risqué reputation. "I had the first nude (paintings) show in Greenwich," she says. When she had her gallery in Chappaqua she won acclaim by Westchester Magazine as the best art gallery in Westchester County.
She's gearing up now for her June show. She'll be at the ready to help her artists hang their art, she says. "But I'm an undecorator. I have no phony lights. An original piece of art will transform a room with a decorative atmosphere to one that has dignity. The art takes you there."