Today we’d like to introduce you to Terry Etherton.
Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I opened Etherton Gallery in the Summer of 1981. I was living in San Francisco prior to moving to Tucson. I would often visit Tucson between film projects I was working on and began to visit the Center for Creative Photography shortly after they opened in 1975. I was sure that CCP was going to be something special. After a particularly difficult film project had ended in 1980, I decided (impulsively!) that I would move to Tucson and open a photography gallery. I discovered a small, 1500 sq. ft. storefront for rent on Sixth St. near Fourth Avenue. Etherton Gallery remained in this location until 1988. When I opened the gallery in 1981, I knew a little about a lot of things that I would need to run a commercial gallery; framing, lighting, graphic design, etc. I had no business background at all. I started the gallery by showing some of the photographers I knew from the Bay Area such as Richard Misrach and Linda Connor. My second show was a 20-year Danny Lyon retrospective exhibition. I knew Danny from years earlier and loved his work. This show was important as it received some national attention and was embraced by the Tucson community. All of these years later, I still work with Danny. One thing that no one told me was about Tucson summers. I quickly realized that summers were very slow and very hot. I decided that if I wanted to meet curators and collectors, I needed to go where they were. This was before cell phones or the internet. For planning my trips, I had The Eastman House Guide to Public Collections of photographs. This was a list of all institutions in the U.S. that had photography collections. It included a list of photographers in each collection and had the phone number of the photography curator. I also had a major league baseball schedule and would try to be in a city showing photographs to the curator while the local major league team was in town. My goal was to see as many curators as I could and to visit as many major league stadiums as possible. These trips would take me from Texas to Florida to New York, Philadelphia, Boston, across the Rust Belt to Chicago, Minneapolis and finally Kansas City, Denver and back to Tucson. I did this for three summers in a row. These trips were important to the survival of the gallery. I managed to sell just enough photographs to pay for the trip. During these early epic trips, I met many museum curators and the few photography dealers who were in business in the early 80’s. In 1985, I was invited to join The Association of International Photography Dealers (AIPAD). This was a very important organization and it allowed me to exhibit at the annual AIPAD photography fairs. Exhibiting at the AIPAD fairs gave me access to all of the important photography dealers in the US and abroad, It allowed me to meet curators and collectors who came to the fair.
Etherton Gallery is still a member of AIPAD and we continue to exhibit at the AIPAD fair in New York. Since the early days of the AIPAD fair we have participated in fairs in Paris, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. The fairs are important for a gallery from a relatively small city. In 1988 the gallery relocated to a historic building in downtown Tucson. The space we occupied was the ballroom for Oddfellows Hall. It was one large, gym like, space on the second floor. We had no elevator but somehow made this work for 33 years. In the summer of 2021, we moved the gallery to a historic neighborhood in downtown Tucson. The new space was originally built in 1987 by a private collector to house and exhibit his collection. The new space is a big improvement from where we were for 33 years. It is in a great historic neighborhood (Barrio Viejo) and is on the ground level. We have an amazing patio where we have live music during our openings. The gallery is wheelchair accessible and has a huge amount of parking. We have now been in the new space for about a year and are very happy to have found the space when we decided to move.
When I am asked about what my gallery is about I often answer that we are primarily a photography gallery who shows mostly post WWII American photography. In addition we show some Latin American photographers and a few European photographers. The gallery also shows other media, mostly by regional artists. Etherton Gallery is known for showing provocative material and we work with some of the greatest photographers working today: Joel-Peter Witkin, Danny Lyon, Graciela Iturbide, Roger Ballen and others. I am very lucky to be able to show work by some of my heroes; Harry Callahan, Emmet Gowin and Frederick Sommer.
Currently, we mount 6 exhibitions per year. These are usually one or two-person shows that remain up for about 2 months.
Now, in our 42nd year in business, we are proud of the legacy that we have created. We plan to remain in business for as long as we can. We are excited that we now have 5 galleries in our block, including our next-door neighbor, Andrew Smith Gallery. Andrew Smith had a big presence in the Santa Fe art scene for over 4 decades. We are thrilled that they are next to us. We are very encouraged to be in a neighborhood which is rapidly becoming a strong arts district.
Etherton Gallery is a bit different than most other galleries in Tucson. Our reach is broad and we are well-known around the world. We attribute this to the fact that we have a strong website and are on several arts platforms such as ArtNet and Artsy.net. This exposes our program to a huge, international audience. This presence and our participation in various art fairs make Etherton Gallery well-known outside of Tucson.
The future looks bright for Etherton Gallery and we are moving ahead with scheduling exhibitions and art fairs years in advance.
I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
No, it has not been a smooth road all of the time. In the early days, we had to figure out how to keep the gallery going from the sales of artwork. This was not always easy. We quickly discovered that no one came to Tucson in the summer and that w had to go to where the curators and collectors were. This involved driving all over the country to show curators and collectors what we had to offer. Again, this was before the internet and cell phones so the only way to see a curator or collector was to go to where they were. We have had some rough patches as I am sure most galleries have. Because we are located in Tucson, we do not pay a huge amount for rent. This fact has been crucial. It has helped us stay in business and has allowed us to use funds for things like the website and art fairs. Covid was a very scary thing for us and many other galleries. We were very fortunate to get funds from the Paycheck Protection Fund. This allowed us to stay in business and to survive Covid. We were also fortunate to receive a grant from The Rio Nuevo District. So, it has not always been a smooth road. I am proud that we have been able to navigate recessions, pandemics and hot weather!
Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I grew up in Carbondale, Illinois. A small town with a university, Southern Illinois University. I was drafted into the U.S. Army in the Summer of 1969, the year I graduated from high school. While in the Army, I discovered photography. I had purchased a camera on the base and had access to a darkroom on the base. This began my love of photography. I was discharged from the Army in the summer of 1971 and began attending SIU. My major was a double major, Cinema and Photography. SIU had then, and still has, a great film and photo department. Upon completing my studies at SIU, I moved to San Francisco and found work in the film industry as a cinematographer. At this time, I completed another BA from The Center for Experimental and Interdisciplinary Art at San Francisco State University. So, I came to the gallery business as a kind of wanna-be artist. I quickly learned that this was not going to be my career. I did have some success with still photography and got my work into some good public collections. I also was able to make a living as a cinematographer for several years. Once I opened my gallery, I quickly realized that my background in art did not make me a good artist So, I opened a gallery and discovered that this was going to be my calling.
What sort of changes are you expecting over the next 5-10 years?
The industry is changing every day. We are now in a situation where the internet is almost everything. We are constantly trying to find new ways to reach potential clients. Currently, our website is the main concern and we are constantly trying to add to it and to make it better. We also subscribe to ArtNet and Artsy.net. These are platforms where we pay to post inventory. Almost every day we add material to these platforms. We are able to reach an international audience through these platforms. Currently, there are about a dozen of these companies. They all offer something different and they are all competing with each other for subscribers. I think that this will continue in the next 5 – 10 years with a likely outcome of fewer of these companies being able to compete. We are all still experiencing issues due to the pandemic. During the pandemic, most art fairs were put on hold. We are now seeing a return by many of these fairs. It is hard to say what will happen in 5 – 10 years. Assuming that the pandemic does not get worse, I would expect to see most art fairs come back. What might slow this down is the rapid increase in costs to participate in an art fair. Shipping has become very expensive and less reliable, Airfare has gone way up and the costs for booths continue to rise. If this trend continues, we might see some art fairs having trouble remaining viable. I think that the next couple of years is going to determine the future of our businesses. A trend that I see now that is of concern is that the auction houses are becoming dealers and are taking business away from galleries like Etherton. This will likely continue. Additionally, some of the platforms such as Artsy.net are moving to become agents for works posted by their subscribers. This is a trend that has a lot of us concerned. We will continue to monitor changes in this part of the business. I guess that one of my biggest concerns is the viability of a brick and mortar business open to the public. We are seeing more and more business being conducted away from our physical location. I can see a situation in 5 – 10 years where brick and mortar galleries decline and more and more business is done on the internet. Not sure how I feel about this……