10 Questions with gallery owner Michael McCormick

McCormick has carved a niche in Taos by taking a hard look at what sells, what doesn’t and what fits

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If you’ve been in Taos for any length of time and brushed up against the local art scene, more than likely you’ve run into or at least heard about Michael McCormick. If you haven’t you should.

McCormick has carved a niche in Taos by taking a hard look at what sells, what doesn’t and how it fits into an ever-changing market. That may be a little too pragmatic for some who believe art should sell itself as the result of its integrity and vision, but the art gallery business is not easy. Often it’s a difficult balance between intellectual aesthetics and hard-core marketing, and those who understand that balance are the ones who manage to keep their heads above water. That, and having a well-honed sense of humor.

McCormick, as you’ll read below, is sharp and also knows the value of connections, having weathered a difficult recession that saw a number of well-known galleries shut their doors here. It takes sales, of course, but also a lot of support from family and friends, something that he no doubt appreciated during some deeply painful personal trials over the last few years.

How does he do it all? Here are some of his answers …

1. How did you get into the business of art?

Michael McCormick: I’ve always been a great salesman. In Fremont, Mich., where I was raised — my mother was the nutritionist and director of professional communications for the Gerber Baby Company, a wonderful family-owned business — we lived in this big house right on the corner situated between three large churches. On Sunday mornings I’d set up a little store selling lemonade and other precious little artifacts I’d collected during my arduous six years of self-endowed entrepreneurship. A lot of these tidbits were artsy postcards and posters acquired on one of our family “art gallery” junkets to Washington D.C.

Our mother made sure that we (my older angel sister Shelley) were raised in an environment of art and culture. I had a really good thing going until one Easter Sunday I nailed to the front door of each church a “discount flyer.” That ended the “Mike’s Street Corner Market” business.

After completing my post grad work in London, I met a young Mexican beauty whose aunt was the publishing partner of my then-favorite poet Octavio Paz (Nobel Prize winner) soon to become a very dear friend. For the next eight years I commuted between Michigan and Mexico City, always stopping off in Taos at the suggestion of a lifelong friend and superb artist, Jack Smith. In Mexico I finagled my way into working in some galleries and museums and ironically for the CIA.

I would bring stuff back from Mexico to finance my trips enabling me to spend more time in Taos, meet artists and their portfolios which I stuck into my briefcase called “Gallery Without Walls.” While In Mexico I attended La Universidad Nacional Autonimous de Mexio or La Escuela Para Los Extranjeros (The School for Strangers). Met my wife Yumiko who was from Japan, went to Japan and got married and moved back to Taos permanently.

I had met Feeny Lipscomb one of the owners of the newly obtained Taos Inn the night before I left, and returned Christmas Eve to find a note asking me to work starting that very moment. Met Ed Morgan and Bryan Steger and created “Bryan’s Gallery.” I believe my first landing was fall of 1974. I learned a tremendous amount of experience from Bryan about the “business” side of running a business. We separated and I began the Michael McCormick Gallery sometime around ‘83 or ‘84. I’ve now been ensconced in the old J.C. Penny building for about 20 years. People remember my office as being in the old woman’s lingerie section.

2. What are some of the biggest challenges to the art businesses in Taos today?

McCormick: Too many people who want to be artists trying to make what they think is art. Smaller, crafty, saleable stuff. Tourists wanting to take home “a piece of The Mountain” as (former Taos art dealer) Burke Armstrong called it! Help from the state, county and especially the town.

3. To what do you attribute your gallery’s longevity?

McCormick: I’ve had a great deal of support, financially and emotionally, from some good customers who became good clients and then collectors. And, then they stopped buying, but kept giving me support. Lynn Lightner from Kansas is a great example. He has supported this town’s art galleries and nonprofit groups for decades. Plus, great art, a great location and great attitude. Can’t begin to tell you how many people come up from Santa Fe and exhale about how much “friendlier” Taos is.

4. With regard to your career as an art businessman, if there was one thing you could go back in time to change what would it be?

McCormick: Nothing. It’s all been a wonderful experience, Good and bad!

5. Not long ago you made a slight name change to your gallery, now identifying it as “and sons.” What went into that?

McCormick: Just an evolution

6. What does the annual Taos Fall Arts Festival mean to you besides the potential for sales?

McCormick: An annual getting together of old friends and clients.

7. Who are some of the most influential people in your life or work and why?

McCormick: Whew! My family. Dan Gerber. Octavio Paz. My mother. My sister. Gunter Grass. Lucien Freud. Ezra Pound. Diego Riviera’s family. Bill Richardson. Larry Schreiber. I tutored the mistress of the Mexican President in “Conversational English” and picked up a lot of inside government policy. I did some work for the CIA and met an unnamed gentleman who took me into his confidence. Michael Hamburger. Dick Hugo.

I learned how to finish a joint without burning my fingers from Allen Ginsberg and then met up with him and Burroughs someplace in North Africa for quite a “quintessential” journey. This was a somewhat “cloudy” period of my life! Bob Watkins and Kobun Chino Otogawa Sensei set me on the Path of Buddha’s Way. Peter Huchel. Bill Clinton. W.H. Auden. Stephen Spender. R.C. Gorman gave me a lot of support. A lot! It’s a pretty lenghthy list. I’ve been blessed!

8. Every gallery tries to focus on a particular niche for its marketing; what’s yours?

McCormick: Demographics: 28 to 52 years old. I give a lot of art away to young parents with kids, kind of to get them “started” on an art collection at an early age. It’s kind of the refrigerator magnet gimmick. You’ll never forget something you see everyday. The image becomes imbedded in your sensorium! When I first went in to cahoots with Bryan and Martha Steger and Ed Morgan, I wanted to have a slick, modern, contemporary gallery. Then, I quickly made a compromise with Bill Rane and Michio Takayama, learning that people really do come here to live out a fantasy of being an Indian, cowboy, frontier artist and a piece of The Mountain!

9. What do you think art collectors are looking for when they come to Taos today?

McCormick: Since most are actually thingamajig tourists, they pick up thingamajigs. The few real art collectors seem to fix on a certain artist (or group) and follow them in their careers.

10. What interests or hobbies do you have that most people might not know about?

McCormick: Poetry

Michael McCormick was born and raised in America’s heartland. He attended school in a small agrarian community in Michigan before receiving his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Montana where he studied literature and art history. From there he went to England, following his dream of becoming a poet before heading to Mexico City where he worked for the United Nations Security Council and, briefly, for the CIA. His clandestine involvement with an underground South American political movement is another chapter in the book of his life.

McCormick’s episodic life has brought him into contact with many famous and infamous people. While relating his stories he’ll frequently drop names like Octavio Paz, W H Auden, Michael Hamburger, Gunther Grass, Dennis Hopper and Bill Clinton as if they lived next door. To some it may seem implausible, but for those who know him its simply the world in which he’s always traveled.

— Bio courtesy of Lynn Robinson

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