August 21, 2014

Culture Watch

Big Deal 

How did art dealer J. William Meek III create a gallery with 48 seasons and become the unofficial dean of the downtown Naples art scene? From a third-floor eyrie in Naples’ TIB Bank Center, he and wife Barbara do more than offer kid-glove treatment at invitational openings with hors d’oeuvres, cocktails and valet parking.

Meek started as a college junior at the Harmon Gallery in summer 1964. Six years later at 28, he bought out his employer, forming the Harmon-Meek Gallery. Ten days later, the Meeks, former college sweethearts, welcomed the first of two daughters and had to tighten belts for a while.

Now 60, Meek has a savvy reputation for selling nationally known artists. He recently gave egg tempera master Robert Vickrey, 84, his 31st annual show. Meek, as he has at the Naples Art Association, will guest-curate a Vickrey show at the Boca Raton Museum of Art April 26 through June 19.

Meek, also devoted to New York artist Will Barnet, celebrated Barnet’s 100th birthday last month with a Naples show and once had a special weekend that featured Barnet’s work exclusively in his former Fifth Avenue South gallery. He invited collectors to dinner at his home and realized $500,000 in sales. He sold the gallery before the recession for $2.6 million to launch his current location.

"I look at people and how they look at art," he says. "I can tell who’s informed. Galleries attract clients who like what they offer." He recalls when Naples had only two fine galleries, his and Marianne Friedland’s. "Now there are many. No one comes to town just to see one."

Selling art isn’t easy. "A woman was buying a painting to remind her of Naples," he recalls. "A man rushed in, saying the Challenger had exploded. She closed her checkbook. ‘I wouldn’t want a reminder of this day,’ she said. I never saw her again."

He deplores buying art for investment. "I urge people to buy what they love. I do advise artists to raise prices, but suggest when not to. I have 100 reasons for not buying art: including when the decorator, kids or spouse don’t like it. People didn’t ask for a discount years ago. We still don’t price up to price down."

Meek will earn a master’s degree in museum studies from Johns Hopkins University May 27. He says it will help him with museums, but he has already loaned 300 exhibitions.

In the time to come, however, the local art market may turn away from museums and galleries. "Art fairs may determine Naples’ future, if European dealers decide to set up here," Meek says. "There is a lot of space on Third Street South and Fifth Avenue South. We’ll see if it happens."

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