By Marisol Miller Richa ’23
Despite the heat, halley harrisburg (whose name is intentionally uncapitalized) spent the summers of the 1970s biking with her mother through Westbrook College's hilly campus. There, in a small campus gallery, hung one of the most valuable paintings in the world: Irises by Van Gogh.
Through the building’s glass doors, harrisburg peered, admiring this painting. Every time she and her mother passed the it, the two would peer through the glass doors, captivated by the masterpiece. Thus, an admiration of art was born. But it wasn’t then, gazing upon a Van Gogh masterpiece, that harrisburg knew she wanted to work in art. Rather, it was an East Asian art history class at Bowdoin College, her alma mater.
“It was the first time my entire world made sense to me,” says harrisburg, describing how everything came together for her while watching a PowerPoint flash with image after image of not just art, but architecture and utilitarian objects.
Harrisburg quickly fell in love with art, though not for making it. While creative in nature, harrisburg states: “I would never call myself an artist.” In 1990 harrisburg graduated from Bowdoin with a major in art history and just sixty days later started work at the Josh Baer gallery.
A leading gallery in the 90s, this was a tremendous opportunity to dip her toe in the gallery world as a receptionist “or, as my boss would call me, a rejectionist.” Harrisburg quips, knowing that her early days in the gallery world were spent, politely, declining the advances of artists.
Soon, harrisburg found that although she loved art, she “felt hollow at the end of the day dealing in contemporary art.” While beautiful, contemporary art for harrisburg was not fulfilling.
“I started to become quite disillusioned by the contemporary art world and why people collected.” For harrisburg, the Josh Baer Gallery was not collecting art out of passion, but for the prestige of an expensive work or the promise of making money from the growing business.
In fact, this was the time that she wanted to leave the commercial art world and find refuge in a different line of work. Even so, she expressed concerns about leaving. “I had no backup plan: I was there to work in the gallery world.”
It was harder to find her second job then her first, and harrisburg admits that “the art world at the time felt even more insular.” In fact, it was through a friend at the Jewish Museum that she found her next job at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.
But the process was not so simple. Michael Rosenfeld, the gallery’s owner, was not looking for a new employee at the time, so their so-called interview was just a conversation. Even so, “Michael never followed ‘the signature’ but was only chasing quality.” Harrisburg explained. She knew that she was meant to work there.
“You didn’t ask about my love life, but it all comes together as one.” Laughs harrisburg as she recounts the story of how she and Rosenfeld started dating.
Six months into the relationship, harrisburg was still at the Josh Baer gallery searching for a new job when the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery found itself staffless. Rosenfeld’s assistant had suddenly quit right before a business trip, leaving the gallery closed until he could find another employee.
So, halley harrisburg stepped in and soon found she loved the job. A few weeks later when Rosenfeld came back, they started to explore the possibility of working together.
“We all know now how that story ended,” says harrisburg, remarking on their 26 years of marriage and 28 years of work together.
Harrisburg is now the director of the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery and has had the opportunity to grow professionally alongside it.
“It was really just growing organically with the staff around you,” says harrisburg about the leap from assistant to director, which occurred as the gallery’s staff grew from two to fourteen.
Fourteen people is small for a gallery of their size so each person is totally necessary to run the gallery smoothly. Some of the staff members are cross-trained, like harrisburg herself, who not only directs, but also co-curates and writes exhibition catalogs.
Not long after harrisburg joined the gallery, it became known for highlighting artists whose identities have hindered their ability to make a name for themselves, mostly due to the lack of inclusivity in the commercial art world. When harrisburg first entered the gallery world in the 1990s, many artists of color or female artists weren’t popular with collectors because of their social-identifiers. Rosenfeld and harrisburg are specifically interested in art from the early twentieth century made by artists excluded from other groups, and in reducing the discrimination and elitism present in so much of the art world.
According to harrisburg, it was not the intention of the gallery to specifically feature these artists because of their identities. “We were looking at great American artists. Race and gender did not factor into what we thought was great.” They both pick pieces that speak to them and that, at the end of the day, they are proud to own. “It was an attraction to the quality and what they had to say.”
Because of this work, perhaps their greatest contribution to the art world is “raising the profile [advertising, promoting] and doing the research and the work for the historical African American artists,” an honorable accomplishment.
Though harrisburg traces her artistic beginnings to her youth, she chose to follow this path in college and didn’t decide to join the gallery world until she graduated. Even then, finding her way was not easy.
Often overlooked, the gallery world holds a prominent place in our society as a direct and personal connection to artists and their art. We take for granted the opportunity to visit small spaces curated to more niche genres and artists.
As harrisburg so wisely states, “There are so many ways to exist in our world that are at first not obvious.”