Arresting Images

Neal Guma Fine Art opens in Charlottesville. 

The Charlottesville art scene got a whole lot more interesting with the addition last spring of Neal Guma Fine Art, a gallery focusing on photography. 

“I have a love of anything that’s made artistically, whether it’s a drawing, painting or sculpture,” says its 47-year-old proprietor Guma. “But, I have to say, I think the most interesting work being done today is being done by photographers.”

Guma’s first show featured the work of Robert Polidori, Markus Brunetti, John Chiara, William Eggleston and Lois Conner. “Those images were under $20,000, but they’re world class. You can’t do that in any other media,” says Guma. This was followed by the work of acclaimed Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide during LOOK3, Charlottesville’s renowned photography festival. “To get Graciela’s show was very, very special. This group of images explores two themes: nature and construction and nature and healing. She’s a real modernist, but because she grew up in Mexico City, she absorbed a lot of surreal influences, and it’s a beautiful combination.” 

Unlike most galleries, Guma’s does not represent artists—this is partly because he doesn’t have the space to maintain inventory, but it is also a personal preference. He operates more like a curator, acquiring and selling work that appeals to him, or working with other galleries to put on solo shows of artists he favors.

Pleasant and cultivated, Guma was born in New Orleans but moved with his family to tony Westchester County, New York, when he was in high school. Well positioned to take advantage of the wealth of art opportunities in the city, he took classes at the Metropolitan Museum and explored galleries on the Upper East Side. “Just to be able to walk around those blocks where you had Knoedler, Berry Hill and Hirschl & Adler when you were a kid was just the best education—not just education—it was a beautiful way to spend a Saturday,” he recalls. “I remember paintings I saw at those galleries still.”

Guma worked in several top-notch New York galleries (including an internship at the John Good gallery in Soho while a student at Bennington College) prior to his move to Charlottesville in 1997 when he and his partner, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Donna Tartt, purchased a farm an hour south of town.

Guma continued collecting and dealing privately, traveling between Virginia, New York, San Francisco and London, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that he ventured again into the more public art world when he opened his Charlottesville gallery. 

Part of the motivation was the availability of the perfect space. Housed in a small building at 105 Third St. NE next to what was the segregated entrance of the Paramount Theater, the 400-square-foot gallery features a large plate glass window looking out onto the street and one high-ceilinged room. With honey-colored wood floors, white and brick walls, and high ceilings, the spare light-filled space is the perfect setting to showcase great works of art and the eye of this true connoisseur. 

There, in Guma’s office, is a photograph of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Loan, France, by German photographer Markus Brunetti. He and his partner, Betty Schoener, spent 10 years traveling around Western Europe photographing sacred structures in multiple sections, which Schoener then painstakingly assembled to form a composite. “The image is printed on watercolor paper. It’s got a flatness to it even though it feels nearly three dimensional in areas,” says Guma. “It gives it this beautiful—painterly is the only word—quality. Visually, it’s arresting, it stops you, the more you look, the more you’re drawn in; that’s very rare.” 

It’s this kind of striking work that Guma wants to find and share with not only paying clients, but anyone who visits his gallery.

Guma is confident in his market: “Extraordinary people come through Charlottesville all the time, and there’s a great group of very sophisticated collectors here.” 

In the fall, he will present a group show. “When something comes here it needs to sell, or it’s going home. So I really have to love it because I may be living with it,” he says with a twinkle. He plans to do five shows a year: Two will be similar to the fall show, two will be solo shows, and the last will, he hopes, be part of the LOOK3 festival.

“The art world has become so big and the change from the late ’90s to now is gigantic, not just in terms of prices, but in pulling people out from everywhere,” he says. “It was much more concentrated in the ’80s and early ’90s. It’s China, it’s Latin America—it’s great that we’re exposed that way. But museums have gotten so big and crowded. How you experience looking at things now versus 20 years ago, it’s just not as pleasing.”

But Guma’s Charlottesville gallery still makes it possible, he says, “to have that intimate experience with art where it’s quiet and there are these extraordinary masterpieces and you’re alone with them.” NealGumaFineArt.com

This article originally appeared in our Oct. 2016 print issue.

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