Fruitful Partnership

Fruitful Partnership

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Honda Syoryu, Reincarnation, 2004.

TAI Gallery
1601b Paseo de Peralta
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
(505) 984-1387

“We are the fun part of our clients' lives," says the textile dealer Robert Coffland, who with his wife, Mary Hunt Kahlenberg, operates TAI Gallery in Santa Fe. "Because we're both art collectors, too, we understand that."

Their partnership is a blend of distinct yet complementary styles and strengths. She's a New Englander with formidable textile expertise: a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, she studied industrial textile design and tapestry weaving in Europe and spent a decade as curator of costumes and textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He's a Californian who had a successful career marketing gourmet foods when they married in 1982. Kahlenberg was by then dealing textiles privately in L.A., and had become (and remains) the personal curator for former Neutrogena chairman Lloyd Cotsen, helping him build the company's collection of textiles and objects. By the time the couple moved to Santa Fe in the late 80s, Coffland too had grown passionate about art and soon joined his wife full-time in the gallery.

Located in the city's Railyard arts district, tai offers museum-quality traditional textiles from South America, Africa and Asia, along with contemporary Japanese bamboo baskets and sculpture, such as Honda Syoryu's Reincar­nation. Lately they've added Japanese photographers to their stable.

How did bamboo baskets become a specialty of yours?
Robert Coffland: At the time I made the decision to leave [the food industry], Mr. Cotsen asked me to look for bamboo baskets for him. In the process I found a whole world of contemporary bamboo artists who had become marginalized within the Japanese craft arts world. That, combined with the [early 90s] post-bubble economy had put a lot of these artists on the edge of giving up.

We began showing bamboo art in 1997 at art fairs, and it was instantly popular.

How would you describe the photographs you carry?
RC: It is what people imagine Japan to be, that kind of Zen serenity and purity, and then the wacky, real Japan, too-Masaru Tatsuki's photos of trucks [garishly embellished rigs called Decotora], Naoki Honjo's tilt-shift camera lens prints of Tokyo urbanscapes. They all have an underlying Japanese sensibility that is rooted in how the Japanese look at the world and want
to shape reality.

What has changed in the gallery business over the years?
RC: We've had a tremendous bull market in the art world, which has meant an explosion in the number of galleries and artists who've been able to make a living. We are now entering a new reality. There's going to be a tremendous shakeout in the art world, just like in the financial world-consolidations, people going out of business. Flexibility and a willingness to take risks will be key going forward for any dealer who wants to succeed in this new world we're living in.

What's the criteria for works you select for the gallery?
Mary Hunt Kahlenberg: My criteria are relatively specific. First of all, I have to really love the piece. When I go into the field to buy, I am making a commitment. If I buy something, I know that I might have it for the rest of my life. I might not be able to convince somebody else to love it as much as I do, so I have to be really happy with it. Then I look for material that speaks truly of the culture it comes from, that has an aesthetic viewpoint I know is acceptable to that culture and also acceptable to the culture I'm bringing it to. Sometimes those are the same, sometimes they're not.

If not, I need to understand it enough to make somebody else understand why it's an important piece of art.

What's the greatest challenge of your work?
MHK: It's always a challenge to push out in a field that isn't recognized. People come in who like the material, but for them to feel comfortable with it, you have to make them understand it, so that they want to pursue their natural interest. They need that reassurance.

Not recognized?
MHK: I mean in the world of art. How many people are going to tell you bamboo baskets are what they're interested in? It's always exciting when we hear people say that, but...

But there's opportunity there.
MHK: Yes, that's true, and some see that. Mr. Cotsen did. He understood niche marketing. The challenge is getting the word out that this is a wonderful medium, and people who see it will respond.