Where I'm Coming From

Where I'm Coming From

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Ann Ruhr Pifer, owner of the Grand Hand Gallery in St. Paul, Minnesota
Photo/Andrea Rugg

Andrea Rugg

Ann Ruhr Pifer puts down the bank book (just in time) to explore art and craft in St. Paul and beyond.

The Grand Hand Gallery
619 Grand Avenue
St. Paul, Minnesota 55102
(651) 312-1122

After 15 years as a commercial banker on the fast track, Ann Ruhr Pifer switched careers in 2004 to open the Grand Hand Gallery in St. Paul, Minnesota. Oddly for such an "intensely arts-aware, design-oriented community," the Twin Cities had very few retail outlets for fine craft, she'd observed: "This was a way I could use my business skills to help artists make a living doing what they love."

It was also the opportunity she'd craved to spend more time with her husband, an investment manager, and their two young sons.

In 2007 Pifer moved the gallery from its initial small home on Grand Avenue to a century-old building several doors down, where it occupies a large corner space handsomely outfitted with recycled-wood shelves and fixtures. Originally focused on function, it now offers a broad selection of contemporary American art and craft in all media, including sculptures by Kimberly Wilcox, pottery by Samuel Johnson and glass and wood pieces by Scott Amrhein. In its latest growth spurt, the Grand Hand recently partnered with its next-door neighbor, the painting-oriented River Gallery, knocking down a shared wall to create one large exhibit space for their combined stable of artists.

Opening the Grand Hand was a major career and lifestyle change for you, wasn't it?
It's probably not as abrupt or crazy as it looks on the surface. People who knew me as a banker go, 'What? How did you get here?' But I grew up in the art and design world. My father ran his own ad agency for 30 years, kind of a hot design shop in Minneapolis. One of the shows we're doing this fall is of watercolor paintings by Doug Lew, who was creative director at my dad's agency. I literally grew up playing under Doug's drafting table, seeing him work.

So I was interested in art, but also in international affairs and economics. I studied development economics at Smith College, then lived in Europe for a few years. After working at the U.N. in Geneva, I spent time traveling in Africa, visiting some of the [private-sector development] projects I'd been researching. It was fascinating. What struck me most were the traditional arts and crafts. I brought back a lot of handcarved instruments, headwear.

Living internationally, you start thinking about place. I lived in Switzerland, France and Italy, and each felt different-the air, the way people carried themselves, the styles. It all had deep historical, cultural and artistic roots. That has made me think more about what is unique about where I come from.

You show artists from around the United States, with emphasis on the upper Midwest. How would you characterize the work of that region?
Thinking about Minnesota, what's distinctive is you have three roots at the base of the art, design and aesthetic sensibility of the region: Asian, Scandinavian and Native American. They all value the handmade and the use of the handmade in everyday life. Also clean designs, simple lines, a connection to nature.

The gallery has a strong, distinctive bent. Part of that is my own personal taste. But the things that I like, I like because they [embody] the air and the roots and the earth of this area. They feel like they come from here. You see that particularly in the ceramic art. There are all those old jokes about "Mingei-sota" pottery, and "Minnesota Brown" pots. People appreciate that aesthetic-the roughness, simplicity, functionalism.

Coming from banking, how do you find retailing?
Any retail is hard, and selling art is at the hardest, I think. To sell enough to cover overhead costs-I don't know how people do it without a business background. Our customers come back because they appreciate our consistently high quality at a wide range of price points. Everything has been carefully selected. There's a common aesthetic thread.

What do your boys think of the Grand Hand?
My 12-year-old hangs out after school. He knows a staggering amount about the artists. My four-year-old is sometimes at work with me, an option I didn't have in banking. They're having the same experience I had, seeing my parents work hard doing something they loved. I like that.