Home-grown gallery lets Stainback live with her art

April 30, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

It wasn't exactly the best time, with the art market staggering back from the recession. It wasn't exactly the best place, three smallish rooms in the Reservoir Hill rowhouse where she lives. But it was a compulsion that Sharon Stainback couldn't deny.

"It's something innate. The artist is compelled to make art; I'm compelled to do this," says Ms. Stainback.

So about a year ago she opened Sula Contemporary Art, an art gallery she runs by herself at Park Avenue and Reservoir Street. "Sula," the title of a Toni Morrison novel, is a West African word meaning adventurous. "I thought starting a gallery in the middle of a recession was certainly adventurous," she says.

So far, Ms. Stainback has had seven shows, for which she's done everything from finding the artists to installing the works to organizing the opening parties. The emphasis is on emerging artists, including -- but not exclusively -- African-American artists.

Meanwhile, she holds a full-time job in public relations, and studies for a degree in art history and the humanities at the Johns Hopkins University.

So far, she says, the gallery's going pretty well. "It's pretty much what I wanted it to be. Sometimes it's frustrating that people don't support the artists. People come in and like the art and the gallery, but it doesn't translate into dollars, and you can't promote artists without spending money."

Some shows have sold nothing. On the other hand, the one-person show of the works of Jamaican artist Desmond McFarlane sold all but two of 11 works shown. On the whole, she's about breaking even.

But there are other satisfactions besides money. "It's fulfilling when the artist is standing next to her work and glowing at the favorable comments.

"There is the control element, being able to have some control over my own life instead of slaving away for someone else at something I don't want to do.

"And I get to meet some pretty interesting people I wouldn't meet otherwise."

One of them is Richard Kalter, philosopher in residence at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. He's been to a number of openings at Sula, and likes both the atmosphere and what Ms. Stainback's trying to do with the gallery.

"The times I've been there it's been a very open and friendly place," he says. "The spirit is warm and outgoing and inclusive. She's active with younger artists, giving them a chance to show their work. . . . [And] she's been trying to give young African-American artists a chance."

Fran Beckles, a teacher at Morgan State University and publisher of a scholarship directory, is also enthusiastic. "I think it's very important that we support local artists," she says, "and because she features products of local artists, I felt very good to be a part of that effort. I've bought some things from her and been extremely pleased."

Art has interested Ms. Stainback, 31 and a native Baltimorean, since she was a child. "I don't know when I started going to museums, but I grew up in Waverly and I used to go over to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"I graduated from Eastern High School, went to the University of Maryland Baltimore County for one semester and decided it wasn't for me. Then I worked at a lot of jobs, until I decided to do something I wanted to do. I got a job as a curatorial assistant

and secretary at the Walters Art Gallery."

That was in 1985. While there, she worked on two shows, one on photographer Carl Van Vechten and the other on five black 19th-century artists.

"Then I went to the Bethune Museum Archives in Washington, founded by the National College of Negro Women as a monument to the accomplishments of black women. I worked with the late Guy McElroy, the assistant director, and we worked with the Corcoran on the big exhibit 'Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940' that was held in 1990."

Subsequently she enrolled at Hopkins, and while studying for her bachelor's degree there has worked at its School of Hygiene and Public Health and currently does public relations for the Woodbourne Center, a private school for emotionally disturbed children.

Despite the double load of work and college, the gallery was a dream that wouldn't go away. Realizing she couldn't afford rent and other expenses that went with a commercial space, she put away the furniture on her first floor and opened the gallery.

"In a way it was a calculated move," she says. "Here, I get to know the artists and the collectors and have a good time, and when the art market does pick up again, I'll be ready."

She's looked at commercial spaces around town, but doesn't contemplate a move soon. "I've given myself a two-year plan. More than anything else the economy needs to improve. People have to have more confidence to buy luxury items."

Ms. Stainback says she often finds artists by going to openings; those she meets in turn tell others, who bring her their slides. She doesn't have any preferences in terms of media or style. "I respond to composition, to theme, to what I feel."

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