A local art institution
Walking into Friedman’s Fine Art, one is immediately taken by the splashes of color from a full gallery of paintings, tastefully displayed and expertly lit. The media include oils and pastels, and the styles include the most abstract and near photographic realism.
“It’s been a wonderful business to be in. We’ve enjoyed it for many, many years,” said owner Julian Weitz. “It’s been very interesting to see the growth and change in Savannah over those years.”
The company has been operating since S.K. “Bessie” Friedman founded the store in its original location on Telfair Square in 1901. Bessie Friedman was herself a painter, and the store sold art supplies and picture-framing services.
In 1925, the store moved to its current location at 28 W. State St. Friedman died in 1936, and the Weitz’s aunt and uncle purchased the business in 1940. Julian Weitz is the fourth generation of his family to own the store. He and his wife, Jean, joined the business in 1975.
Jean has retired, but the couple’s new son-in-law, Adams Fins, has just joined the business, making it a five-generation enterprise.
“We kept the art supplies and picture framing up until about 15 years ago,” said Weitz. “We had to decide if we wanted to continue to be in both businesses.”
Now, Friedman’s Fine Art specializes in custom framing and selling fine art.
When the Weitz family bought the store, Julian’s father, Izzy, went to work there. Izzy Weitz was a charismatic entrepreneur who loved Savannah deeply and was active in the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Business Association.
Wherever he traveled, he’d tell people, “You have to come down to Savannah and visit us. It’s just a great place.”
This was 50 years ago, before anyone ever dreamed of Savannah’s success as a tourist destination.
“Wherever he went, he’d talk about Savannah,” said his son. “He just loved it.”
Weitz said the store enjoys amazing loyalty from its customers.
“We’re now serving the fourth and fifth generation since we opened,” he said. “When we thank them for their continued business, they say, ‘Who else would we take our business to?’”
The customer loyalty reaches all over the country.
“I sometimes go online and see paintings of local interest that come up for auction at auction houses across the nation from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s,” said Weitz. “Sometimes they’ll show a photograph from the back of the painting, and there’s one of our old stickers.”
Friedman’s long-term success is attributable to a focus on customer service.
“Customer service in any business is the key, particularly in the retail business,” said Weitz. “We try to watch our customer service and make sure our customers get taken care of.”
The shop also does suites of offices and corporate installations. Friedman’s has corporate customers in Austin, Texas; Cleveland; Detroit and several other major cities as well as many local and regional business customers. “We get drawings of the buildings, and they send us samples of the finishes,” Weitz said. “We select artwork, matting and framing and drive it up in a truck and hang it for them. It’s a full-service situation.”
Weitz said framing is a combination of the artistic and the mechanical.
“We have good framing designers who help customers design their framing and matting choices,” he said.
The shop used to cut mats by hand. Now it uses a computer-generated mat cutter.
Friedman’s still does French lines on matting and other decorative things that you may see only in antique shops. “When we’re decorating the front of mats, we use a ruling pin, the type of which that has been used since the 17th century,” Weitz said. “There are no technological advances, in my opinion, that can compare with that.”
When applicable, the framers use museum- and conservation-quality materials such as matting that is acid free. It does not deteriorate quickly and does not damage the item framed. They also use many types of glass. Where once there was just one type, now there are choices such as UV-reflective glass or museum-quality glass that has a non-reflective coating.
“We’ve framed everything from the ridiculous to the sublime,” said Weitz. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Weitz related the story of a woman who came in with a two-foot ponytail she had clipped from her daughter. She came to Friedman’s to have it framed in a shadow box. Dinosaur bones and Indian artifacts are among the unusual items customers have brought into Friedman’s for framing.
Friedman’s works with restorers who do canvas, board, watercolors, pastels and photographs.
“It’s a very interesting part of the business,” said Weitz.
The shop recently ran a two-day event with restorers. People brought in pieces to learn what work needed to be done, how much it would cost and how long it would take.
“They just do some amazing work for us,” said Weitz. “It’s good to see an old painting that’s crackling and bubbling, part of it is flaking off the canvas. Give it to a restorer, and it’s transformed. It’s ready to go for another hundred years.”
Weitz buys and sells regional paintings that date from the 1950s to the 1970s.
“It’s a special niche that we have. There’s a very strong demand for that,” he said.
The shop also represents about 15 local artists. “We keep a core group of artists that we do well with,” Weitz said. Tourism is a large part of Friedman’s trade.
“We have great comments from tourists because they see the work is of great quality and the price is just extraordinary,” said Weitz. “We’ve done very well with tourists. A lot of them have come back to our website and bought periodically over the years. It’s been very gratifying.”
This past February, Weitz was named the Elizabeth Patterson Entrepreneur of the Year by the Savannah Downtown Business Association.
“We’ve always conducted our business affairs conservatively so we have had the wherewithal to make it through the tough times,” Weitz said. “We just have a good reputation. When you run a good business and you’re open and honest with people, it just makes things easier all around.”
FRIEDMAN’S FINE ART
Owner Julian Weitz
28 West State St., Savannah, GA 31401