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City Talk: Laney Contemporary reinforces Savannah’s gallery scene

The grand opening for Laney Contemporary Fine Art (http://laneycontemporary.com), Savannah’s newest art gallery, attracted a huge, enthusiastic crowd.

I arrived early for the event, and the crowd was still growing when I left. Owner Susan Laney estimates the attendees numbered at least 750, but the turnout was likely well above that.

Almost exactly 10 years have passed since Laney closed the Jack Leigh Gallery at the corner of Abercorn Street and Oglethorpe Avenue. Leigh, whose iconic images of the lowcountry grow more powerful as time passes, died in 2004, but Laney and others continued to advance Leigh’s legacy using the gallery as a home base.

During the years immediately after Leigh’s death, Laney also began representing more photographers and expanding her own professional activities. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I bought a large print from Jack Leigh Gallery in 2007 — a spectacular image from photographer Lisa M. Robinson’s “Snowbound” series.

As Jack Leigh Gallery was preparing to close, Laney told a local reporter that 2007 had been the gallery’s most profitable year ever. “We’d rather go out on top,” Laney said at the time.

The timing proved fortuitous. The U.S. economy fell into recession the same month that Jack Leigh Gallery closed, and the 2008 financial crisis and slow recovery hurt Savannah’s art gallery scene, which has more recently faced pressures from rising commercial rents.

“This is not an easy business,” Laney said last week as we talked in the main exhibition room of Laney Contemporary.

In the early years of the 21st century, the downtown area was dotted with galleries that featured fine art, hosted regular shows by local and out-of-town artists and fueled a broader appreciation of the visual arts.

Sure, we still have some excellent galleries around town, but the scene simply had more players and more energy a decade ago, before the recession took hold, than it has today.

After closing Jack Leigh Gallery in 2007, Laney continued her work as a steward of Leigh’s legacy, in addition to pursuing other work as a curator and art dealer. She eventually took over management of Oglethorpe Gallery, which is available as a rental space for artists, but she resisted the idea of opening her own space, despite the inherent difficulties in working from home.

And then the right opportunity came along.

Laney Contemporary occupies the sprawling second floor of a modern commercial building at 1810 Mills B. Lane Blvd. Laney’s husband Frank Ellsworth is a principal in Ellsworth-Hallett Home Professionals, which owns the building, but Laney didn’t realize she was ready to open the gallery until she saw the space.

“I love it,” Laney said of the gallery and its seemingly out-of-way location. “It’s exactly what I want.”

“These artists need a contemporary space,” Laney told me, as we surveyed the works by some of Savannah’s most accomplished artists, including Betsy Cain, Marcus Kenney and Todd Schroeder.

Both Cain and Kenney have had solo shows at the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center for the Arts, but in recent years they have been among the critically praised Savannah-based artists without local representation.

I have written in the past about the paradox. For many artists, Savannah is excellent place to produce work, but an extremely difficult place to sell it.

Laney told me that she realized early on that her new gallery needed to represent visual artists besides photographers, including some of the outstanding painters and 3D artists with whom she has had relationships for years.

“There’s just a ton of talent here,” Laney said as she talked about the Savannah artists that she represents and about the other standout artists in the area.

The location certainly won’t attract random walk-in tourists like those who started showing up at Jack Leigh Gallery before it closed, but there were a couple of curious tourists at Laney Contemporary on the afternoon that I dropped by. Given the nature of the business and given Laney’s connections around the country, the gallery seems likely to attract many visiting collectors and curators, in addition to local buyers.

The wonderful space, which includes a room lined with mirrors and a lovely outdoor patio, seems destined to host some great events in the future.

But it felt good to return to the gallery after the big splash of the launch party. The opening night crowd was buoyant, but it was hard to appreciate the quality of the art in this first exhibition.

“I want people to have things that will make their life more beautiful,” Laney said.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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