The Rymer Gallery is one of the largest contemporary art galleries in Nashville’s growing downtown arts district. From a life-sized sculpture made entirely of crayons of an arctic fox escaping climate change to a collection of powerful paintings addressing media’s troublesome portrayal of black bodies in desolate environments, the gallery makes a concerted effort to curate art that has both soul and purpose. In this conversation, Herb Williams, co-owner of the space with Jeff Rymer, speaks about opening a gallery in a big, small town, shares advice for artists looking for representation and opens up about what people get wrong about the South’s burgeoning art scene. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nashville is the Perfect Backdrop for The Rymer Gallery
RW: Let’s start with the basics. What’s your background?
Herb Williams: I started The Rymer Gallery with Jeff Rymer about ten years ago. Prior to that, I had worked at another art gallery, The Arts Company, for about ten years learning and helping to exhibit various artists from all over the world. I moved to Nashville about 20 years ago from South Florida where I worked at a bronze foundry. I was working for a blue chip artist who’d sell at major galleries all over the world. I learned a lot from him, but I didn’t understand how art, once you made it in your studio, got to the gallery. I had a lot of questions about how the gallery system worked because it seemed like such an old world system.
RW: How did you get connected to the arts scene in Nashville?
Herb Williams: I applied at every different gallery here. I was trying to learn about it. I volunteered at The Arts Company back in ‘98 for an event called Artrageous, a fundraiser for Nashville Cares, an organization focused on AIDS education and awareness. It was trial by fire because there were several thousand people coming through in one evening, but it was amazing. I got to speak with people and sell art. It was like a drug.
RW: What’s the story behind opening the gallery?
Herb Williams: All I’ve ever wanted to do was to help other artists and put art with people who love it. It’s so satisfying…because there’s no need for it [art]….other than you having a soul. Ten years ago, things were starting to change downtown and this space became available. It had a great history and when I saw the columns, which were original, I thought it was just incredible. I talked to the owner of the building and explained that all we needed was one more gallery on the block to have an art crawl and get consensus. That’s all that was missing. He liked the idea, introduced me to Jeff Rymer and we hit it off.
RW: Nashville’s local government has been outspoken about making Nashville an arts-centric city. Have you been able to leverage their support?
Herb Williams: Absolutely. We have worked with Metro. They’ve been great, actually. They have a new 1 percent for the arts in their budget,* where they are looking to purchase a slew of local artwork and host calls for submissions. One of our artists, Sam Dunson, was selected. They are going to purchase a diptych entitled “Domestic Relations…Mama” and “Domestic Relations…Daddy” for their courthouse collection. That kind of thing, when it happens, is incredible. It’s a great opportunity for the artists and for us. It’s a win for everyone. And we need it to happen a lot more often.
*Note: According to the city’s website, “Metro Public Art is funded through a public art ordinance adopted in 2000 and managed with public art guidelines. The ordinance sets aside 1% of certain capital improvement project funds for the commissioning and purchase of art. Since Nashville’s public art program began, fifty permanent works of art have been added to the public art collection. Several additional works of art are in varying stages of being commissioned, fabricated and installed.”
Creating an Art Gallery Aesthetic That Responds to Its Market
RW: What sort of artists do you look for?
Herb Williams: I love high concept, extreme craftsmanship. I don’t think there’s any particular genre that we’re drawn to, but paintings and sculptures are most prominent. Often people are looking for something to go over their sofa. That’s what you go to a Pier One for. I don’t get it. There are millions of sofas out there. There’s only one piece of art like this. Why not buy a piece of art first and then find a sofa? It just seems backward.
RW: Ha, very true. How has the community responded to the gallery?
Herb Williams: People are excited about it because the art crawl is such a success. There’s no getting around that. It’s always packed, several thousand people come in every month. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, 10 years in this space, and I still see hundreds of new faces every month. It’s overwhelming and amazing.
RW: How do you market yourself and the gallery?
Herb Williams: When you think about art you’ve bought, you’ve usually bought it while on vacation. You think about buying art because you’re not thinking about your ordinary expenses and responsibilities. A good majority of the sales come from out of town, people here for a weekend. So, partnering with different hotels has been great.
RW: What sort of advice do you have for artists looking to get into galleries?
Herb Williams: We’ve tried to work with artists who are every bit as good as their character. I’ve worked with too many artists who were just exhaustive. Once I get to know their character [and it’s not great], it’s spoiled. So once I knew them, I didn’t want to own their work. And so then, it became impossible for me to really sell it. I can’t say whether there’s perfect advice to tell people…
RW: Don’t be a d*ck?
Herb Williams: You know that’s perfect advice if I could tell people. Over and over, that’s the number one thing. I have countless artists who’ve come to me, who I spend hours and hours consulting with, trying to help, and then they go do their own thing or they will sell out from under me. Gallery representation is a great tool you can use, but it’s a tool and you have to work it. Some people think OK I’m in a gallery. It’s all I have to do. And then they stop. You can’t stop. You can’t exist in one gallery. You have to use it to gain more in other cities; you can be incredibly successful. Unless you’re landing in the Gagosian or something, you can’t live off one gallery, because we’re going to sell art, but it may not all be your art every month.
RW: What mistakes do you see artists making when working with a gallery or trying to get gallery representation?
Herb Williams: Artists will use things like Instagram, their website or Facebook to sell their work and that’s great. But honestly, you probably shouldn’t be in a gallery. You need to do one or the other and promote either the gallery and your work or yourself and your studio. You can’t do both, because once people find that they can go to your studio to buy your work, they’re never going to come to my gallery. So I’ve had to dissolve partnerships with numerous artists because of Instagram and Facebook. Every artist can market their work, but there’s a difference between marketing your work and marketing your work in a gallery.
RW: What do you want people to know about the art community in the south?
Herb Williams: I think so many people discount the art here as not being as good as the art in New York simply because it hasn’t been there. And that’s something I want people to see: that it’s absolutely as good as the art anywhere else. I have high, high standards and I think the quality is amazing and the ideas here are incredibly compelling. So that’s one of my goals: to try and push because it’s hard. There aren’t as many culturally advanced institutions and opportunities here as there are in other places. But I think it makes people more patient and resilient to create in adversity. I think a lot of the work comes from a deep well of resilience and adversity. That’s one thing that I want to show to people. It’s always more compelling to find those who have bloomed and blossomed in rocky soil.