MILWAUKEE – David Barnett started in the 1960s with nothing but a dream. Today, he’s got a very real New York-style art gallery.
“My mantra really was always to help the local artists,” said Barnett, himself a local artist. “You just learn by the seat of your pants, I think.”
What he learned is that helping local artists is wonderful, but that showing and selling other art too can make a gallery sustainable. His gallery’s collection now includes European and American masters, regional and nationally recognized artists, and emerging artists.
“And now we have a pretty large collection of over 6,000 artworks, when I started out with nothing,” Barnett said. David Barnett Gallery shows art in its historic mansion, 1024 E. State St.
Also represented are artworks from Latin America and Asia, as well as Ethnographic art from Africa, Indonesia and Oceania. The gallery has a national reputation for its extensive collection of Picasso ceramics and Milton Avery oil paintings, according to Barnett.
Fine art student
Barnett was a fine art student at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in the 1960s.
“My passion has always been art,” he said. “I thought if I tried to make it as an artist I would certainty starve to death.”
“I thought, well, I’ll open a gallery.”
Thirty years later, after he had established his gallery, he did finally start to show his own art too, at a client’s request.
Over time, Barnett became the expert in the room. It has been quite a transformation for him, and he has fond memories of being invited to lunch by Dustin Hoffman and attending major art openings with other interesting people. Barnett has been repeatedly at events in Switzerland, Paris, London and New York, chatting with other art lovers in studios and at auctions. It’s a lifestyle, grounded in a mutual love for art.
“My goal was not to make a lot of money. It was to live this passion for art,” he said, adding that he’s achieved success in spite of himself. “I thought well, I’m just little David Barnett here in Milwaukee, you know?”
“I feel really fortunate to be doing this at the age of 74 and really not need any help from anybody at this point.”
$2 million painting
Barnett’s “Les Artistes du Cirque” by Dutch painter Kees Van Dongen is the most celebrated piece he has, he said. It’s valued at more than $2 million, he added.
“It’s been requested and on loan to seven museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and the Picasso Museum in Barcelona,” Barnett said. He’s gone along with the painting to various openings and dinners, including one hosted at the Picasso Museum by Princess Caroline.
He bought the piece at an international art show at Navy Pier, before the painting received the recognition it has today, he said. “I saw it from maybe 300 feet away and it just took my breath away,” he recalled.
He loved that the 1905 painting had a white woman with an African man, something unusual for the time.
“This was something that the artist did, not for the commercial market, but for himself. A true expression of what he felt,” Barnett said. “I hung it over our fireplace mantle for many, many years.”