Picture that moment in the Broadway musical Rent when two city-weary 20-somethings lock arms and sing: “We’ll open up a restaurant in Santa Fe/Sunny Santa Fe would be…nice.” Replace “restaurant” with “photo gallery”—Verve Fine Arts, on East Marcy Street in Santa Fe, to be exact—and you’ve got something like the art world’s version of over-the-rainbow entrepreneurship.
Texas-born Wilson Scanlan didn’t found Verve on an escapist dream, however. The 30-year-old gallerist has a solid work ethic that enabled him to build a business by following his heart—though some well-timed, information age savvy hasn’t hurt, either. Scanlan left his native city of Austin to pursue a degree in art history at Occidental College in Los Angeles. One of his passions was architecture, and he took a job as an assistant with a local firm upon graduating in 1998. Soon, however, another passion—for the great outdoors—exerted its pull. (“The hustle and bustle and smog,” says Scanlan…“you could never escape the concrete jungle.”) By 1999 he had relocated to Santa Fe, where, he says, “my life took quite a turn.” The pace of the city was slower to be sure, but the hustle and bustle got transferred to a new career—in web design. Rixon Reed of Photo Eye (the premier photography book website) gave him a full-time job doing web maintenance by day. By night, Scanlan taught himself even more about the business of putting photos online, working for his brother-in-law’s web design firm, VerveLabs (Hasted Hunt is one satisfied VerveLabs customer). “After a year I got a bit nuts,” says the softspoken Scanlan. “I never saw anybody, never got out, had no personal contact.” In 2002 Scanlan’s brother-in-law left the business, so Scanlan took over the Verve name and expanded to include a physical gallery space in a small, cottage-style building two blocks from the center of town. Knowing it would be hard to run both a real (gallery) and a virtual (web design) business, he asked his father (who, incidentally, is a photography collector) to come up from Texas and help out. Three years later, his dad is still answering the phones, the gallery is poised for expansion (to more than twice its current size, when it takes over the space next door), and the web business is booming.
Most of the work Verve sells isn’t hung on the walls—there just isn’t room—but is accessible on 30-inch computer screens installed in the gallery, courtesy of a state-of-the-art computer archive system run by Scanlan. Viewable, virtually, are Don Kirby’s large black-and-white prints of wheat fields plowed to geometric perfection under endless, cloud-filled horizons, for example; Ralph Lee Hopkins’s color studies of penguins on the Falkland Islands; dramatic, spotlit natural textures—a honeycomb, the ripples on water—by Jennifer Schlesinger (who also happens to be the gallery’s director); or work by any of the 28 other artists in Verve’s stable. At present it’s a mix of what Scanlan calls “emerging and established artists.” This mix is soon to be joined by vintage works by the likes of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Ansel Adams, and Henri-Cartier Bresson: later this summer, if all goes as planned, well-respected private Santa Fe dealers David Scheinbaum and Janet Russek will take over a room of exhibition space in Verve Fine Art’s newly expanded 3,700-foot gallery. That ought to make for combined exhibitions that are impressive by any standards. Take note of Scanlan’s big sky spirit, Chelsea. Virtual space is changing the way galleries do business. And actual, as well as virtual space is worth sharing.