The Downtown Gallery and the Woman Behind the American Art Market

The Downtown Gallery and the Woman Behind the American Art Market

In 1926, Edith Gregor Halpert was twenty six years old. She had, up until the year before, served as one of two female business executives in New York City. But in 1925, she had left the elite position behind, her sights shifting to a new goal. A lover of modern art who did not think she had the talent to succeed as an artist herself, Halpert wanted to open a gallery. And so, right in the middle of the burgeoning center of the art world, Edith Gregor Halpert opened the first commercial art space in Greenwich Village, becoming the first woman in New York City to start such a business.

Edith Gregor Halpert, ca. 1930. Photo courtesy of the Downtown Gallery records, Archives of American Art.

Halpert (April 25, 1900 – October 6, 1970) was born in Odessa, in what is now Ukraine. Fleeing the pogroms following the 1905 Russian Revolution, she arrived in New York with her mother and sister at six years old, taking up residence with her family in Harlem. From a young age, Halpert was a clever self-starter. She was able to convince instructors at the National Academy of Design that she was sixteen when she was in fact fourteen, allowing her to take classes here and then at the Art Students League. Captivated by modern art especially, Halpert frequented the Newman Montross and Alfred Stieglitz galleries, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and any artist club that would let her in. At the same time she became a remarkably successful businesswoman, breaking through the societal barriers presented by her gender and her young age. Incredibly, by 1920 at the age of twenty Halpert was an efficiency expert and had been named to the board of the investment banking firm S.W. Staus & Company.

In 1925, however, she decided to leave her job and travel to Paris with her then-husband, the artist Samuel Halpert. This yearlong trip was a crucial turning point for Halpert. Inspired by all the opportunities artists had to show and sell their work in Paris, she returned to New York hoping to cultivate similar possibilities with her own gallery. Along with her friend Bea Goldsmith, she shopped for a space in Greenwich Village, where many of the emerging artists of the time lived. Halpert picked a row house at 113 West 13th Street, where both she and her gallery would reside. In an oral history recorded nearly forty years later, in 1962-1963, Halpert recalled: “I decided that it would have to be on a number street instead of a name street.” After all, she continued, “everybody gets lost in the Village.” She then began her business as anyone would. She pulled out the New York City phone directory, calling Villagers and letting them know a new gallery was coming to the neighborhood.

The Downtown Gallery at 113 West 13th Street (center), c. 1940 tax photo. Photo courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives.

Halpert opened her gallery as “Our Gallery,” hoping the name would emphasize the intimacy of the space. Nevertheless after some time she decided it wasn’t quite right. She solicited the help of artist William Zorachwho suggested “Downtown Gallery” instead. Halpert loved it, and looking back, the new name could not have been more appropriate for a place that would play such a critical role in the development of the downtown art scene. “Downtown Gallery” stuck for the forty-year duration of the business.

Just as local artists were exploring and developing the possibilities of American modern art, Halpert used her gallery to create a market for American art, and to redefine what American art – and who an American artist – could be. With the help of wealthy collectors including Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Edsel Ford, Halpert brought progressive values to the fore in her business, promoting works by immigrant, women, Jewish, and African American artists.  In its early years, the Downtown Gallery provided a platform for folk art through its American Folk Art Gallery, opened in 1931. Ten years later, in 1941, Halpert mounted the first commercial exhibition of the works of Jacob Lawrence, debuting his “Migration” series, and other African-American artists. She later organized the exhibit “Negro Art in America,” based on a 1940 book by her friend Alain Locke, writer and theorist of black culture. The downtown gallery, in fact, became the first major mainstream art space in New York City to promote the work of African American artists.

Edith Gregor Halpert with artists Charles Oscar, Robert Knipschild, Jonah Kinigstein, Wallace Reiss, Carroll Cloar and Herbert Katzman, in a photograph for Life magazine in 1952. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Louis Faurer and Time-Life Archive/Getty Images via The New York Times.

Among Halpert’s other significant clients was Ben Shahn, whose 1931-1932 social realist painting “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” attracted abundant controversy and visitors to her gallery. Halpert also had a long relationship with the Japanese-American painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi. When he was classified as an “enemy alien” in 1942, during World War II, Halpert developed an exhibition of his work in solidarity. Over the course of her gallery’s lifetime, Halpert showed and sold the work of Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hicks, William King, Horace Pippin, Max Weber, William and Marguerite Zorach, Peggy Bacon, Niles Spencer, Jack Levine, and Charles Sheeler (with whom she had an affair in 1934-1935). She is also responsible for the rediscovery of American trompe l’oeil artists William Michael Hartnett and John Frederick Peto.

While promoting these artists, Halpert made opportunities for viewing art and owning art more accessible. At her gallery, she set prices low, offered an innovative installment plan, and coordinated annual holiday sales. Meanwhile, she encouraged Rockefeller to found the Museum of Modern Art, and to include art by American artists at Radio City Music Hall. She urged art dealers and civic leaders, such as Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, to sponsor municipal art events.

113 West 13th Street, 2019.

After a long run on West 13th Street, Halpert eventually moved her Downtown Gallery uptown to a building on East 51st Street in 1940, and then to the Ritz Tower on Park Avenue in 1965. She ran the gallery there until her death in 1970. She also, starting in 1952, operated the Edith Gregor Halpert Foundation, which advocated for codes that protected the rights of artists.

Halpert has been called the leading authority on American art in her time, and the artists whose work she fostered became the icons of American modernism we remember today. Beyond this, we can credit Halpert for developing a widespread appreciation and market for American art where none had existed before. Still, as lamented (and addressed) by a 2019-2020 exhibit at the Jewish Museum curated by Rebecca Shaykin, Halpert is largely forgotten today. There has been much speculation as to why. Perhaps Halpert’s focus on figurative art worked against her in the face of the rise of abstract expressionism in the 1950s. Maybe the artists she discovered weren’t quite glamorous enough to enshrine her in cultural memory. It is possible also that Halpert was written out of American art history, like so many others, because she was a Jewish immigrant, and a woman. The reason may simply lie in the very nature of art galleries, which are intrinsically ephemeral, existing primarily to help artists survive.

It seems only fitting to remember Edith Gregor Halpert, who did so much to elevate the downtown artists out of obscurity, by placing her back on the map of the Greenwich Village art world, in relation to the many artists with whom she worked. She is, without a doubt, a critical part of American art history, women’s history, immigrant history, Jewish history, and Greenwich Village history.

To learn more about the history of artists in Greenwich Village (and the artists Halpert promoted), check out the “Artists’ Homes and Haunts” tour in our interactive map: Greenwich Village Historic District: Then & Now Photos and Tours.

Sources:

“Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art” Exhibition at the Jewish Museum

The Jewish Women’s Archive

Oral History interview with Edith Gregor Halpert, 1962-1963, Smithsonian Archives of American Art

“A Forgotten Pioneer’s Art World Is Resurrected at the Jewish Museum,” The New York Times

“Art of the Deal,” The New York Times

“The Tough-Talking Godmother of Downtown Art,” The New York Times

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