art: The Perfect Picture

Jay Barrows puts artists and potential buyers in the same room, then waits for the chemistry.

At present, an assortment of works has been installed for potential clients. The grouping includes work by Barrows’ luminary emerging artist, Bill Fisher, along with works by Cindy Neuschwander, Andy Bality, Nancy Witt and David Kohan. Outside of the formal presentation area hang a small intensely rendered Diego Sanchez, an introspective Stephen Clark abstract, some pictorial Dawn Latane landscapes, and a couple of additional Kohans that contrast his recent harlequin-influenced work with older painting.

With respect for quality, imagination and mastery, Barrows selects artists for representation like he selects his friends, and, in fact, the two are intertwined. His business, Jay Barrows Fine Arts, is an extended family of many of the people he has come to know well, professionally and personally.

“This is not a gallery that is open to the public,” Barrows clarifies at the outset of the interview. “It is really an invitation-only viewing for a select crowd. I’m creating an opportunity for artists and patrons to be able to meet and talk. I want to give the arts what I have to give. I can’t make art, but I can talk about it … and show it to collectors I’ve met over the years.” Barrows has indeed met a lot of the kind of folks who understand what he’s talking about.

In 1972, while he was enrolled in VCU in the sociology department, he accepted a job to housesit and manage a personal art collection. His employers were significant local art patrons, and Barrows suddenly found himself jetting all over the country as an assistant curator with objects from “The Late 20th Century Art from the Sydney and Frances Lewis” collection under his arm.

Barrows’ longtime association with the Lewises introduced him to many of the most important artists of the period and to the power structure that supported and promoted art during its contemporary zenith. But even more than the fascinating realm of art stars, New York galleries and high-roller dealers were the wisdom and attitude toward art that the Lewises instilled in Barrows. “They taught me so much about how to look beyond the surface of art.” Barrows recalls fondly, even reverently.

When the Lewises gave up primary control of their flagship Richmond-based company, Best Products, in 1991, Barrows located a warehouse to store the work from the corporate offices, some of it from local artists. This seemed — along with everything else that directed his experience — to set the stage for Barrows’ current focus. Because his is an outgrowth of ongoing work for the Lewis family, Barrows does not have to depend on charging the standard commission rate. He says he has continued their tradition of doing for the community.

Eschewing the kind of giant, unfocused social that typifies a gallery opening and results in celebrants’ inability to focus on the art itself, Barrows’ strategy is to keep the head count at his openings to around 50. His invitation list is composed of the exhibiting artists, which may number between one and five, a few of their steadfast supporters, and a sprinkling of newcomers who have expressed a genuine interest in learning about and buying art. In this rarified environment he establishes a more intimate climate for conducting business.

“I suppose you could call it elitism, but it’s the best way to directly expose people to art,” Barrows says. To broaden the circle, Barrows explains, “New clients do find me through word of mouth. But I also work with interior designers that are sympathetic to the placement considerations of art, and they will bring in others.”

Barrows — who as a 1708 board member recently headed up the relocation and renovation of that gallery — is a practical businessperson who has learned how to cut a successful deal for an artist. But it is good to know that over in Scott’s Addition behind an unimpressive facade, an underground of art is attentively tended by someone who essentially just wants artists to communicate and prosper. S


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