Sometimes art can imitate life – and so can art galleries. Jim Davidson learned just how much an art gallery can not only imitate but stimulate life when he opened the Water and Oil Gallery in the historic Swede Hollow neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn.
Scandinavian art gallery triggers cultural phenomenon The gallery specializes in original art from Northern Europe, especially Scandinavia. At first, however, Davidson had no intention of playing on the area’s Swedish roots. He just wanted to sell art.
“We didn’t open to edify the neighborhood about what the place used to be but I must admit the local community is very excited about what we’re doing, including the city of St. Paul,” Davidson said. “There has definitely been shift in focus since opening last November. We’re becoming more integrated with the neighborhood and lifting up the Swedish heritage.”
Water and Oil Gallery is located across the street from Swede Hollow Park, a 10-acre enclave in what was once the heart of Swedish St. Paul. The park has been the focus of restoration efforts in recent years and is at the center of resurgence in Swedish culture in the city. Although Davidson knew the history of the area when he decided to open the gallery, he still didn’t think his latest venture would somehow become a beacon of Nordic culture.
“We’re trying to educate Americans that they can have real art on the wall as opposed to expensive prints. Real art has history, but in this case the art from a person who studied in Paris or the Mediterranean is no more expensive than a print, and it’s a heck of a lot more interesting,” Davidson said.
Still, there was no denying the connection between the artwork and the area’s history.
“Promoting culture was not part of why we opened and it was never a reason for being involved in Scandinavian imports,” Davidson said. “I take a positive view of Sweden - no question - but what the gallery is turning out to be is actually much more culturally based and motivated than I had thought. What we’re doing now seems to have some real cultural significance.”
Davidson entered the art world first as a collector. He began buying landscapes and other paintings in the 1970's. “I still have every painting I first bought,” he said. “I think the idea for the gallery came because I wanted to keep buying art but didn’t have any room in the house for it.”
He spotted Nordic art on his numerous trips to Sweden and Scandinavia as president first of Europa Imports, a Scandinavian gift company, and then of Larand Imports, which sold Swedish housewares. Both businesses became extremely successful. Davidson sold Europa in 1987 and soon after it became the one of the biggest Scandinavian gift companies, he said. Larand – which Davidson named after his sons Lars and Anders – brought in the popular Twixit bag clips, which have sold in the millions. Last year, Davidson said he decided to slow down a bit and get into the world of art.
“I was tired of being in business,” he said. “I was in business since I was pretty young and just doing business for business' sake. This is different. It’s pretty exciting because it feels like we’re leaving some sort of legacy in the way the community is seeing Nordic art. It’s also different than how I saw it when I started. It looks like I am shifting gears to become a bit of a trumpet for Nordic and Swedish culture.”
One of the main reasons Davidson said he enjoys running the gallery is what he calls “the wow factor.”
“I never saw that selling housewares,” he said. “People didn’t go down a row of cleaning products and say, ‘Wow.’ Here, people come in not really knowing what to expect and you can see them say, ‘Wow.’ That’s fun.”
Most of the art Davidson sells is between 50 and 100 years old. Scandinavia, in the late 1800's and into the 1950's, produced hundreds of classically trained artists, many of whom went on to study in the great art centers of Europe, Davidson said. These artists turned out hundreds of paintings, many of them landscapes that somehow escaped the attention of collectors. It’s another reason Davidson said he decided to concentrate on the Nordics.
“There is a heck of a lot of art in Scandinavia that young people aren’t quite as interested in as they are in older art,” he said. “This art is selling for prices that are reasonable and we can get it here for pretty reasonable prices, so we decided to see if we can build a business around this.”
Much of the art is striking. Far from the popular conception of Nordic art that comes from Bergman’s black and white film, Davidson’s collections are bright and sharp. He said the training received by Scandinavian artists of the period created almost an entire genre of overlooked paintings.
“What's interesting about Swedish and Danish art is most of the artists have studied extensively in schools professionally,” he said. “Not many are self-taught. Most went on studio trips to Italy, France, Germany, and got further experience. The artists were really well-trained early in life in good schools and had good teachers. It is a very healthy environment in which to grow up and become an artist.”
Davidson also admits to having a simple way of picking the paintings he decides.
“I had no experience in the gallery business. This is a whole new lark after 35 years in the wholesale business,” he said. “The paintings we sell we selected because it simply grabbed us. For me, I am captivated by paintings of a lakeside with birch trees or beech trees. The pictures almost grab the customers as they are coming through.”
Later this year, Davidson plans to break ground on an “event center” which customers can rent for weddings or special occasions. He said with the gallery’s location right across from Swede Hollow Park, he believes it’s time St. Paul had a more upscale venue for private or even corporate functions that incorporates the scenery and history of the city’s Swedish settlers. He also believes the gallery and the event center should dovetail together nicely.
"One of the trying things with this whole business is creating an environment where people slow down physically and mentally,” he said. “I had a couple here for two hours who compared the experience to walking through a museum. The reason is images are from another time and place, not that long ago but far enough back to when the speed of life of today is clearly missing. That ends up putting interesting smiles on faces. I sold plastic and gadgets for 35 years and nothing ever put smiles on faces as what we do here.”
Those smiles affect the gallery in which Davidson finds himself promoting culture by selling art: “I must admit that, after being to Sweden 200 times, it puts a bit of a smile on my face to see people come in and see old Swedish art and [smile]. It is about culture and that’s fun. At first we thought we could just keep the focus on art, but the more we saw that happening, it just took on a cultural focus, too. And you know what? That’s fun.”