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Move over Gertrude Stein, there's an entire new wave of salons devoted to the arts springing up in the hip art world. And their emergence is brought into focus by an exhibition devoted to the subject - The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons at New York's Jewish Museum.
The exhibition documents the origins of salons in 17th century France and goes on to remember 14 salonires who hosted regular in-home gatherings. Beginning with Henriette Herz in Berlin during the late 18th century the exhibition takes in Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (sister of the composer) and Berta Zuckerkandl in her Vienna apartment with then cutting edge Hans Hoffman furniture. Then there is, of course, Gertrude Stein in Paris, as well as Florine Stettheimer in Manhattan and Salka Viertel, who rallied the Hollywood set, including Greta Garbo, to her Los Angeles home in the 1930's.
What is astonishing is the degree to which this group of heroines, themselves largely uneducated, nurtured extraordinary talents, premiered new works, documented their personal milieus and established an egalitarian social tradition, during eras riddled with class division.
"The exhibit reveals the salon as a seat of power and explores the role these influential women played with the artists, composers and musicians who participated in their salons," says Emily Braun, professor of art history at the Hunter College and Graduate Center of New York's City University, who co-organised the show with Emily D. Bilski, an independent scholar.
Braun (who is also personal curator to cosmetic titan Leonard Lauder) and Bilski are a powerful team, bringing an unrivalled historical and analytic depth to the topic and presenting it in a lively and accessible manner.
For example, exhibition audio tapes are usually a snore but Braun and Bilski infuse the tapes accompanying the show with a sense of rich cultural history. Actress Isabella Rossellini acts as host and introduces each salon.
While Braun believes salons - defined as regular meetings to discuss and foment ideas, kindle friendships and, often, document those activities, whether related to artistic or social concerns - ceased to exist with the rise of feminism, a slew of Manhattan art world figures contend they have taken on the mantle of millennium salonires.
But the domestic format in these sometimes dizzyingly high-tech, plugged-in times has morphed into a new generation of salon-like entities. Unlike the intellectual salons chronicled in the museum show, today's ventures mask a definite commercial bent.
So among those taking up the Stein mantle is Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. This long-time gallery owner hosts Salon 94, invitation-only events with artists at her home, a Rafael Vinoly-designed residence on New York's Upper East Side.
"Growing up, I remember lively conversations with Andy Warhol and Louise Nevelson at my parents' home," says Rohatyn, whose father Ronald Greenberg commands the Greenberg Van Doren Gallery in St. Louis. "I wanted to duplicate that experience and overlay it with artist performances."
While her salon is also a selling venue, discussions, often including prominent journalists, are part of the mix.
A skip or two down Park Avenue, private dealer Blair Clarke plans and hosts her salons. "For me, it was more about not wanting to own a gallery right now but seeking to stage art shows in a non-white box setting," says Clarke.
She began setting up art shows two years ago in a broad range of borrowed space, including the Ferragamo store on Fifth Avenue, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg's studio, the Ingrao antiques gallery and the M at Mercer house wares and design shop in Soho.
"Art galleries can be intimidating," says Clarke. She believes that art such as the slick paintings of nudes on aluminium by Natasha Law (sister of screen idol Jude Law) or the fish- and feather-shaped wall hangings fashioned out of ultra thin Plexiglas sheets by Won Jung Choi, a Korean sculptor, is difficult for prospective buyers to envisage in their own homes when displayed in galleries. "They want to see paintings over a sofa and have a dialogue," says Clarke, who offers that opportunity at her salons.
She provides a salon-like melange - artists, would-be collector/consumers, a few social swans spiked with an occasional dose of journalists and a sprinkling of the just plain curious.
It is questionable whether an artful setting filled with guests sipping wine and nibbling canapes really constitutes a salon. After all, Stein summoned up the stellar talents of her day: from artist Apollinaire to photographer Steichen and fostered friendships with the arts. Matisse met Picasso chez Stein.
In terms of attendance, these events seem to work. Clarke usually achieves a 70 per cent sold rate at her salons. Downtown dealer Jonathan Shorr holds a weekly salon attracting as many as 200 and Valerie Filipovna, a Swiss-born artist, holds her Salon 19 meeting in her Lower East side home every two months.
Some suggest that the popularity of the modern salon reflects a nostalgia for face to face contact in the cultural world. The response to this swathe of salons in the art world has been likened to major retailers, such as Saks Fifth Avenue proclaiming a return to the relationship with the consumer.
And, it can be argued, that the salon trend is not restricted to the social elite. One could say that the younger generation, hampered by the staggering cost of property, has re-invented the artistic salon by holding court with readings in coffee shops. Whether this new batch of art events or spate of book clubs are salons can be debated endlessly.
Still, one thing is certain: hearing Rossellini graciously introduce each salon via audio tape at the Jewish Museum is the next best thing to taking in the salon experience and experiencing the real power of conversation.
The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons, 1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10128. Until July 10, 2005.
Brook Mason is chief correspondent ofArt Antiques.