Art galleries don’t generally get by on variety. Most focus on something particular—contemporary realist art, for example, or abstract and experimental pieces. Spencer Gallery, however, has done the opposite. Walking into one of the gallery’s three adjacent storefronts on Broad Street, you’re liable to see wildlife paintings and abstract sculpture, small marquetry scenes and landscape photography, etchings and mixed media pieces. What’s more, you’ll find a wide and affordable price range—prices start under $100 for original works. Spencer Gallery might be one of the only galleries in town where you could reasonably make an impulse buy.
This eschewing of a single aesthetic is deliberate. Owners and artists Jerry and Catherine Spencer have worked hard to give their gallery its eclectic nature—they represent more than 50 artists whose only commonality is that they fit the Spencers’ criteria. “It’s got to be different, it’s got to be good, and it’s got to be reasonably priced,” Jerry Spencer says. “And we always show over 500 works, salon-style.”
Their method seems to be working. This November, the gallery will celebrate its 14th birthday, making it the oldest continually operating art gallery on Broad Street. That’s no small feat, but Spencer explains their success quite simply: “We offer lots of choices, we keep the prices affordable, and we don’t engage in pressure selling. Browsers can look around at their leisure. I’d compare visiting Spencer Galleries to going to a singles bar—people have to fall in love with the art on their own.”
The make up of Spencer Gallery’s artist roster is about 50 percent local and 50 percent non-local, and you’ll find art by Russian, Greek, Bulgarian and French artists in addition to American. And of course, the Spencers’ own work graces the walls as well. Catherine Spencer is a traditional painter, creating beautiful landscapes and still lifes in oils. Jerry Spencer works in several different media—photography, mixed media, painting, colored pencil, stone, collage—and tends much more toward the abstract than the figurative.
Spencer says one of their artists is an older woman who painted for years for her friends and family before ever reaching out to a gallery. “We’re the first gallery she’s been in,” he says. “There’s a rebirth going on,” he explains, “a lot of the baby boomers are retiring, and they’ve got art in their hearts, and now they’ve got the time to do it.”
You could say that’s what happened to Spencer. After 20 years in the Air Force and a post-military career that took him in several different business directions, he began teaching college business classes. He’s taught at 10 different colleges, including the College of Charleston, where he developed the school’s Arts Administration and Management program. “I became interested in helping artists to earn a living through their art,” he says. “So I started the program and got it accredited. Finally, I said, ‘Stop talking about it and start doing it’—so I opened the gallery.”
His business acumen has served him well over the past 14 years, allowing him to take an unconventional approach to the business that might leave other gallery owners a bit nervous. At the idea that galleries are supposed to find a niche and stick with it, he just shakes his head. “For us, it’s about a wide range of monetary values. Lots of choices,” he says.
Spencer Gallery will celebrate its anniversary the first week in November, and there will be plenty of new works to browse. Spencer also promises a strong artist presence. No matter what your taste, price point or collector status, you’re bound to find something that appeals to you. That, after all, is what the Spencers do best.
Elizabeth Pandolfi is a writer and editor living in Charleston.