It's a quiet Monday afternoon at Lexington's Cross Gate Gallery, if you are there to simply admire the sporting art that hangs on the walls.
From carvings to sculptures to paintings, the gallery deals in works by some of the most revered artists of the genre, a number of works priced at well into six figures.
But upstairs, frame shop director Darrell Schirmer and design and sales director Linda Helton are working on a big project, gently disassembling the blanket of roses Orb wore in the winner's circle at the Kentucky Derby in May. The delicate, dried flowers were being put in shadow boxes to be presented as Christmas presents for people involved in the thoroughbred's victory including Lexington-based trainer Claude "Shug" McGaughey.
Down in the frame shop, framing director Michelle Perry works through her "Christmas pile" of pieces for customers, including items from family photos to a painting of legendary University of Kentucky basketball coaches' deluxe new homes, while consultant Mary Phillips calls customers to tell them their orders are ready. Orders to be shipped line the floors in the main corridor through the first floor.
And up in his office, facing Main Street, owner Greg Ladd talks to art clients on the phone while his yellow lab George basks in the sunbeam that falls across the couch.
Like a well-executed piece of art, things only look easy here. After 40 years in business, Ladd says he is still hustling working with sellers and buyers, traveling the nation and even the world, sometimes, to get artists he represents "in front" of the right customers.
The gallery made headlines this past fall with its collaboration with Keeneland on The Sporting Art Auction, which brought together the richest assembly of art ever put up for auction in Lexington. While some multimillion-dollar marquee works by Andrew Wyeth and Mary Cassatt failed to sell, the auction raised more than $3.1 million, moving works that included a 17-foot mural by LeRoy Neiman, which sold for $291,000.
The auction, set for a second edition in 2014, is now largely the focus of Ladd's work, having built up a staff including two of his children who ably oversee the gallery and framing operations.
It's a new chapter in the career of a man who started dealing with fine art in junior high school working for The Villager Gift Shop.
"They had really high-end china," Ladd says. "It would be similar to what L.V. Harkness would be today," he notes, referring to the Short Street shop. "They did exhibitions and things of that sort."
The financial backer of the shop was Ray Pearson of Pearson, Trapp Co., who bought and sold fine art.
"We got to be close, and he was sort of a mentor and taught me, from the aspect of a buyer, what you need to do," Ladd says.
Still, he went to the University of Kentucky to pursue architecture, and ended up getting a degree in agriculture. Ladd says he thinks the architecture background helped develop his eye for art.
"His love was art," says Schirmer, who met Ladd as a student at UK. "He knew what his goals were."
In November 1974, Ladd paid his first sales tax, he said. The gallery was on High Street, and Ladd says it was about as big as his current office, with a basement where "you'd hit your head if you weren't careful," Schirmer recalls. In those early days, he says Ladd "would do anything for a customer, and it hasn't changed much since."
Ladd says that while he did not necessarily aim to specialize in sporting art, with the equine culture in and around Lexington the business naturally gravitated toward that field.
Sporting art led him to England numerous times as the country has a long tradition in the field, thanks in part to royalty and noblemen who wanted paintings of their prized horses and sporting activities. One of Ladd's first trips to England was where he discovered one of his long-standing associations with painter Thomas Coates when he attended a Society of Equestrian Artists show "in the basement of an airline ticket office in London."
Now, in addition to the Lexington location, Cross Gate staff spend months traveling to various locations around the country including Saratoga, N.Y.; Aiken, S.C. and spots in Florida, California and England to cater to the gallery's clientele.
"The whole idea is to get in front of people who like what we're selling," Ladd says. "People can recognize quality, so if you have a quality product and get in front of them, they'll follow you."
Cross Gate has a website, Crossgategallery.com, and does some business online. But Ladd, who recently found the spiral notebook he started the business with, says, "when you get into a certain price range, people want to see the work in person before they buy it."
Lexington is the best central location for his business, Ladd says, because among Keeneland, the Kentucky Horse Park and the many horse farms in the Bluegrass, "most of the people you see on the road are going to be here at some point."
Seeking a more prominent location for those visiting clients to find him was part of the impetus for Ladd to move.
The original Cross Gate expanded a little bit on High Street, but after 15 years, it ran out of space. Zee Faulkner, the owner of Zee Faulkner Antiques, was getting ready to leave her space at 509 East Main Street, and knew Ladd was looking for a new space.
Ladd recalls his longtime friend and colleague, sporting artist Andre Pater, touring the spacious galleries with him exclaiming, "This will be wonderful!"
Ladd also thought it would be easy to direct out-of-towners to the big pink house on Main Street, though the property was a bit of a financial stretch for the still-growing business. One advantage was that Faulkner had restored the spacious three-floor apartment contained within the structure, so Ladd and his wife Laura sold the High Street location and their home and moved everything into the pink house at Main and Forest.
While it's a prominent location, Ladd acknowledges the gallery has kept a modest profile in Lexington, in part because of its large out-of-town clientele and its specialized focus. Many locals probably know the gallery best for its framing work, which largely takes place out of the back and basement of the facility.
Schirmer joined Cross Gate soon after the business opened and in 1987 became a partner in the framing business. Ladd says it complements the gallery in a number of ways, from being an entrée to the gallery for potential clients to being on-site framing for items displayed and sold there. Many art clients also come to have other pictures and objects framed, from bridles and halters to a wedding dress.
Many orders challenge the staff to come up with creative solutions.
"It's a great place to come to work every day," says Schirmer, who many clients know by his nickname, "Rock." "They're great people, and some of them feel like family."
One of them is Mary Phillips, 84, who came to the gallery at the suggestion of a friend and has now been there 35 years.
Over those years, she says she has gotten to know clients, from framing and art purchasers to the artists themselves.
She says she enjoys the art, and occasionally there have been pieces she wished she had bought.
"There was a small Thomas Coates painting of a carousel that I loved," Phillips says. "It sold one day, and I thought I'd die."
Phillips only works Mondays and Saturdays, helping with framing and bookkeeping — she calls herself a "girl Friday" — and says she will keep working as long as she can.
Ladd's passion has rubbed off on his employees, who have shared the journey with him.
To Ladd, it is something of a compulsion.
"Good artists, to me, are few and far between, and when you see someone you like, you have to go get them," Ladd says.
"I don't know how many people are lucky enough to fall into something they love, right off the bat," Ladd says. "But it was luck and it is love, and we've had to hustle from the beginning.
"You hope your clientele likes what you like, and it builds on that. If you have quality, I don't care what you're selling, eventually you can eat, because people will support it."
Cross Gate Gallery
Hours: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Sat., closed Sun and New Year's Day.
Address: 509 East Main St.
Contact: (859) 233-3856, crossgategallery.com.
If you go
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com