Visual Arts

Ann Tower, influential Lexington gallery owner and artist, has died

Ann Tower on top of the LexTran parking structure on Vine Street in May 2004.
Ann Tower on top of the LexTran parking structure on Vine Street in May 2004. Herald-Leader file photo

Ann Tower, an artist who had a multifaceted impact on the arts in Lexington, died Tuesday after suffering an aneurysm Saturday in her gallery on Main Street. She was 65.

Tower ownedthe Ann Tower Gallery in the Downtown Arts Center, where she represented 38 fine artists and folk artists, according to the Gallery’s website. Before opening her eponymous gallery, Tower co-owned or managed numerous galleries, including directing the University of Kentucky Center of Contemporary Art.

She was a successful artist and worked as an art critic for the Herald-Leader from 1983 to 1992. She was married to former UK art department chair Robert Tharsing, who died late last year, and their daughter, Lina Tharsing, has a burgeoning art career.

Lina Tharsing said Tower traveled to New York frequently, but she believed in and dedicated herself to promoting Kentucky artists.

“She was just a tireless advocate for the arts,” said Tharsing, who shared studio space with her mother and manages Ann Tower Gallery. “She really believed that Kentucky had amazing artists.”

Tower spent her life promoting others, but she was an accomplished painter and was “endlessly inspired by nature.”

Tharsing said her mother always kept fresh stargazer lilies on the kitchen table.

“I’d catch her photographing the plants in the house,” she said. “Anything could be a possible still-life for her.

“She had a lust for life and for her friends, but also for art and beauty.”

Tower was born on New York’s Long Island and grew up going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and similar destinations in New York City. Her family eventually moved to Louisville, and she entered the art department at the University of Kentucky in 1969.

In a 1994 profile, she told the Herald-Leader that the department was “really in its heyday. There weren’t the budget cuts you see today. There were lots of visiting artists, a very bohemian feel. I just loved it.”

She and Tharsing married in 1973, and Tower earned her master’s degree in fine arts in 1975. The family spent summers in Nova Scotia, on islands off the coast, and Tower said that fueled her art.

“Unless you’re painting, you’re always so busy. ... Who’d have time to look at a view for hours and hours, or even days?” she said. “It’s wonderful to be out in nature.”

Tower’s gallery ownership and management included co-founding and directing the Hackley Gallery in Winchester from 1995 to ’98. She said that helped her develop an expertise in folk art, and she then ran the Tower Cerlan Gallery with Gayle Cerlan.

But her highest-profile venture was her own gallery, which opened in 2002 at the Downtown Arts Center. On several occasions, Tower said that she assumed there would be tough competition for the then-two-level Main Street space. But it turned out she was the only bidder for the spot. In a 2002 story, she said opening the gallery was her biggest success.

When management of the Downtown Arts Center was transferred from LexArts to the cultural arts division of Lexington Parks and Recreation, the city elected to make the lower level of the gallery a public gallery, but Tower retained the second-floor space. She closed out 2014 with a retrospective show for the last Gallery Hop with the two-level gallery.

Nan Plummer, president and CEO of LexArts, said Tower “will be terribly missed.”

“We’re a city that’s in love with the arts, but there are relatively few commercial galleries, because it’s a very hard business,” she said. “Ann brought such grace” to a competitive business. She was never anything but lovely.”

In 2015, she and her family celebrated Robert Tharsing’s first solo exhibit in New York City, just a few months before his death in December after a long battle with cancer.

In his obituary, Tower said, “We’ve had such a wonderful life.”

“Their lives were just all about the art they were making and the art they wanted to make,” said Lexington photographer Guy Mendes, a friend of Tower since they were students at UK. She later represented his work.

“Ann did a lot for a lot of artists,” Mendes said. “She’s been an advocate.”

Lina Tharsing said she hopes to continue the gallery downtown, but its future will depend on the artists Tower represented and whether they wish to continue.

She described her mother as “an extremely exuberant woman” who was unusually accepting and understanding of others.

“She was just an incredible optimist in that way,” she said. “She saw the best in everyone, and that just made her a pleasure to be around.”

Lina Tharsing and Tower had been working with the Lexington Art League on a retrospective of Robert Tharsing’s work, and she hopes to proceed with those plans.

Tharsing said, “It can be, in a lot of ways, a celebration of both of them.”

Memorial services are pending.

Arts writer and editor Rich Copley contributed to this story.