WOLFS art gallery is known for its collection of work spanning 400 years — and for work by artists in the so-called Cleveland School, a community of artists who lived and worked here beginning in the late 19th century.
By Diana Simeon
Cleveland’s art lovers need no introduction to the free-standing brick building that graces the Shaker Heights end of Larchmere Boulevard’s business district.
For 40-plus years, the 1930s-era building – a former power station for streetcars – housed the highly regarded Sylvia Ullman American Arts and Crafts Gallery. Last spring, the building became home to another esteemed Cleveland art gallery: WOLFS, which specializes in fine and decorative arts.
Step into 13010 Larchmere and it’s easy to see why WOLFS made the move to Shaker, from its former location up the street in Cleveland. Light spills from a dozen or so enormous, industrial-style windows into a spacious venue with soaring 30-foot ceilings.
The building was renovated in 2013 by owner Ilene Greenblatt. At 8,500-square-feet, it’s perfectly suited for WOLFS’ collection of more than four centuries of art.
Indeed, the range of art available at WOLFS, from 17th century to contemporary works, makes the gallery unique, and not just in Cleveland.
“Even in New York, you don’t really find places like this. A lot of other galleries may only handle 20th century American art or contemporary art, but we’re comfortable handling centuries of things,” explains Shaker resident Bridget McWilliams, who runs the gallery with longtime business partner Michael Wolf. The gallery is owned by Wolf’s family.
The duo is at ease with such a wide range of art because they’ve been working with it for decades. McWilliams has a Master’s degree in art history from Case Western Reserve University and is an accredited member of the Appraisers Association of America. Wolf, meanwhile, started his career with a gallery on Coventry Road almost four decades ago. In 1979, he founded the successful Cleveland-based international auction house, Wolfs Fine Art Auctioneers. He hired McWilliams from the Cleveland Museum of Art to serve as assistant director.
The auction house shut its doors in the 1990s, and the partners moved on to other opportunities. But several years ago, they decided to bring WOLFS back, this time as a Larchmere-based gallery offering its customers only the best of what they discovered in the region and elsewhere.
“WOLFS has a lot of history in Cleveland,” explains Wolf. “This iteration is primarily a gallery, but it’s a gallery that evolved out of our being in the auction business for so long.”
Walk around the new space with McWilliams and Wolf and you can’t help but catch their enthusiasm, not to mention be dazzled by the visual feast that is on display.
“This part of the gallery is really a good example of how diverse it is here,” explains Wolf. He’s pointing to an area of the first floor, where there’s a 19th century copy of a fourth century statue of Aphrodite. Nearby, there’s a 1930s-era painting of New York City’s Central Park, as well as a contemporary work by the Ashtabula, Ohio-born artist Lainard Bush. There’s also a work by the famed Cleveland School artist, Paul Travis.
“Really, the whole place is kind of like this,” says Wolf.
Take another area of the gallery, where on a recent winter’s day, a visitor finds an African sculpture of an alligator atop a Chinese alter table, next to a Chippendale chair, behind which stands a teakwood carving, from Southeast Asia, of a tiger.
“We have the privilege of having all these centuries of art and it’s fun to be able to mix it together,” says McWilliams.
And that’s just the first floor. A basement houses hundreds of additional pieces, including the gallery’s Jay Gates Collection of Asian art. Gates was a protégé of the former director of the Cleveland Museum of Art and Asian arts expert, Sherman Lee. A mezzanine, rebuilt during the building’s renovation, holds still more, like a lithograph by American artist – and Ohio State University graduate – George Wesley Bellows, as well as McWilliams’ favorite among the gallery’s hundreds of paintings: the “Death of Procris” by the American artist Joseph Glasco.
WOLFS is particularly well-known for its collection of work by artists in the Cleveland School, a community of artists who lived and worked in the region beginning in the mid-20th Century.
“They had their own style. They collaborated. They inspired one another,” says Wolf.
The gallery boasts dozens of works by these artists, including Friedrich Carl Gottwald, the grandfather of the movement, and Henry Keller, Marion Bryson, Paul Riva, Ora Coltman, and Kenneth Marcus Hugh, among many others. It also represents the estates of two leading Cleveland School artists, Paul Travis and Carl Gaertner.
Enthusiasm for Gaertner’s work has grown steadily since his death in 1952. A Gaertner painting sold recently for $250,000 at auction. The artist is particularly admired for his American Scene paintings, and many of those scenes are of Cleveland and its environs, including the stunning “Saturday at Chagrin Falls,” a signature piece that presides over the main floor at WOLFS.
“Gaertner rolled that up and hid it in his farmhouse on River Road,” says Wolf. “His son only found it a couple of years ago.”
Discovering art and artists is a perk of the job for McWilliams and Wolf, who make acquisitions for the gallery together. “We converge on things, then we know we’ve got it right,” says Wolf.
Several years ago, the partners were invited to the South Euclid home of Mary Agnes Matousek, at the time recently widowed from Kenneth Marcus Hugh.
“Her entire living room and dining room were covered in stacks of watercolors,” recalls McWilliams. These days, Hugh’s work is not widely known, but the partners hope that WOLFS can help introduce the Ohio artist to the public.
“Works like that are so good and we know it, but the world doesn’t necessarily know it,” muses Wolf. “The talent is oftentimes never discovered. We see great things that go unappreciated all the time.”
Originally appeared in Shaker Life, Spring 2015.