When you have an art gallery for decades and then no longer want it, what do you do with the art?
Les and Courtney Ruthven think they’ve figured out an answer.
The psychologists, now retired, opened Mid-America Fine Arts in the late 1970s in a building they own near Central and Hillside. In recent years, the gallery’s 900 works have been in Commerce Plaza downtown, but the Ruthvens sold the building in March and returned the gallery to its original space.
It’s now a private gallery with viewings by appointment only.
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“I’d like to sell it,” Les Ruthven says of the business. “None of our children want to take it over, and I don’t blame them.”
The Ruthvens are looking for a couple or even a few independent contractors who can can bring potential buyers to the gallery. They say they’d like to make what they paid for the works but then, above that, they’ll do a 50-50 split with whomever helps them make a sale.
The intent isn’t to make a huge profit.
“We never wanted to do that,” Les Ruthven says.
“We needed something else to keep us sane,” Courtney Ruthven says of the role of art in their lives. “It became sort of a therapy for us in that it took us away from the problems of our clients and our patients.”
Even though the gallery is a business, Les Ruthven says that “it’s been a secondary business.”
“Oh, very secondary,” Courtney Ruthven says.
The two started buying student art in the days when they didn’t have a lot of disposable income.
“In the meantime, we were educating ourselves,” Courtney Ruthven says.
They educated their children, too. Museums were always on the agenda for any trips they took.
Then they began buying art more seriously.
“One day my banker said, ‘Les, you better stop buying art or start selling,’ ” he says.
Much of what they’ve bought and sold has been at very reasonable prices.
“We found very good deals,” Les Ruthven says.
“And a very few where we paid much too much,” Courtney Ruthven says. “Everybody does that. You take your losses and go on.”
Once, they found a painting by artist David Johnson for which they paid $2,200, then sold for $25,000. That may sound like a lot, but the Ruthvens sold to a New York dealer who in turn sold it for $125,000.
“We’re not New York galleries, and we do not price like that even though we carry the same pieces,” Les Ruthven says.
He says he and his wife have “a lot of stories like that.”
The Ruthvens currently have a Henry Varnum Poor piece that used to hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“The Wichita Art Museum has maybe 10 paintings by him,” Les Ruthven says.
“And we do, too,” Courtney Ruthven says.
At some point, she says, “We became very interested in Kansas art.”
That includes artists such as Birger Sandzen, John Steuart Curry, John Noble and Clayton Staples.
There are so many works, Les Ruthven says they’ll have to rotate them in the new space, at least until the collection is reduced in size.
How long that will take is unclear.
“Who knows?” Courtney Ruthven says.
“If we can get some people to join in with us and be salespeople, and they do well, then they’ll have some income to buy the remaining stock, and then we’re done with it,” Les Ruthven says. “That would be the ideal situation.”
The Ruthvens both chuckle.
“Well, we’ve still got other things to do,” Les Ruthven says.
“Oh, yes,” Courtney Ruthven says.
Les Ruthven says there is life beyond the art.
“We’ve got places to go.”