Mai Wyn Fine Art, one of the bright spots among the galleries located along Santa Fe Drive, has sadly flickered out.
Like every other art space in Denver, the gallery is closed right now, but owner Mai Wyn Schantz has announced that she will not be reopening, even after Mayor Michael Hancock lifts the stay-at-home guidelines.
When I spoke with Schantz by phone over the weekend, she told me that the coronavirus shutdown was essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back — or more like the straw bale that did.
“I’ve been trying to do the best I can as an artist, running the gallery, and having a two-and-a-half-year-old at home,” says Schantz, “and I suddenly realized I couldn’t do all of it well. Just having a gallery is a full-time job.”
She adds that the toddler’s daycare provider is her mother-in-law, who is older and thus in a high-risk group for the pandemic.
“I’d never forgive myself if I brought it home to her,” Schantz says.
Even before she decided to open a gallery in 2013, Schantz had already made a name for herself as an artist known for her contemporary takes on Western imagery. For instance, there are her signature paintings of realistically rendered stands of aspens painted on sheets of stainless steel with the sheen of the raw metal serving as a background.
In order to do her work, she had a second-floor studio above Point Gallery (now ReCreative). One day an art student happened by and noticed that Schantz had just sold a painting out of the hard-to-find space for $5,000. “She said to me, ‘You should have a gallery.’ And I realized she was right,” Schantz recalls.
The storefront at 744 Santa Fe Drive, which once housed the Sandra Phillips Gallery (now in the Golden Triangle), was empty and had been for over a year then. The place was a mess, with a ramshackle loft and a dangerous spiral staircase, so Schantz’s husband, sculptor and performance artist Zack Smith, along with the couple’s artist friends, Joe Riché and Bryan Andrews, and Schantz’s late father gutted the space and rehabbed it. They turned the shabby shop into a sharp-looking white-cube exhibition space and, behind the rear wall, Schantz’s studio.
“I got the space on a whim," explains Schantz. "I didn’t have a business plan, and I’ve just fumbled my way through ever since."
Schantz had a soft opening in May of that year, seven years ago next month. I reviewed Influence, her first formal exhibit, that June.
Over the years, Schantz assembled a stable of artists who proved that the gallery wasn’t just a vanity space meant to promote her own work, but a credible gallery. These included contemporary master of Colorado sculpture Chuck Parson, as well as such other well-known names in the scene as Rian Kerrane, Chris DeKnikker, Katharine McGuinness, Lauri Lynnxe Murphy and Tommy White, among others.
“What made it a good gallery was because I only included artists whose work I believed in,” Schantz explains.
Schantz has been struck by the outpouring of support she’s received from artists and clients since she announced her decision. One gallery supporter even offered to invest $10,000 in the business in order to keep it going.
“I looked at how much it would really take to survive a year, or even two, of this,” muses Schantz, “and I just didn’t see how it could work. Our sales in March were down 70 percent when compared with last year. No one anticipated this.”
The decision to shut down has been one of the most difficult that Schantz has had to make, and one that has led to quite a bit of sorrow.
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“I don’t feel great about it," Schantz says, choking up a little. "It’s been horrible to end this way. I can’t even hug the artists who have been with me for all these years."
Schantz has been scrambling this week to get works back to the artists, as well as to move her studio and the things stored in the basement: her own work going back decades, the varied equipment needed for openings and receptions, and the seasonal decorations used at the holidays.
While Schantz isn’t much of a drinker, she told me with a laugh: “Since I started moving out, at the end of every day, I think to myself, ‘I need a drink!’”
I’m going to miss Mai Wyn Fine Art, which was one of the best small galleries in town, and I think a lot of other people will miss it, too.