Artist & gallery owner Billy Hertz.
Text by Keith Waits, Photos by John Nation
Text copyright © 2016 Keith Waits. Photos copyright © 2016 John Nation. All rights reserved.
Artist Billy Hertz means to sell 100 paintings in the next 90 days. The special challenge he has set himself is born of necessity: a grasp for financial solvency in desperate times. The artist is so disarmingly forthright and self-deprecating about the reason for his difficult circumstance that it is hard to believe the stakes are so high. Yet many of his friends and colleagues were slightly alarmed when Hertz distributed an email with this headline: BREAKING NEWS: IT’S THE BEST OF TIMES AND THE WORST OF TIMES AT GALERIE HERTZ.
The missive continued to catalog a number of exhibitions that will include works by Hertz, one of the most renowned painters in this area. But it also carried this dire report:
‘The unfortunate news is that financially GALERIE HERTZ is no longer on solid footing. Due to some very bad financial advice I took, shortly after my recovery from brain tumor surgery & the subsequent radiation therapy, and then even worse legal advice, I am now in the position of trying to avoid “bankruptcy”. I take full responsibility for all my decisions but have wasted more time, energy and monies trying to right the wrongs in trying to become solvent again.“
Billy Hertz is a pioneer gallery owner, having opened his first exhibition space at 632 East Market in the neighborhood now fashionably called NuLu. Commonly featured in national media as a symbol of progressive development in Louisville, when Hertz first set up shop in 1991, NuLu was still an undesirable area filled with run-down buildings and drug dealers. “They were our neighbors,” laughs Hertz, “They would come in and check out the art. But they didn’t buy anything.”
Then in 2006 Hertz collapsed on the street suffering from a brain tumor. He survived the initial round of diagnosis, surgery, and post-op treatments, but he still suffers impaired motor function, particularly in his legs, and the traumatic disruption to his life led, of course, to life-long health-care issues and the inevitable financial challenges that accompany them.
Intensive radiation therapy may have managed the tumor, but it also left Hertz with necrosis of the brain, which is the un-programmed death of cells and living tissue – a “cascade” effect in which dead cells release enzymes that continue to attack healthy cells.* The treatment for that condition has been a strict, 5-days a week schedule of hours spent in a hyperbaric chamber. It has eaten up a lot of Hertz’ free time, but he never stops working. He and his partner, Tom Schnepf, leased out the Market Street gallery space and moved into a property at 1253 South Preston Street in the Smoketown neighborhood, once again hoping to be trailblazers in a neglected area ripe for revitalization. The nondescript structure, built in 1911, was renovated to accommodate exhibition space, a studio for Hertz, storage, and living quarters with a stellar kitchen to facilitate Schnepf’s fabled culinary talents. Schnepf is also a dedicated gardener, and the expansive garden landscape constructed around the courtyard makes the location a showplace in the lower-income neighborhood.
But after more than half a dozen years, the blocks surrounding Galerie Hertz have not changed, and the solitary island of urbane sophistication and culture stands apart from the surrounding environs. Still, Hertz is an assiduous gallery operator, maintaining a reputation for strict loyalty to his artists and a dogged perseverance to a professional standard that demands the same in return.
Yet the inexorable financial drain of ten years of medical expenses have taken their toll, and Hertz and Schnepf were forced to sell a home and studio property that they had kept in Italy for many years. More recently, they lost control of the Market Street property to a bank that Hertz feels acted unethically. “They have been found guilty of fraud several times – it’s a matter of public record,” explains Hertz, “which I only discovered after the fact. ‘We trust you Billy’, they said. ‘We’re excited to be in business with someone of your reputation,’ they told me, ‘You don’t need to consult a lawyer.’ They played on my vanity and my larger than life ego.”
Hertz is now living “check-to-check”, and coping with even greater difficulties in his mobility. “I’m losing the ability to walk. My legs sometimes ‘freeze’ in position.” Yet he cannot help but be upbeat in his demeanor. As he talks about the travails with the bank he laughs easily, fully aware of his own foibles and expecting no pity be wasted on him. “I just wanted people to hear it from me and not through rumor and gossip. Time in the hyperbaric chamber infuses my body with oxygen, increasing the blood flow in my brain and legs, but the issues with my brain are not cognitive, so I can’t even use it as an excuse for my bad decisions,” he exclaims, chuckling. “I wish I could!”
That he sees the answer to this crisis in ramping up his output is natural. Hertz’ work has always been in demand, and the drive to paint, however desperate the motivation, seems to have therapeutic value on many levels. The 100 “new paintings to be” (some of which are completed) will range in size from 12″ x 16″ to 20″ x 24″; all will be priced at $975.00 for a limited time – regular retail would be $1500.00 & up. If he meets his goal, it will still only buy Galerie Hertz room to breathe, not a long-term grip on solvency.
In the past 2 years, Hertz’ paintings have become even more pared down in their form and composition, so that the balance of abstract and representational exists with even greater tension. The relationship of land and water in natural harmony remains the dominant theme, but there has been a shift in his color palette to darker, muted hues, and the details of fields worked by the hand of humankind has been supplanted by an even more pronounced study of surface textures. It is painting for painting’s sake.
1253 South Preston Street
Louisville, KY 40203
Hours of operation:
Wed. – Sat. Noon to 6pm
Most Sundays Noon to 4pm
*Science Daily website
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on ARTxFM/WXOX-LP, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.