When longtime Old City gallery owner Rodger LaPelle died in June, at the age of 83, his old friend filmmaker David Lynch was deeply pained.
“I love the guy, and I am so sorry he’s gone,” Lynch said recently by telephone from his Los Angeles studio. “He was a saint to the artists.”
LaPelle’s gallery on North Third Street closed more than a year ago, and the building has been sold — one more closure in a lengthening line of closings that has eroded Old City’s identity as the city’s art district. Galleries surely remain — Larry Becker, Pentimenti, and Stanek galleries on North Second Street, F.A.N. Gallery on Arch Street, to name a few.
But many of the longest-running galleries have shuttered, such as Rosenfeld Gallery, Gallery Joe, and Snyderman-Works, and design showrooms and boutiques have been moving in. What this means for the future of Old City remains to be seen, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic has forced many galleries to go virtual and small retail establishments are struggling.
LaPelle and his wife and business partner, Christine McGinnis, were among the first to move into the neighborhood. Both attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the early 1960s and had been running a gallery near Rittenhouse Square. McGinnis died last year at 82.
LaPelle turned out abstract canvases his entire life, maintaining that the gallery made it possible to exhibit his own work. But, as he told another painter, “if you want to do abstraction, go to New York or California. Philadelphia is not the place.”
He didn’t take his own advice.
In 1985, LaPelle and McGinnis, who made very salable animal prints, in addition to more serious work, bought a huge, five-story building at 122 N. Third St. and set up shop on the first floor.
LaPelle already represented a number of artists, many of them former PAFA students. He prowled through the annual student exhibitions at PAFA ,and with a sharp eye, picked up many works at rock-bottom prices.
Painter Fred Danziger recalls another LaPelle approach to acquiring art of promise.
“He put me on salary,” Danziger recalled. “He was paying me $100 a week, and I gave him all of my work. He had a bunch of clients including Joe Frazier, the boxer. Yeah. So that was how I got started with Rodger, and then when he opened the gallery, I was one of his first artists.”
LaPelle used a variation of this approach on Lynch, whose work he discovered at PAFA.
“Rodger helped me at a time when I really need his help,” Lynch recalled. Lynch went to work for LaPelle and McGinnis making prints in the old Germantown carriage house they owned.
“I was hired as a printer along with Christine’s mother — who we’d called Flash, that was her nickname — and Flash and I would print all day long. I was totally broke ... and during that time I worked for Rodger, I got an independent filmmakers grant from the American Film Institute. And I made a film called The Grandmother, and Flash was the grandmother. ...
“Everything was just synchronicity,” Lynch said. “It was so beautiful. Rodger would pay me to paint on the weekends. So I’d paint, he’d give me 25 bucks for Saturday or Sunday. And he keeps the painting, so Rodger got a lot of my work for a little money. But he supported me and that was the main thing.”
When Lynch moved to L.A., LaPelle would send him paper and pencils and tell him to draw.
“I would do it,” Lynch said. “I would do a drawing for him, he’d pay me for it, and I’d send it to him. And so he collected things and sold things of mine that way. This was during my first feature film, Eraserhead, right? And then after that, I started making some money and he didn’t have to help me anymore.”
The main character of Eraserhead works at the LaPelle printing plant.
Lynch’s experience is not singular. LaPelle was always on the lookout for younger artists, particularly younger artists associated with PAFA, long a bastion of figurative work. LaPelle was devoted to PAFA (which reopens Sept. 12), serving for many years as president of the Academy Fellowship, the school’s unofficial alumni organization.
“He was absolutely instrumental in supporting the academy,” said painter and filmmaker John Thornton. “He would always go to the student shows looking for talented students. He would put them in new talent shows. He was really supportive of artists.”
The painter Kathleen Shaver, who attended the Moore College of Art and Design and PAFA, remembers her anxiety about dropping a painting off for the PAFA student exhibition in the mid-1980s.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, look at all these incredible paintings. Why am I here?’” she remembered. “But I left my painting. What was I going to do?”
She won a prize. LaPelle telephoned her.
“He asked about my work, and I was really self-deprecating,” Shaver said. “I was like, ‘Well, you know, I don’t have enough. I only have a few pieces and I don’t think you’d be interested in them.’ He said, ‘No, no, I’d like to see them. I want you to bring them over to the gallery.’”
Eventually, she trooped over to North Third Street. LaPelle looked at her work and took three pieces, which he promptly sold.
“And we were off to the races after that,” Shaver said. “I just kept painting, and he kept selling everything that I did” — about 180 of 200 paintings.
“I would not call myself an artist today if it wasn’t for Rodger, because I had no confidence.”
In the 1990s, when Old City was swarming with people on the first Friday of every month — the evening all the galleries scheduled exhibition openings and late hours — the LaPelle Gallery was always a focal point of attention. Long and brightly lit, the gallery featured a large table surrounded by cheap white plastic chairs.
LaPelle, lanky and often cryptically taciturn, would sit at the table with McGinnis, her hair so blond it would shine. Painter Ben Kamihira would stop by and talk. Danziger was often there. Artists from all over dropped by.
“He had this kind of deadpan sense of humor,” recalled Thornton, adding that LaPelle liked to wear a duck-billed seed-company hat “like he was some tractor-driving farmer. I found it very funny but also very much in tune with his personality.”
Former gallery owner Rick Snyderman, who retired about three years ago, recalled that he wanted to send an artist to LaPelle but had difficulty locating a gallery telephone number. After finding the number, he called LaPelle to tell him about the problem.
“I had a great deal of difficulty locating a way of contacting you,” Snyderman told LaPelle. “And he paused, and he says, ‘Yes, we’re very discreet here.’”
“I really appreciated him when I opened my gallery in 1991,” said Fraidoon Al-Nakib, universally known as Fred, owner of F.A.N. Gallery around the corner on Arch Street. “He was really very kind to me. He was different. He was unique, I think, but in a good way, in a good way.”