Behind the scenes

Share this:
February 26, 2002 // UPDATED 1:14 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

A Downtown gallery old enough to be an antique -- but young enough to be au courant

Once a part of the original Dayton's department store, the newest generation of family entrepreneurs keep the 116-year-old Downtown Vern Carver Beard Galleries alive

Sitting on the skyway level of gleaming LaSalle Plaza, Vern Carver Beard Galleries doesn't look old. However, looks can be deceiving -- the gallery is 116 years old.

The story of the Vern Carver Beard Galleries is actually two tales (see timeline). The Beard part of the story dates back to 1886; the Carver family joining the flow of history 50 years ago.

Harington Beard began The Beard Art Galleries as a fine art, art supplies and stationery store at 4th Street and Nicollet Avenue in 1886.

"The Beard Art Galleries, when it was first founded, was the only art resource in Minneapolis," said Richard Beard Thomson, the grandnephew of Harington Beard. "It was just about the only place where you could buy paintings by known, recognized American masters. It was also a stationery store."

From Dayton's through the Depression

Throughout war and the Depression, The Beard Art Galleries survived Downtown in various locations. At one point it even occupied the second floor of Dayton's. "Mr. Beard and the original Mr. Dayton were good friends," Thomson said.

According to Thomson, the gallery survived largely out of Harington Beard's own compassion. "Mr. Beard tried very hard to keep the gallery going for the sake of his employees," Thomson said. "But he died in 1940; all of us in the family felt that the strain of keeping that gallery going in the tough times was very hard on him."

Two years before Beard's death, Joseph Walton bought the store, renaming it Joseph Walton and Company -- The Beard Art Galleries, and changing the product line to arts antiques.

Enter the Carvers

Meanwhile, in the '50s, Vern Carver was an architecture student at the University of Minnesota, studied sculpture at the Walker, and dabbled in various artistic professions -- at one point, he made enameled jewelry and lived on $45 a month. In 1954, a friend got him a job selling picture frames for a framing company. By 1961, he owned the custom-framing portion of the company, and by the late '60s, the place had evolved into a gallery. "I started handling a few pieces of some friends' work in the frame shop. In about 1968 we got into handling original graphics," Vern said.

When his children were old enough, they helped their father at work. "Jon was kind of the first one that helped. I think he was only nine years old when he first started coming down Saturdays. His older brother Chris used to come in, too," said Vern.

While the Carvers were becoming a family enterprise, Thompson was reclaiming the Beard family business. In 1983, Thomson repurchased the gallery, restored it to its original name and converted it back to a gallery of 19th- and early-20th-century American artists such as William Merrit Chase.

In 1989, Jon and Chris Carver also bought the family business from their father.

A match made by Target

The Carvers were finally forced into Beard's arms thanks to Target Corp., which took over the block on 12th Street and Nicollet Mall in 1996 for their new headquarters. The Carvers moved into the Beard gallery on the 1100 block of Nicollet, bought Thomson out, and have since moved to LaSalle Plaza.

"I have been very, very happy that I have sold the gallery to the Carvers because they do a good job and they're very nice people," Thomson said. "They have continued the same atmosphere and the tradition of the Beard Galleries that have existed now for well over 100 years."

When Thomson owned and ran the gallery, it was a showcase of well-known, national artists. Today, Vern Carver Beard Galleries is known mostly for its paintings by local artists.

"The art has a cohesiveness structured around traditional imagery," Jon said. "We're selling new pieces, but we're also re-selling old pieces."

Today, the kid who once swept and dusted his dad's gallery is a distinguished-looking, khaki-wearing businessman. Jon has been working there for 35 years now, and he jokes that it must be almost time for retirement, even though he is only 45.

Vern Carver swears that he never did anything to spur his children toward careers in the arts.

"I don't think it's a good idea to really encourage people too much in art because I think it's the roughest field in the world," Vern said. "People say, 'I've got a nephew who's really good at drawing, what should I do for him?' I say try breaking his fingers on his right hand. That will take care of it."

An item you use all your life

Surrounded by art at work and artists themselves, it would seem natural that the Carvers would be collectors as well as dealers. Both Jon and Vern, however, say that one cannot be both an art collector and a dealer. "You'll want to take everything home," Jon said.

"I don't really collect a lot, but of course my walls are covered." Vern revealed that his smallish Downtown condominium has no less than 27 paintings scattered between the living room and dining room. He describes the art in his house as very diverse in size, subject and color. "All good art will fit well together. It's only bad art that doesn't fit," he said.

Jon said that while his tastes used to skew toward the avant-garde, he now prefers quieter paintings. "The pieces I have in my home I continue to enjoy over a long period of time," Jon said.

"There's a lot of art being sold right now that is eye candy. It doesn't have longevity."

Jon and Vern have advice for potential art buyers. "Buy what you like," both say.

Vern said that he once had a woman come into the store who wanted advice on a piece that would look good in her bathroom. "How can I suggest what she should buy for her bathroom?" Vern said. "I said, 'How about you buy something you like?'"

Vern also said that those who buy art rarely buy it after one glance. "They don't just pick a piece off the wall and walk off with it. Or if they do that, they're buying it for the wrong reasons. It's like looking at the cover of a book and saying, 'I'm going to love that book,'" he said.

According to Jon, buying art as an investment usually isn't a good idea either, unless you're planning to spend a small fortune. "To make an investment in art, the starting level is at five to ten million at Sotheby's or Christie's. You buy a Picasso, or a Rembrandt, or a Monet," he said.

Jon thinks of art as an item that you can use all your life. "You hang a painting on the wall, and ten years from now you still have it. You can use it to its full potential. You can't do that with other things, like cars."