Loyalty to artists and rare business acumen have kept Tory Folliard’s gallery going for 30 years.
During the economic boom of the 1980s, you could see works by blue-chip artists like Andy Warhol hanging in Third Ward galleries. When Tory Folliard began renting the ground floor of a mid-rise brick building on Milwaukee Street, she had to find a way to compete with big-name dealers such as Michael Lord – who kept a pied-à-terre in Manhattan and sold million-dollar artworks out of his namesake gallery like they were Girl Scout cookies.
Now the Tory Folliard Gallery, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is one of the last holdouts of that era, a testament to its owner’s passion, and endurance. “We’ve lost so many galleries here,” Folliard says, sitting behind a desk in her office, staring at a dozen or so paintings – many by Wisconsin artists – hanging on the opposite wall. “I’m the last left of that group.” The Third Ward boasts many other galleries, but Folliard’s has been around the longest and is distinguished by its expansive, street-level presence.
In 1988 Folliard, who studied art history at the University of Michigan, was a recent Milwaukee transplant. She moved to the city from Chicago when her husband took a job here, and she quickly immersed herself in the local art scene, intent on opening a gallery of her own. Eventually she met Guido Brink, the German-born sculptor who founded the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, and convinced him to let her sell his work out of her Fox Point home. “I invited everyone I knew to the opening, and practically emptied the house of all my furniture,” she says, grinning when she remembers the anthropomorphic sculptures that briefly invaded her home. Emboldened by the success of that show, Folliard soon opened the first incarnation of her gallery. “I started with 10 artists in 1988,” she says. “Now I’m up to 65.”
Among them is Fred Stonehouse, a local artist with a national following. (Sheryl Crow and Madonna both collect his work.) Stonehouse has known Folliard for about 20 years and believes that she has as much of an eye for business as for art. “Many people decide to become dealers because they’re passionate about art, but they have no training in business and usually they’re pretty bad at it,” he says. “Tory has survived because she’s such a savvy business person, and she’s always been smart about how she spends her money.”
Stonehouse also believes Folliard’s fierce loyalty – to her clients, and especially her artists – has helped her weather the economic storms that set many of her competitors adrift. Laurie Winters, the director of the Museum of Wisconsin Art, says much the same thing: “If she makes a commitment to an artist, she follows through on that commitment.”
Though Folliard demurs when asked how she’s managed to succeed where others failed, how her openings draw crowds when so many arts programs are being gutted, she talks candidly about why she continues to work as hard as she does, and why she has no intention of retiring anytime soon. “You’ve got a lot of people depending on you,” she says. “You can’t let them down.”
30 Years of Art in MKE
1988 Tory Folliard opens a small gallery in a strip mall on Santa Monica Boulevard in Fox Point.
1990 The Tory Folliard Gallery moves to its current location at 233 N. Milwaukee St.
2001 The Milwaukee Art Museum completes construction on the Quadracci Pavilion, a major expansion project that captures national attention.
2006 Michael Lord, then owner of one of Milwaukee’s best-known galleries, is sentenced to 14 months in prison for defrauding investors.
2013 The Museum of Wisconsin Art, which showcases the talent of local artists, opens a new 32,000-square-foot facility in West Bend.
2016 Dean Jensen, a dealer who sold work by bluechip artists like Bruce Nauman, closes his eponymous gallery after nearly 30 years in business.
2017 Sculpture Milwaukee, a free outdoor sculpture exhibition installed along Wisconsin Avenue, debuts.
2018 The Tory Folliard Gallery celebrates its 30th anniversary.
Exhibit through Sept. 8
To celebrate 30 years in business, the Tory Folliard Gallery is mounting a special anniversary show. Roughly 150 works – paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs – by dozens of artists will be on view.
Artists, top (left to right): Richard Taylor, Claire Stigliani, Jeremy Popelka
Bottom (left to right): Mary Jones, Charles Munch, Fred Stonehouse