Cultivating Ohio talent

Keny brothers carry on tradition of supporting, promoting 
homegrown creativity

Sunday,  October 19, 2008

By Jeffrey Sheban
The Columbus Dispatch

Ohio lays claim to many titles: mother of presidents, birthplace of aviation, cradle of coaches, even Swiss-cheese capital.

The owners of Keny Galleries in German Village say another should be on our Ohio-made license plates: the art of it all.

That, they say, is because few places rival the quintessential Rust Belt state as a talent factory for the arts.

"People need to realize the great cultural tradition of Ohio, and that it's ongoing," said Timothy Keny, who since 1980 has been in business with fraternal twin James.

The brothers have built the city's oldest and best-known fine-arts gallery by focusing on Ohio talents George Bellows, Charles Burchfield, Elijah Pierce, Alice Schille, Clyde Singer, James Thurber and others.

"It's certainly one of the most respected galleries in the Midwest," said Louis A. Zona, director of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown.

Keny Galleries' latest exhibition affirms the Kenys' belief in the state: "A Cultural Legacy: 200 Years of Ohio Art" -- featuring more than 100 works from 1775 on -- continues through Nov. 3.

Ohio's glory years for producing wealth, museums and artists extended from about 1860 to 1930, when industrialists plowed part of their fortunes into the visual arts. Their legacy survives in museums and art institutes throughout Ohio.

"These were very sophisticated industrialists who believed very much in the importance of culture to our state," Zona said. "We have a lot to be proud of in this state."

The Butler, the first museum in the country dedicated to American art, was established in 1919 by iron and steel magnate Joseph G. Butler Jr., whose mills would eventually become part of U.S. Steel Corp.

His and similar investments continue to pay dividends.

According to Zona, Princeton University art historian Sam Hunter once said during a lecture at the Butler that there were four centers of art in America: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Ohio.

"We had a very early foundation for support of the arts here," said Jami Goldstein, spokeswoman for the Ohio Arts Council.

Evidence of that can still be found in the number of nationally known fine-arts programs in the state, including Columbus College of Art & Design, Ohio State University's Department of Art, the Art Academy of Cincinnati and the Cleveland Institute of Art.

In addition, Ohio, through the arts council, is one of the few states that provides fellowships for individual artists, she said.

Industrial wealth helped lay the foundation for Keny Galleries.

James and Timothy Keny's father, Gebhard, founded Columbus Plastic Products in 1938, a pioneering company that produced Lustro-Ware and was eventually sold to Borden Chemicals.

Their home was furnished with art and antiques, and their parents were close to the family of Columbus artist Alice Schille. As children, they traveled the world from California to Cairo.

"Wherever we went, Mom and Dad took us to museums -- that was not optional," Timothy said.

He majored in European and art history at Colgate University and earned a master's in business administration from Ohio State University; James graduated cum laude from Harvard University and spent three years in law school.

The brothers, now 52, gained access to family funds in their 20s, enabling them to start buying and selling paintings. After opening their gallery in German Village, they began to work with Schille's heirs to help establish a market for the previously overlooked artist, now considered a master.

Besides operating their cozy gallery on E. Beck Street, the Kenys help wealthy individuals manage their art collections and work with museums in Ohio and beyond to buy and sell art. But they also advise people of more modest means.

Prices for 17 contemporary artists that Keny Galleries represents range from $500 to $10,000; a Thurber drawing can be had for $8,000, and a Bellows lithograph for $10,000.

"If people are interested in art and they want to buy intelligently, we can advise them," Timothy said.

Tough economic times can present buying opportunities for people who invest in fine art, the brothers said.

"There's less money out there chasing paintings now," James said, "and sometimes during a recession we can get access to a superb painting for our clients that we might not otherwise see."

Some of those works will wind up in museums.

The Kenys are on a short list of dealers whom the professionals say they trust.

"Personally, I think they're a treasure in Ohio," said Lynnda Arrasmith, curator and registrar at the Canton Museum of Art. "They've helped us in so many ways -- with exhibitions, with appraisals and finding paintings for our permanent collection."

When the museum needed help with a recent exhibition on American Indian art, Arrasmith said, "The first person I turned to was Tim."

Zona has asked James to write scholarly essays on artists for catalogs.

"Jim is so knowledgeable that he is an easy answer to our problem," he said.

For their part, the brothers say they're happiest when they're educating the public about Ohio art and artists.

"We grew up in Ohio, and we're happy that we can be a resource for people here," James said.

"It's fun for us."



<p>Timothy Keny, left, and brother James in front of The Nude, left, by Edmund Kuehn, and Dempsey Through the Ropes by George Bellows</p>

Timothy Keny, left, and brother James in front of The Nude, left, by Edmund Kuehn, and Dempsey Through the Ropes by George Bellows

"Personally, I think they're a treasure in Ohio. They've helped us in so many ways."
Lynnda Arrasmith
Canton Museum of Art


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