The bow: Tregoning & Company preserved, made art history

“As the World Turns,” by James Massena March. Acrylic on canvas.

Tregoning & Company was born in 1982, over lunch.

Having cut his teeth at American University and Washington, D.C.-area museums, Tregoning had come to work for a prominent Cleveland framing and appraisal company. However, he quickly found himself in philosophical clashes with the owners. The firm only hung a few paintings on the walls at a time. To Tregoning, this seemed like a wasted opportunity to promote both client artists and the firm’s own framing services. He also repeatedly saw customers return to have individual pieces worked on multiple times. The more times a work is reframed, the more it has to be handled, and the greater the risk to its long-term appearance and integrity. Trained as a preservationist, it chaffed Tregoning’s conscience not to get things right the first time.

“I couldn’t live with the thought of people continuing to bring things back,” he said.

Over that lunch, Tregoning lay the tracks for his graceful exit from the framer. By then, he had quietly secured his first corporate client in need of appraisal and curation services. Stepping away from the table, his solo career truly began.

The date of that lunch was April 1, 1982.

However, Tregoning’s career as a gallerist was anything but a fool’s errand.

Over four decades, Tregoning deployed the most meticulous care to curate countless exhibitions. He supported artists at every stage in their career, and also tended the legacies of lesser-known historic figures. He also used his space to patronize authors and the performing arts. Now, he is taking a much-deserved bow.

“I think at 70, I think I’m done. It takes a lot of energy to do this,” Tregoning said of his four-decade plus career exhibiting and appraising. “I’ve loved what I’ve done for years.”

Clearing out the gallery space in 78th Street Studios is expected to take until the end of February. Tregoning says he will keep representing the artists who work with him, and continue performing appraisals. He has not ruled out curating pop-up exhibits. Tregoning & Company’s website will remain online, and he will remain accessible through the contact information posted there. However, Tregoning is retiring from managing a permanent, brick-and-mortar gallery.

The promise of semi-retired rest is not the only consideration behind Tregoning’s timing. As stresses mount on the middle class, it’s harder to pay fine artists and their curators what they’re worth.

“The market has changed really significantly. The price point of what we sell is unlikely to continue without people [earning] more income,” Tregoning said.

Tregoning’s announcement is bittersweet for the artists he has worked with. While glad that Bill gets to enjoy his retirement, they will miss his encouragement and sharp critical eye. Landscape painter Jamie Morse says that Tregoning was unafraid to say when particular paintings didn’t work; and that these high standards motivated him to improve his work.

“He’s more of a gallery owner. He’s more of a mentor. He supports his artists with great rigor. He can be really critical of [art], and I appreciate it,” said Morse, whose most recent exhibit served as a finale for Tregoning & Company. “No one does it quite as richly and deeply as him.”

When asked what he was most proud of, Tregoning’s first answer was his 78th Street gallery itself. “I really could never do quite what I wanted to do with artists without a space like this,” he said. “That’s has been something I’m very proud of.”

Before moving his business to West Side, Tregoning had operated out of Shaker Heights and Chagrin Falls. After much persuading by 78th Street Studios owner Daniel Bush, Tregoning followed an early wave of gallerists to set up shop in the converted auto factory. Tregoning’s neighbors included Rachel Davis, Derek Hess, and Kenneth Paul Lesko.

Jamie Morse, “White Blossoms 2.”

In 2007, Tregoning & Company opened its first exhibit at 78th Street, a retrospective of abstractionist Ed Mieczkowski’s career. That show also was a premiere for a gorgeous, welcoming exhibit space. To this day, many studios in the complex embrace the facility’s industrial past, retaining the factory-style steel-framed windows sliding doors. While not disparaging the postindustrial aesthetic in the rest of the complex, Tregoning set out to cultivate a different experience.

The first-floor unit was split between front and rear galleries. A series of rotating walls in the front gallery allowed the room to expand, contract, and bend to best fit exhibits. Wall color was also important to Tregoning. Most galleries favor clean white, to allow paintings’ hues and shades to stand on their own. Tregoning enriched the art he hung with deeply colored walls—maroon, pine green, burnt orange. The flexibility of the rolling walls allowed the space to adapt as a performing venue. A lifelong music devotee and amateur vocalist, Tregoning realized the acoustics of his space were “perfect,” and for years hosted concerts and recitals in the gallery. He also opened to space as an intimate venue for artists talks and book launches (including that of A Pocket Full of Change by CAN Journal’s own Michael Gill).

Michael Gill, “Inertia by the Megaton,” from “A Pocket Full of Change.” 2017, wood block print.

Visitors could discuss art either in the galleries, or in Tregoning’s office, which felt more like a lounge, or perhaps an 18th century salon. The workspace was decorated with couches, an oriental rug, custom bookshelves, and paintings in classical gilded frames. (It also has a bed for Tregoning’s Boston terriers, always the gallery’s most disarming and enthusiastic spokespeople.)

As much as a workspace, the office was a room for conversation. Tregoning observed that out of any exhibit, very little will sell in any given timeframe. Selling art requires ongoing attention from audiences, and repeat buyers. That attention needs to be cultivated in friendly, ongoing relationships between gallerists, artists, and clients.

“It’s a thin, thin market here. And when you stake out in one region, one era, and one discipline, you have to really be at it all the time,” Tregoning said.

Tregoning not only discussed art with would-be clients, but connected them with artists, and even allowed them to see how pieces would look in their own homes.

“My principle responsibility has been to allow people to see and judge art on their own terms, to see if they like it, and if they want to own it,” Tregoning said. “I’ve always been keen on getting as much information as possible to possible clients.”

Darius Steward, “Grin & Bear It Part 1,” ink on Yupo, 28″ x 42″

Tregoning shows helped launch the careers of local creators like Josh Usmani, Darius Steward, and Matthew Dibble. But amidst his work on behalf of living artists, Tregoning also made time and space for art history. In recent years, he curated exhibits of works by “Cleveland School” painter Frank Wilcox (1884-1964), abstract expressionist James Johnson (1925-1963), and the ceramicist David Batz (1944-1994).

Collecting enough historic art for a full exhibit takes legwork. For an exhibit of George Gustav Adomeit (1879 – 1967), Tregoning tracked down surviving members of Adomeit’s family, who contributed some 40 works to a 68-piece exhibit. (Tregoning recalls that more than half of those pieces sold within the first week of the show’s opening.) But even after the art was gathered up, Tregoning’s work wasn’t done. For most of these shows, Tregoning published catalogs and essays which contextualized the art within the life and times of their creators. His frequent collaborator was Henry Adams, art historian at Case Western Reserve University and CAN contributor. It is unusual for commercial galleries to publish books on exhibits, and even more unusual for them to sponsor historic scholarship.

In 78th Street, Tregoning & Company showed a total of 46 exhibits. Having completed that final count, Tregoning could barely believe his own math, exclaiming, “God, did I really do all that? Yikes!”

He did do all that, and Cleveland is a richer place for it.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.