The Bonfoey Gallery at 130: Art That Transcends Time

The Bonfoey Leadership team, Left to Right: Olga Merela, Marcia Hall, Richard Moore, and Diane Schaffstein

When they opened their first store, no cars swooshed by their display windows. Women’s skirts swept the sidewalks and their jewels glittered under gaslights at the Opera House, just down East 4th Street from the first store. John D. Rockefeller had just started his vertical integration into wealth, Henry Sherwin and Edward Williams had recently introduced a line of marine paints, and the Cleveland Museum of Art hadn’t been funded into its mighty existence.

This is something to celebrate: the Bonfoey Gallery’s 130 years of immersive service to and for the regional arts community. As one of the oldest art galleries in the country, Bonfoey has offered custom framing, appraisals, restoration, art consultation, and installation to private clients, institutions, and corporations. And since the 1960s, Bonfoey has also represented quality work by Northeast Ohio’s finest artists.

“It’s an overwhelming thought,” notes Marcia Hall, Bonfoey’s gallery director and art consultant, who has worked at the company for fifty years. “When we were preparing for this exhibition, we considered that we’ve been in existence for so many years—through World War I, the Great Depression, World War II—and have seen so many inventions arrive. It’s amazing that we’ve sustained our business to be a part of the Cleveland arts community.”

Founder Ascher Bonfoey, who was a violinist for the Euclid Avenue Opera House, was also a talented framer. According to company legend, his wife Della asked him to create a frame to preserve a beloved valentine. He did just that, his Opera House colleagues saw his work and commissioned more frames, and the company was born in 1893.

The framing business grew, with clients like Henry Ford, Rockefeller, and Cleveland luminaries such as the Gund and Severance families requiring custom framing for their personal and corporate art collections. Bonfoey hired George Moore in 1928 as a sales person; Moore worked in all aspects of the business, becoming owner in 1939 and adding artwork sales in the 1950s. Moore’s son, Richard, started working as a teenager for his father, took over the business in 1973, and remains the current owner.

The Bonfoey Gallery is best known for its custom framing, especially its gilding and custom finishes. According to Diane Schaffstein, gallery director and head appraiser, lengthy experience—Bonfoey’s head gilder has worked for 45 years—sets their work apart. Restoration work on an antique frame may include restoring a delicate frame’s missing detail by taking a mold of what remains, recreating the piece, and painstakingly filling the once empty space with a seamless mend.

Bonfoey’s high-quality framing has been equally matched by its notable customer service. In the 1960s, an outside hoist was used to raise six large pictures the gallery had selected for a client recovering from a heart attack in the hospital, to review through the window of his hospital room. More recently, Schaffstein and a Bonfoey crew rode on the top of the Terminal Tower’s freight elevator, in order to deliver and install a massive framed print which wouldn’t fit inside the elevator.

“Being a one-stop-shop sets us apart,” notes Hall. “We have everything in one facility: art consultation and reinstallation for residential and corporate clients, appraisal services, design consultation and restoration, representation for artists—especially quality regional artists—and shipping works. We fill a unique niche in Cleveland; we are a unique niche in Cleveland.”

Anniversary celebration guests included, from left to right, artist Frank Oriti, Bonfoey General Manager Olga Merela, artist Susan Danko, and Eva Merela-Peseski.

Both Schaffstein and Hall note that Bonfoey’s goal is to offer quality artwork that transcends time, and that their length of experience in the art world—the four principals of the company share over 175 years of experience among them—is something few galleries can offer to clients. Upcoming plans for Bonfoey include adding a portrait commission portion to their website, offering master copies of fine art masterpieces, and continuing to do what Bonfoey does best: serving the arts community from their Playhouse Square location.

Celebrate Bonfoey’s legacy with an immersive view of their last 130 years. The anniversary exhibition is on view until January 2024 in both street-level and basement galleries at 1710 Euclid Avenue (fun fact: the rear portion of Bonfoey’s current space was reportedly the famed Ghoulardi studio at WJW, who occupied the building in the ’60s). This retrospective of Cleveland artists who have shown at Bonfoey over the years includes works by Dana Oldfather, Laurence Channing, Chris Pekoc, Clara Deike, Abel Warshawsky, Viktor Schreckengost, Julian Stanczak, Joseph O’Sickey, and others.

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