The owner of the largest art gallery in the ABQ is retiring


In a career spanning the state art centers of Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, Roy Johnson has taken the hits.

This story also appeared in Southwest Capital Bank

“Taos is hard; there is no winter market,” Johnson said. “In Santa Fe, I had too many frustrations with cash flow.”

To get through lean winters, Johnson reached out to customers living in driving states who had bought him at least one painting costing $5,000 or more. “I said, ‘Host me at your country club.’ On Friday night we would have a private reception at their house and on Saturday night there would be an art sale at the club.

This way, Johnson could have invented the pop-up show.

Then Albuquerque called. “Pamela and Don Michaelis and John Cacciatore [Ed. note: prominent ABQ arts supporters and a gallery owner] wanted to start an arts festival,” he said. “We moved to 516.” What followed was Magnifico! ABQ Arts Festival showcasing the visual, literary, performing and culinary arts in events throughout the year. 516 Arts currently occupies this building, where Suzanne Sbarge has since forged her vision of an internationally acclaimed, non-collecting contemporary art museum.

After spending nine years owning a gallery in San Diego, Johnson returned to Albuquerque in 2005 and fell in love with 517 Central Ave. NW, the building across from 516. “In an hour, it was mine. he said. Friends were skeptical (“Downtown? Really?”) but Sumner & Dene launched. Since then, the gallery has been a former feature of Route 66, attracting foot traffic and tourists to purchase local arts and crafts.

The Sumner & Dene building in the heart of downtown is for sale. Photo by Michelle Dillon/Stone Crow Photography

At Sumner & Dene, there’s something for everyone, though the mix of high-end craftsmanship has put some people off. For example, “In Taos, some artists were unhappy with the craftsmanship,” Johnson said. “They said to me, ‘If you get rid of all that tchotchke stuff, you can represent me. You know, not everyone has to buy something between $500 and $5,000. Sumner & Dene offers well-priced jewelry from local artisans and home decor items, even an occasional small bench or side table.

Johnson said it bothered a lot of people in the arts community that Sumner & Dene, representing 59 artists, was leaving. “I take that as a compliment. It’s very bittersweet.

And now comes the part where COVID messed it all up – no. “The last two years have been incredible. We closed for three months for COVID. If I hadn’t bought this building, I would have closed at that time. But when it reopened, Johnson found that its regular clientele had cash to spare. “Their expensive vacation had been canceled, and they wanted a Phil-Frank-Angus-David and they were going to buy it now. Almost every day someone bought something important. The artists he names are the favorites of the clients whose careers he nurtured: Phil Hulebak, Frank McCulloch, Angus MacPherson and David Zaintz.

Michelle Dillon/Stone Crow Photography

Other artists and friends have passed away recently, such as Mark Horst, a public art sculptor and figurative painter whose works are displayed on the wall behind Johnson (above). Thinking about mortality helped Johnson make her decision to retire and enjoy her privacy.

Its legacy is hyperlocal. “Ten years ago I decided to only represent the painters of Albuquerque,” he said. “And 80% of our business is local.”

He also said he still sells paintings to baby boomers and hasn’t sold any major paintings to anyone under 50 in 10 years. Young collectors opt for iconic Albuquerque photographs like those of Bill Tondreau. “A lot of young couples like Bill. It really captures why we all floated here.

Johnson’s knack for nurturing relationships has earned him about $30,000 a year since “Breaking Bad” began filming here. “If Water White just sold the art collection at his house, he wouldn’t have to make drugs,” he said wryly. And he’s very grateful for “Better Call Saul,” especially in its final season. (Tips for selling art to TV shows and movies? “You need to sell them art that’s BIG and doesn’t catch the camera – soft palettes, like Jeannie Sellmer’s work”, a other artist represented at Sumner & Dene.)

As Johnson, who enjoys traveling the world, looks forward to retirement, it’s sad to think he may have to let go of some of those carefully nurtured relationships. “Every day I talk to someone. I’m so talkative. It’s my social life.

He worries that he is not as close to his artists and friends, some of whom are the same. “I hope they still want to spend Christmas with me!”

About Debra D. Johnson

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