One day while Julie Sasse was working for Elaine Horwitch, she got an urgent call from her employer. Horwitch, the renowned gallerist, was holed up at home under police orders because escaped convicts were suspected of being in the area. She needed food and supplies. At her request, Sasse stopped at Furr’s cafeteria to pick up a bucket of fried chicken and, after being cleared by the police, joined Horwitch and her housekeeper on the roof, where Horwitch waved to the police helicopters that were scouting the area. “She was notorious for loving fried chicken from Furr’s cafeteria,” Sasse told Pasatiempo. “We had fried chicken and cherry pies, and she had a pump-action shotgun, pistols — at least five or six weapons — and binoculars, all laid out. She wasn’t afraid. The prisoners were out there and she wanted to find them. She had her horse wrangler saddle up her horse the next day and I saw she had a scabbard. She slipped her rifle into the scabbard and went out to track these guys.”

Sasse, chief curator as well as curator of modern, contemporary, and Latin American art at the Tucson Museum of Art, directed the Elaine Horwitch Galleries in Scottsdale, Sedona,  Santa Fe, and Palm Springs. In May of  this year she was in Santa Fe as a fellow-in-residence at the Women’s International Study Center, working on a book tentatively titled Art Gal: Elaine Horwitch and the Rise of Contemporary Art in the American Southwest. “It’s a biography, but it’s also part memoir because I worked for her for 15 years as her director in various capacities in both Scottsdale and Santa Fe,” Sasse said. “I helped her open her gallery in Palm Springs and helped her to close it. I also was part of the Sedona gallery closing.” Horwitch, who died of a heart attack at her Santa Fe home in 1991 at age fifty-eight, had come a long way from her humble beginnings in the art world: selling prints out of the back of her car. By the time she died, she had represented some of the most prominent Native and non-Native artists working nationally, including Fritz Scholder, R.C. Gorman, Tom Palmore, Billy Schenck, and David Bradley. Although her taste in art ran from high to low, she helped establish Santa Fe and Scottsdale as premier centers for contemporary Native artists.

“There’s a generation of us that still know the stories and have memories of her and knew her,” Sasse said. “If somebody didn’t write about her, her history might slowly disappear. To me, it’s too important and pivotal a time to have those memories and that history go away. What started as the story of Elaine Horwitch has now become so much bigger. It’s become about the rise of contemporary art in Arizona and New Mexico through the hubs of Scottsdale and Santa Fe, and touches on some of the artists that contributed from Taos and Albuquerque or Tucson, because they regularly showed in these two art centers.”

Horwitch, a mother of five, came to Scottsdale from Chicago in 1955. She was a housewife then, not a gallerist. Sasse tells the story of her transformation into a driven, career-oriented entrepreneur: “At one point she read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and her husband panicked. His wife was educated and came from a smart and well-to-do Chicago family. He came home one day and said to her, ‘I’m afraid that after a while you’re going to get bored being just a mother and I think you need to find a career.’ She went with him on a buying trip to New York — he was in the apparel manufacturing business — and went to the museums and the galleries. She came back to the hotel one night and said, ‘I found my career. I want to build a business that’s modeled off of Tupperware.’ ” Instead of going door to door and selling Tupperware, however, she joined her friend Suzanne Brown to start The Art Wagon. “What they did — and this is a legendary story — is they would load up their station wagons with prints that they either borrowed or bought from other galleries and they would meet with Jewish women’s groups or school groups, you name it. There wasn’t a lot of art in town. There were just a few galleries, but mostly they were focused on Native American art or Western art. They would sell the art right out of their station wagons. Their husbands said, ‘If you don’t find a gallery soon, we’re going to divorce you because you’re constantly taking the cars.’ ”

In the mid-’60s, Brown and Horwitch found a little space in Scottsdale that was not even large enough to host artist receptions. But Brown and Horwitch had different aesthetic interests. Brown’s husband was running for Congress and she had less time to devote to their joint business venture. “So Elaine got her own space and that’s when she took off. Everything changed for her then,” Sasse said. “She put a massive amount of money into advertising nationally. She had that much confidence in the type of art she was showing that she felt that she had every right to be competing with New York and Los Angeles galleries.”

Horwitch opened her Scottsdale gallery in 1973 and the Santa Fe Gallery followed three years later. She booked popular entertainers to play at her openings. The artist Larry Rivers played with his jazz band at the openings of his own shows. When she established another gallery in Palm Springs, she brought in Queen Ida and her zydeco band to play for an opening there. “Elaine had charisma,” Sasse said. “People wanted to be around her.”

When the Santa Fe Opera opened in 1957, she started coming to Santa Fe with her husband to attend performances and fell in love with the city. She bought an 8,000-square-foot house on Circle Drive. “It was her favorite home, her favorite gallery, and this is where she really wanted to be. What I’m tracing is when she started, why she started, and how she got to be so popular and so successful. She was grossing in the millions and making artists famous. Fritz Scholder ... was already getting attention nationally, but she was taking full-page color ads in local and national magazines and promoting him in ways no one else had done.”

Sasse, who early in her career was a weaving and metalsmithing professor in Washington, had also worked for Horwitch’s former partner Suzanne Brown. Sasse joined Horwitch in 1980. “It changed my life,” she said. “She taught me about business in ways that I’ll never forget: how she handled people, her total fearlessness, and her business acumen. Every day was a new adventure, selling to people like Vincent Price, Linda Lavin, and Robert Redford.” Even the exercise guru Richard Simmons was a client. “He twirled me around and said, ‘Aren’t you a pretty thing.’ I came from a very humble university family. My family were professors. I’d never been around this swirl of wealthy and important celebrities. It was hugely exciting for me. I worked in Scottsdale and came to Santa Fe in the summers. I sent my family a postcard about how a famous pianist was coming to the gallery and we were moving in a grand piano: That was Michael Tilson Thomas. I’m thinking I’ll do a section in the book called The Legends.” During her time with Horwitch, Sasse organized exhibits of works by Beatrice Wood, David Hockney, and Louise Nevelson, among other prominent artists.

In 1998 New York’s Guggenheim Museum mounted an exhibition called The Art of the Motorcycle. According to Sasse, Charles Falco, one of the exhibit’s curators, lived in Tucson when Horwitch did her own motorcycle exhibit at her Scottsdale gallery — an exhibit he likely had seen and that may have inspired the Guggenheim show. “She would go shopping for vintage motorcycles with Nick Sealy, one of her employees. Sometimes he would say, ‘Elaine, that’s too much money.’ And she’d say, ‘Nick, I know what I’m doing.’ ” Sasse accompanied her on a such a trip while visiting Los Angeles for an art fair. Horwitch kept her cash on hand in a large roll and whipped it out, paying cash for the cycles. “These were rough-looking bikers and there were motorcycles everywhere, marijuana joints half-smoked and sitting out on pieces of equipment. But she negotiated with these guys and had them in the palm of her hand. It was exhilarating. She would go to the flea market outside Santa Fe every weekend and buy out whole booths, then sell all of it marked up 1,000 percent from her gallery the next day.” Horwitch did not just sell contemporary and historic art. She also sold tchotchkes, low-end items that sometimes rankled artists who did not want their work seen alongside hanging mobiles and tables full of cowboy boots. “She showed what she wanted to show and made no apologies for it,” Sasse said.

Horwitch took to riding horses and wearing Native jewelry, concho belts, and Larry Mahan boots. According to Sasse, she had a closet lined with all her cowboy boots in “every color of the rainbow.” And then there were the guns. Although some family members interviewed by Sasse disagree on the specifics, it is likely that she owned a Glock and a pearl-handle Smith and Wesson, as well as rifles and other pistols. “She kept the Smith and Wesson in her purse. She’d be out to dinner with clients and if they talked about gun control, just to freak them out she’d pull out her gun, slam it on the table and go, ‘Well, I always pack heat.’ ” It was a lesson a shoplifter who tried to steal a Zuni fetish from her gallery learned the hard way. “Actually, it was a couple of guys. She blocked the door to keep them from leaving and said, ‘You’re under arrest.’ ”

Horwitch’s former gallery in downtown Santa Fe is currently occupied by Patina Gallery. Before that, it was a gallery owned by Arlene LewAllen, who, for a time, partnered with Horwitch. When Horwitch died in 1991, LewAllen continued to operate the gallery until her own death in 2002. Tom Palmore still shows with LewAllen Galleries in its current location in the Santa Fe Railyard arts district.

Elaine Horwitch is a name familiar to many people involved in the arts in Santa Fe. Although she influenced the rise of contemporary Native arts, particularly in its heyday in the 1980s, not much has been written about either the topic or Horwitch. That, in part, is what prompted Sasse to write her book. “I had gone to a friend’s father’s funeral in Scottsdale and I looked around at who was there. I realized these were all Elaine’s collectors, art professionals, and friends who knew her and they were all getting older. Some were getting dementia. Some were dying. I thought, ‘If anybody’s going to write this book, it’s got to be me and it’s got to be now,’ because I knew who everybody was and where to find them. Without access to the archives ... in this state, and access to the people who were a part of her life, the whole story couldn’t be told the way it needs to be told.”   ◀

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