(written on assignment for DePaul University’s ENG 477, Magazine Editing)
Doug Dawson is concerned about the future of his life’s passion. The 62-year-old founder and owner of the self-named Douglas Dawson Gallery, which focuses exclusively on non-Western art, sees a rather worrying generational shift in aesthetic taste.
Dawson’s love developed in a young adulthood spent almost conventionally for the late 1960s and 1970s – traveling the reaches of the world, from Guatemala to Japan, and even settling for a spell on a commune. “The least cool thing that one could do in 1970 was to go into business – law degree or anything like that,” he remarks. “So very naively I opened a gallery that quickly became predicated on people of kind of my consciousness, people who had traveled a lot, people who had a lot of interest in non-Western culture, had been Peace Corps volunteers, had been in Afghanistan looking for great hashish, had been cultural exchange students.” Dawson’s gallery focused on the tribal art with which he, and a burgeoning number of others, had fallen in love during such travels. It was these people who allowed the new business to take root, and a surge in interest in the style among art connoisseurs, collectors, and interior designers from the 1970s through 1990s helped the gallery flourish.
But while Dawson’s wares remain popular with his client base, tribal art has “diminished terrifically” in overall popularity in recent years, with the younger audience that in another era may have favored the category now turning more towards photography – if taking any interest in art at all. Dawson is blunt about the reality. “If I were 20 and loving the world of non-Western art,” he says, “you’d be a fool to open a gallery like I did, because you would suffer until it ever comes back into fashion.” The shift, he thinks, may be attributable to a number of factors – economic woes, the rise of technology, and even heightened sensitivity to the looting that’s brought many non-Western pieces to the West.
As a sometime-instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Dawson has made efforts to encourage deeper interest in tribal art among his students, inviting them to peruse the collection on display at his gallery. Unfortunately, the reaction is often indifference. “It really bothers me,” he admits. Yet he actively works to make the gallery an inviting space for the uninitiated, a “point of entry” for newcomers to tribal art who may be otherwise unfamiliar with the regions and tribes from which ceramics and textiles have originated.
“Museums, I think, are hard,” Dawson notes. His goal is to place even ancient art in fresher environs, and it’s this approach that he hopes will spark new fans to feel a passion similar to his own. “The way we present the material, we present it as an aesthetic experience. Come in and look at this piece and just get off on it. It’s incredible, whatever it is. “