Three years and going strong

Art dealer Robert Gann with the recent “César Velez: Movement through Memory” exhibit in Habitat Contemporary’s lower gallery (photo by Jim Barcus)

Habitat Contemporary Gallery owner Robert Gann has carved a niche for himself in the Crossroads, showing established and emerging contemporary artists

By self-admission, Robert Gann takes calculated risks. As November 2020 approached, he assessed the upside and downside of a momentous decision. COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were beginning to ease in Kansas City. The curator and gallery owner made an executive decision. Go for it.

Habitat Contemporary Gallery debuted to the public that month in a first-floor space at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center. Many guests still distanced six feet apart and wore masks out of precaution.

“It was an opportune time for opening. People were starved for culture. I was hesitant to open but the opportunity was right for me,” said Gann, 47. “It was a scary time not knowing what was happening. We were in uncharted territory.”

“Blacktacular Issue 8” by Harold Smith (Habitat Contemporary)

Gann featured 2018-19 Pollock-Krasner Foundation award winner Jason Needham’s work in the inaugural exhibit “Wintertide.”

“It was nerve-racking with the COVID threat. It was fun to appreciate the opportunity to show snowscape paintings and have people attend, even though socially distanced and masked,” said Needham, a Kansas City artist.

Since then, Gann’s calculation has yielded more reward than risk. Focused on exhibiting “a broad swath of talent,” Habitat quickly attracted numerous artists who wanted to submit work. It was a welcome addition. For a decade, the Crossroads gallery scene had been steadily contracting with the passing of seasoned dealers such as Byron Cohen and Tom Deatherage; this past September, Weinberger Fine Art closed its brick-and-mortar gallery and went online.

Facing pent-up demand from artists seeking shows, Gann opened the Annex Gallery in the lower level of Leedy-Voulkos a year after establishing his first-floor gallery.

Habitat’s exhibition schedule is now booked through 2025. To manage artist submissions, Gann applies key rubrics to determine whether he’ll show an artist’s work.

Installation view of Kat Dison Nechlebova’s recent “ARCADIA” exhibit in Habitat Contemporary’s upper gallery (Habitat Contemporary)

“I look at the intent behind the work. Is the message they want to communicate fully formed? At the same time, the work doesn’t over-explain itself,” Gann said. “There still needs to be ambiguity, shades of gray where the viewer can get a feel for what the artist intends. Also, if the artist has submitted half-finished work, and seeks my opinion on how to complete it, then the idea isn’t fully executed.”

Gann seeks artists who “give contemplative agency to their work for their audience. I hope to attract creatives who are the modern vanguard, pushing against convention and are on the forefront of contemporary art.” Past shows have included work by emerging artists like Sumire Skye Taniai and established names including Harold Smith and Dylan Mortimer.

Price point is another factor. Gann realizes that work higher than $2,000 isn’t accessible for everyone. He said, “I suggest that artists include work at different price points. Anyone should feel like they are a collector. A collection of artists’ work can include prints and smaller works.”

Gann, who posts prices of exhibit works for sale and lists them on the gallery’s website, explained, “There’s no guesswork. If you have to ask for the price, then it sends a message that ‘you don’t belong here.’”

Inclusion of diverse artists, art forms and accessibility for the art-buying public is deliberate.

Habitat showed “Sweet Times” (2013), a work on paper by Heinrich Toh, at the Carrousel du Louvre-Paris, France, during Focus Art Fair 2022. (from the artist)

“Robert has been involved in the local art scene for some time in different capacities and on multiple curated projects working with a variety of artists,” said artist Heinrich Toh. “What I’ve been impressed with is Robert’s openness to engage with the public and new artists that he may not be familiar with, and physically visit different exhibitions in town.”

Gann’s rapport with artists informs his decisions as an owner at Habitat and elsewhere in the world. For example, Gann showed Toh’s work at the 2022 Focus Art Fair in Paris.

“We discussed the context of his vision thematically with what he wanted to represent at the Fair,” said Toh. “We also came up with solutions to present my works on paper since they were being exhibited unframed. It was important to us to show my work in the best way possible.”

At a Habitat exhibition, Gann proposed that artist Benjamin Parks display two large-scale portraits of his sisters facing each other. Parks was “elated” by the arrangement, which suggested a real-life familial dynamic and enabled viewers to interpret and superimpose their own story.

When displaying artwork, Gann seeks to initiate a dialogue with the audience. Physical navigation around the pieces should be uncomplicated. Sometimes chronology dictates the sequence. Another element, such as illumination for Peter Warren’s light sculptures, might influence the format.

As owner and entrepreneur, Gann juggles management of marketing, social media, website, newsletters and press releases. He enlists an assistant, but organization and time management remain crucial to accomplish tasks and maintain a smooth operation. Experience helps, too.

Gann earned a degree in art history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Subsequently, he interned at Studios, Inc. His internship and volunteer work led to a job offer as a gallery manager at Studios, Inc., where he was promoted to associate director. Gann’s internship at art collection management company D2 Research taught him about provenance, art writing and other professional skills.

In time, Gann reached a career plateau at Studios, Inc. and felt ready to establish his own gallery space. A fortuitous conversation with Leedy-Voulkos co-owner Stephanie Leedy opened a pathway for Habitat.

Gann’s involvement with the local arts community has included roles as Kansas City Artists Coalition program director, committee work at Charlotte Street and arts journalism for the Kansas City art zine, core. He has also collaborated with the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, InterUrban ArtHouse, Weinberger Fine Art and the international BAAR Art Journey and Residency.

Guided by Gann’s capable stewardship, the arts at Habitat not only survive but flourish.

For more about Habitat Contemporary, visit habitatcontemporary.com.

Pete Dulin

Pete Dulin is the author of “Expedition of Thirst: Exploring Breweries, Wineries, and Distilleries Across the Heart of Kansas and Missouri,” “Kansas City Beer: A History of Brewing in the Heartland,” and two other books. His reporting has appeared in “AFAR Magazine,” “Feast,” “Kansas City Magazine,” KCUR, Zócalo Public Square, “The Kansas City Star,” “The Boston Globe,” and other publications.

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