Duff Lindsay reflects on the changing Short North and 20 years of showing work by self-taught artists

When Duff Lindsay moved his art gallery from Upper Arlington to the Short North in 2001, Gallery Hop was already a popular, well-established event. But for some reason, few people would stop into Lindsay Gallery on the first Saturday of every month.

To figure out why, Lindsay, a former journalist, recruited someone to keep an eye on the art hanging on his walls while he ventured south to see where the Gallery Hop crowds were going — or not going. Standing at the corner of High Street and Hubbard Avenue, near since-closed sushi restaurant Haiku, it didn’t take long to figure out that pedestrians weren’t ready to venture north all the way to Lindsay Gallery, which sits at 986 N. High St., at the corner of High Street and East Second Avenue. 

“I watched crowds of people hit that corner, look north and turn around and go the other way,” Lindsay said in an interview inside his Short North gallery. “The sidewalks were all busted up. There were no streetlights on that block. It just looked scary.”

According to Lindsay, most people have already forgotten that consistent street lighting in the Short North — now a nationally recognized arts district booming with luxury apartments and condos and plenty more new construction underway — is a relatively new thing. Even though Lindsay Gallery is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, up until a few years ago, people would still walk into the space and ask when he opened.

So how has Lindsay kept his High Street door open all of these years? Turns out the reality of running an art gallery in the Short North has little to do with foot traffic. Contrary to popular belief, Gallery Hop could end tomorrow and Lindsay’s bottom line wouldn’t take a hit. In fact, aside from one small purchase, no one has wandered into Lindsay’s space during Gallery Hop and bought a piece in the last seven years.

“The basic misnomer is that you get a space and you put the art on the walls and people come in and buy it,” Lindsay said. “I could count on my fingers and toes how many times in 20 years someone that I’ve never seen before walks in the door, looks around, sees something and says, ‘I'll take it.’”

Rather, Lindsay has built a base of local and national collectors who trust his eye for work made by self-taught artists — a designation Lindsay prefers, since it can encompass the overlapping worlds of folk art and so-called outsider art (“My customers, in large part, still identify themselves as outsider art collectors,” he said). Still, even “self-taught” doesn’t fully describe the artists who have exhibited at Lindsay Gallery over the years.

“I wish there was a better way to refer to it. … You get an artist like Bill Miller, who does linoleum work. He was a graphic designer early in his life. So there’s nothing folky about him, and he’s certainly not an outsider. But I just loved it. It always knocked me out,” Lindsay said. “If I don't want to take it home, then I don't want to show it. … The only important things are, ‘Do I like it?’ and ‘Do I think my customers are gonna like it?’” 

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To celebrate this milestone year, Lindsay Gallery is hosting a 20th Anniversary Show featuring more than 30 artists who have exhibited there over the years, including Levent Isik, Ricky Barnes, Harry Underwood, Ashley Pierce, Wallace Peck, Popeye Reed, Meghan Willis and the artist who changed the course of Lindsay’s life: Elijah Pierce. 

***

Lindsay grew up in a blue-collar family in the southern Ohio town of Portsmouth, attending public school there and rarely visiting museums. He wasn’t merely disconnected from the art world as a kid; he didn’t even know it existed.

That all changed when Lindsay went to Ohio State as a film student and got invited to do the lighting on a documentary about Elijah Pierce, a wood carver from Mississippi who opened a barber shop in Columbus and later become world-renowned for his work.

“Pierce was such an inspirational person. He was probably one of the most quietly charismatic people I’ve ever met in my life. He is someone who just radiated a power,” Lindsay said. “You don't often know you’re having a revelatory moment when you have it, but in later years I realized that I did. … I felt that the art world was closed to somebody like me. But I thought that if the art world, or at least that segment of the art world, was open to somebody like Pierce, that it would be open to me, too.”

From there, Lindsay dove into the world of folk art, reading everything he could get his hands on and meeting as many artists as he could. When he traveled, he visited galleries that specialized in folk art, which led him to the broader outsider art scene. “I loved the idea that in its purest form, the art wasn't being made to be the flavor of the month in the big-time New York galleries,” he said. “It was being made by ordinary people just out of the need to express something.”

Lindsay worked for Ohio State as a cinematographer, shooting football and basketball games for recruitment films. In 1975, he landed a job at Channel 10 as a cinematographer, eventually shooting news and later becoming a producer and writer. Though local news was resistant to art-related stories, Lindsay would slip in features about artists whenever he could.

“The news photographer side of it was a great job to have in my 20s and 30s, and somewhat into my 40s. I traveled all over the world back when there was a budget to do that sort of thing. And then there wasn't anymore,” he said. “It seemed like the content was more consultant-driven than journalistically driven, and that rubbed me the wrong way. … I didn’t love it anymore.”

As Lindsay pondered what to do next, he looked around at all the art he’d been collecting since the 1970s, and the path forward began to seem obvious, though certainly risky. When a friend mentioned she was closing her clothing boutique on Guilford Road in Upper Arlington with two years left on the lease, Lindsay jumped at the chance to open an art gallery in his own neighborhood. So in 1999 he quit his job, and three months later he had his first exhibit.

Lindsay was mostly happy in UA, but from time to time, Sandy Wood, Short North visionary and founder of development firm the Wood Companies, would stop in and try to lure Lindsay away. “He kept saying, ‘I’m going to find the right space for you in one of my buildings.’ And I'd say, ‘I'm not leaving here. I can walk to the gallery from my house. My kid’s elementary school is around the corner,’” Lindsay said. “He showed up one day and said, ‘Come take a ride with me. I did some snooping around. I know what you're paying for rent here. I'm going to give you more space for less money right on High Street.’”

It was an offer Lindsay couldn’t refuse. The space was 1,000 square feet with big storefront windows and high ceilings perfect for track lighting. Other than the paint splatters on the wood floors from the furniture shop it used to house, it was pretty much ready to go. And Lindsay was no stranger to the Short North. He’d been coming to the neighborhood for years, back when the “Arts District” tag was more aspiration than reality. He attended Gallery Hop early on, and often, after finishing his Channel 10 shift at midnight, he’d hang out at the Short North Tavern. 

Plus, running a gallery in Arlington did have its drawbacks. “I wasn't getting any neighborhood business, even though it was right in the heart of an upscale neighborhood. The work that I carried then, and obviously still do, it's not what you would call decorative,” he said. “Somebody from (UA) City Council called me and said, ‘Gosh, we really hate to see you leaving the neighborhood.’ I remember saying to the person, ‘You ever been in my art gallery?’ And they said, ‘No.’” 

After relocating to High Street in 2001, Lindsay continued to cultivate relationships with artists and collectors. Michael Hall, adjunct curator of folk art at the Columbus Museum of Art, was an early mentor and vouched for Lindsay with major dealers and collectors. Locally, Lindsay began to play a similar mentor role with artists such as Joey Monsoon, to whom Lindsay reached out a dozen years ago.

“He's been incredible for my career,” Monsoon said. “Duff was like, ‘I heard you're self-taught. Would you be interested in doing a show here?’ And I was like, ‘I’m not sure what that means exactly, but absolutely.’ … That was huge — to have somebody that's willing to step up and say, ‘I know how this works.’”

Over time, Lindsay realized he was running two separate businesses: one local, one national. Every January, he exhibits at the Outsider Art Fair in New York, the biggest show in the world for the genre, and he spends countless hours tracking down museum-quality work from highly collected artists such as Frank Jones. “Some of it is work that people in Columbus would just really not know anything about,” Lindsay said. “After that show, we're shipping stuff to London, Paris, even Bosnia.”

For this year’s Outsider Art Fair, Lindsay will bring along wood carvings from a Quebec artist he discovered after embarking on an 18-month "wild goose chase" based on only one clue: “farine,” the French word for “flour,” which appeared on a wood carving of a baker in her kitchen.

Unfortunately, like so many folk artists, the carver is no longer living. “It's almost impossible to be a folk artist now, because everywhere you live you're inundated with popular culture, media and all that. A lot of the folk artists were people who were rural and disconnected from a lot of that. And even if they were connected, they were unaffected,” he said. “When we find new folk artists now, it's bodies of work of artists who are gone.”

***

Over the course of two interviews in September and November, Lindsay, who's now in his 60s, was affable and full of Midwestern warmth, but his journalist backbone is very much intact. He’s on a bit of a crusade to correct the record regarding the Short North’s parking issues and the neighborhood's perceived transformation from an arts district to a swanky strip of restaurants, clubs and luxury apartments. And he doesn’t hesitate to call out the Short North Alliance for losing control of those narratives. 

“We always hear people say, ‘Oh, the rents have pushed the galleries out.’ And that’s just not true,” Lindsay said. “There's always been ebb and flow in terms of the number of galleries. … There are almost as many galleries now as there's always been.”

The Short North Alliance’s current guide lists about a dozen art galleries, in addition to exhibition spaces at the Hilton Columbus, the Convention Center, Stonewall and other nontraditional spots. But the key to keeping the galleries around, Lindsay said, has been the Wood Companies, which owns the buildings in which most of the galleries are housed. “They have stayed loyal to the galleries,” Lindsay said. (Wood Companies leasing director Tyler Puhl confirmed that nine galleries lease from the company “at subsidized rates to support the arts.”)

“If I worry about anything, I worry about the possibility of new galleries coming in the Short North, because [the Wood Companies] only has so many suitable spaces — old buildings for galleries. ... The overall perception that the Short North is getting expensive, it's true for new construction. There are no galleries in new construction,” Lindsay said. “When you hear that new construction is $30 or $40 a square foot, what fledgling art gallery is going to take a chance on that? So what are we going to wind up with in the new construction? Bonobos and Lululemon. … I've heard rumblings that some of the new construction can go as high as $50 a square foot. Think of that! I don't think even Lululemon can sell that many pairs of yoga pants.”

Parking in the neighborhood doesn’t bother Lindsay, though. What bothers him is that there are more than 8,500 parking spaces in the Short North, he said, and nobody seems to realize it. Betsy Pandora of the Short North Alliance (SNA) confirmed the 8,500 number, which includes “over 2,000 in garages (with more coming), over 6,000 on streets accessible through the Park Columbus app, over 600 at parking meters and the balance in surface lots.”

“We lost control of the dialogue on parking. The SNA was sound asleep at the switch on that,” Lindsay said. “They just let people get away with saying, ‘There's no more parking in the Short North,’ when there's now more parking than there's ever been.” 

Even though Lindsay doesn’t sell much of anything to passersby, most of the sales from an exhibition occur on opening night, and if people perceive that they’ll have trouble parking — whether due to traffic, crowds or the ever present orange construction barrels lining High Street — they won’t come to the opening. “People would tell me, ‘We got in the car and we were going to come down to your opening, and we got to Fifth and High and looked south and then turned around and went back to Worthington,” he said.

Still, Lindsay takes comfort in the fact that, regardless of real or perceived parking woes, people who buy art will find their way to his gallery. “They came when I had no sidewalk.  When I had plywood planks to the street, they came,” he said. “The people who are actually interested — who didn't just come for the free wine and cheese — they're going to get here.”

Plus, Lindsay makes it as easy as possible for collectors who value the type of art he displays. “I'll email you pictures of everything in the show. You tell me if there's anything that interests you, and I'll drive it over to your house and hang it on your living room wall and let you live with it for a few days,” he said. “That's the kind of service that a real art gallery offers.”

Sometimes Lindsay considers slowing down a bit, maybe not doing as many shows in a year. But then he thinks about the artists from the past 20 years, many of whom depend on him.

“In some ways, they're family to me. I count many of them as among my best friends,” he said. “This sounds corny, like a Hallmark card or something, but they continue to inspire me every day, and I feel a responsibility to them. That keeps me working hard.”