Leroy Garcia, founder of Blue Rain Gallery, never dreamed he’d become an art dealer. In college he studied pre-law and political science, and art wasn’t really on his radar at all. But the Taos native’s career path had a mind of its own, and Garcia, an ambitious A-student with a talent for anticipating trends and taking calculated risks, strayed early from his original plan to become a lawyer.
He was still living in Taos when he met Pueblo potter Tammy Garcia. Entranced by the elegance and precision of her work, he was nevertheless struck by the difficulty she and other artists had in marketing their art. “Seeing Tammy struggle to sell her work, I thought to myself, ‘I can do this,’” he says. He shortly abandoned his legal studies in favor of schooling himself in art by reading art books and working for a local art dealer.
With his newly acquired knowledge and experience, in 1993 Garcia opened Blue Rain Gallery in an upstairs bedroom room in his family home at the northern entrance to Taos Pueblo. “In the beginning it was hard,” he recalls. “I borrowed furniture from my grandmother and obtained artworks from my cousins in Pueblo, Colorado, who were Hispanic woodcarvers. I also got work from Tammy’s family members, who were potters.”
He only sold about $20,000 worth of art that first year, but over time he was able to guide the gallery to critical acclaim and financial success. He moved the operation to a larger site near the Taos Plaza, then expanded to Santa Fe, where the gallery remains today. Over the course of this expansion, Garcia demonstrated his knack for staying ahead of the curve in a variety of ways. He devised traveling shows to introduce his artists to a broader public, bringing exciting new work to Washington, D.C., Palm Springs, San Francisco, Chicago, and San Antonio. He was among the first art dealers to make the shift to the Internet and was able to design a site that was so user-friendly that it lasted 17 years before needing an update. He also saw the potential in social media when others still thought of it as a way to connect with old high school friends. “It’s about connecting, true, but it’s also about gathering information,” he says, citing his use of platforms like Facebook and Instagram to broaden the gallery’s reach, which was a groundbreaking idea at the time.
Marketing methods aside, Garcia works closely with his artists to help push them to new heights of creativity and to recognize opportunities for growth. One particularly fruitful approach has been his fostering of collaborations among his artists that blend different styles and mediums in innovative ways. The first such collaboration was between Tammy Garcia and glass artist Preston Singletary, resulting in a sold-out show and spearheading a shift in Native art generally to combining modern materials and styles with ancient artistry and forms.
But perhaps the single greatest factor in cementing Blue Rain Gallery’s status as a trendsetter and innovator is the uniqueness and talent of the artists themselves. Garcia uses a simple formula when assessing an artist’s work for potential inclusion in the gallery: “I look for refinement and innovation,” he says.
Blue Rain first made its name as the country’s premier venue for contemporary Native art, displaying museum-quality works that showcased the sophistication and creativity of artists who pushed the boundaries of traditional art forms. Throughout its two-and-a-half decades, the gallery gradually expanded to include a broad array of non-Native works as well, presenting a wide-ranging stable of artists who have in common the qualities of refinement and innovation that Garcia seeks. “Over the years the gallery has become more diverse,” he says. “It used to be focused entirely on contemporary Native art. Now it’s a mixture of everything —contemporary, Native, regional, Hispanic, and glass art, among other genres. It was a natural evolution that became more deliberate after we realized the evolution was happening.”
Walk into the gallery on any given day and you’ll be struck by the vibrancy and immediacy of the works, whether it’s the poignant scenes of rural New Mexican life rendered vividly in oils by Jim Vogel, Erin Currier’s compelling collages depicting the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, or the irreverent but affectionate take on the West’s myths and legends as perceived by Billy Schenck, known as the “grandfather” of the Western Pop Art movement. Rimi Yang’s colorful narrative paintings blend the artist’s Asian aesthetic with symbolism, contemplation, and emotion; Rik Allen’s whimsical blown-glass sculptures of various types of spacecraft evince a style both futuristic and retro, a kind of Steam-Punk-meets-aerospace aesthetic. Garcia has recently added his own art to the mix, producing provocative sculptures in bronze and glass as well as bronze tiles.
With exciting new works ranging from earnest to edgy, meditative to energetic, Blue Rain has grown from its humble beginnings into a premier destination gallery that draws collectors from around the world to its exhibitions, events, and art demonstrations. This year it was named a Top 25 Gallery in America by American Art Awards, a prestigious designation that honors the breadth, depth, and quality of the gallery’s offerings.
In this anniversary year, Garcia looks back over the trajectory of the project with pride and gratitude, as well as humility. “Blue Rain has been very blessed,” he says. “We’ve developed three multimillion-dollar-a-year artists, and we’ve sold more than $100 million in art over the 25 years we’ve been in business. I can never say I made it on my own without help, whether that help is from God or the great people I surround myself with. It’s been an amazing journey to put it all together and make it work. I’m excited about what’s to come in the next 25 years!”