OLD LYME — “At any given time, I think we’re probably thought of as being a gallery of Old Lyme impressionists, but our tastes are far broader than that,” said Jeff Cooley, who co-owns the Cooley Gallery with his wife, Betsey Cooley.
The couple began by renting the front room of 25 Lyme Street in 1986 and slowly leased more space at the back of the building and upstairs. When the property went on the market in 1989, the Cooleys bought it.
“When we moved here, it became clear pretty quickly that by virtue of being in Old Lyme, people were coming with Old Lyme pictures, and people were coming in to see if we had Old Lyme pictures, so we started buying and selling Old Lyme paintings. And it just snowballed from there,” Jeff said.
The Cooleys also showed work from a number of local artists including Peggy Root and Ralph Feyl, who taught at Lyme Academy of Fine Art in the late 1980s.
“We discovered Ralph by chance because he brought his paintings to the frame shop at the back of the building run by Nancy Pinney, who was a talented artist herself,” said Jeff. “He would walk by but he wouldn’t come in the gallery. He would just walk by with his paintings.”
“One day he was there and I said, ‘Why don’t you just wander back to Nancy’s frame shop?’” Betsey said.
“I did, and I said, oh my god, these are great,” said Jeff.
“He was 21 years old,” said Betsey. “We sold everything.”
“And then we started having a series of one-man shows,” said Jeff.
The shows of local artists attracted more contemporary artists from outside of the area who wanted to show their work at the gallery.
Jeff said that once the gallery was established and had a street presence, it became important to use the entire space to show a range of time periods and to draw connections between them.
“I still continue to love the Hudson River School, and we love abstract art, we love modernism. We love works on paper and prints — you name it — but hopefully the common theme is interesting and good quality,” he said.
Over the years, the gallery has adjusted to a major shift in the art world from in-person to online viewing and purchasing of art — and the pandemic has reinforced that change.
Betsey said the gallery started its website 23 years ago even though at the time the idea of buying a painting online seemed unthinkable.
“Originally, people would come to the gallery and have a look around. And then you’d say, oh, be sure to check out our website sometime. And now it’s just the opposite,” said Jeff. “Over the years, we relied upon sort of building up a reputation and becoming a destination. People simply made a point of coming here and that’s what we had to rely on. Now people make a point to go to the website and seeing what’s there and sometimes that will inspire them to make a trip to the gallery to see things in person.”
The gallery will ship work to customers on approval, Betsey said.
Even though customers are able to buy directly from artists’ websites, the gallery continues to provide a role as a third party endorsement about the value of a piece.
“Our little tagline is ‘buy what you love, trust what you buy.’ As a buyer, the first thing is, you’ve got to love it, you have to want to have that picture but it helps if you have some confidence that the value is fair,” said Jeff.
The purchase of a painting or sculpture is the beginning of a relationship, said Betsey.
“You’re inviting these artists into your home in a way. You’re looking at [the piece] and it is feeding you in some way and when someone comes into your space and sees it, that starts a dialogue or they see something about you because of that, or it tells a story,” said Betsy.
The Cooleys usually bring works to about six to 10 art and antique shows per year, but the pandemic curtailed their travel plans.
“To not do those has been kind of wonderful, but it is a way of taking the art to the people. But since we haven’t been able to do that we’ve been doing it via our website, and via emails and all that kind of stuff,” said Jeff.
He said he had concerns about whether people have become overly comfortable with looking at art on a screen and purchasing online. But, he also said he was certain the public will return to the shows when it is safe to do so.
“I mean, there’s no question that there will be a place for going back out to see art in person, there’s no way around it, you have to,” he said.
The Cooley Gallery
25 Lyme Street
Old Lyme, CT 06371
Fridays & Saturdays 12-5
By appointment or chance