Each month on First Fridays, thousands of visitors stroll through galleries in the Crossroads Arts District. On the industrial northeast corner of the district, Tom Deatherage curates an eclectic mix of edgy, local art in his red, two-story The Late Show Gallery.
Deatherage, who lives in the apartment upstairs, says he’s always been drawn to artists and their work. And after more than 25 years of dealing in art, he says he knows what he likes.
Just a few blocks away from The Late Show, artist Colby Smith was preparing for his fifth solo exhibition at the gallery when Deatherage stopped by recently for a tour.
Smith, a resident artist at Studios Inc, says Deatherage keeps him on track, especially with a new body of work.
Smith’s minimalist landscapes for The Late Show Gallery include fragments of architectural salvage, and his studio space was packed floor to ceiling with scavenged items.
“I’m kind of referencing cityscapes," Smith says. "All of these materials came off of five different sites. It took about a year and a half to collect, which is hard to understand when you are like, well, it’s like eight boards you got out of the trash.”
“Oh, he matches them up,” Deatherage says. “This is stunning. It’s more color than I thought you would have and I love it.”
“Tom does a really good job of making sure I’m getting in the studio and getting stuff finished,” Smith says with a laugh. “Because I can procrastinate like anybody. But probably every third day: ‘How are the paintings coming? How are the paintings coming?’ And when he does comes by to do a studio visit he keeps me kind of in line with the series, doesn’t let it drift too far off.”
Deatherage says he takes pride in giving young artists their first walls. Often they stay with him once they are established.
“I get real frustrated when people don’t see what I see,” Deatherage says. “And I’m not knowledgeable. Somehow [I] got a good eye or had a good eye. But I just happen to love what I’m looking at and it really talks to me.”
Painter and ceramic artist Travis Pratt met Deatherage ten years ago when he was a junior at the Kansas City Art Institute. Pratt says interest from a dealer, such as Deatherage, encouraged him early in his career.
“You could just go give him a piece and it’s engaging with an audience right away,” says Pratt. And if he’s excited about it you feel that little ping of recognition or you know, that complement that that he wants to have it on the wall. As a young artist it was really important."
For Deatherage, working closely with emerging artists gives him a sense of satisfaction.
“It’s a real beauty to see an artist grow because I can’t draw or do anything,” Deatherage says. “But it sure makes me feel good. It makes me feel a part of the process if I see an artist that I kind of first discovered. It’s really a joy.”
Deatherage admits he has a gritty style that sets him apart from other art dealers in town.
“I am very loose,” he says. “I cuss like a sailor. I usually got a drink in my hand. And always a cigarette but never in the gallery anymore. So I have to operate it my way. The way I live my life. So that’s what you get when you get here. I don’t have an elegant white box. I’ve never liked that at all. But it’s my style. I can only operate my way.”
But occasionally Deatherage, as he admits, can rub people the wrong way.
“I heard this lady who was talking about a piece and really interested in it," Pratt recalls. "And she says, ‘What’s the way to connect with you?’ and she’s about to say, ‘mail or phone?’ And he just cuts her off and goes, ‘Write a check.’ So I think that’s like a quintessential Tom moment.”
Late at night, Pratt says, Deatherage is known for “telling everybody to get out if they’re not buying art, just screaming it loud. Or just telling people to get out, just because he’s in a bad mood.”
Colby Smith says the value Deatherage brings to artists outweighs his eccentricities.
"I always refer to him as the real deal,” Smith says. “I mean, he sells art for a living. It’s what he does. I always tell Tom, ‘You’re the dealer, I’m the artist. Sell it.' He knows what stuff will sell for and what it’s worth and what value I have in it, and so I like that relationship. Tom keeps it real.”
Deatherage has earned respect not just from artists, Pratt says, but also from the collectors who buy from him.
“He’s got a lot of supporters that have come around year after year and believe in what he shows and believe in what he’s doing, and they see the Late Show as vital to their experience of art in Kansas City,” Pratt says.
At 73, Deatherage says recent health issues have slowed him down, but he’s not ready to quit anytime soon.
“It’s been a ball and I’ve lived with art and got to know artists,” says Deatherage. “They make me a little nuts, but it’s the art-dealer-artist relationship. It’s love-hate and don’t let anybody tell you different. And sometimes it’s extreme love and extreme hate. And it’s been fun.”
Navah, an exhibition of Colby Smith’s paintings, opens Sept. 2 and runs through Oct. 1, at The Late Show Gallery, 1600 Cherry, Kansas City, Missouri. 816-516-6749.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.