Native American art gallery in Salt Lake City closing, as artists seek new ways to sell their work

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dave Dunn, owner of TP Gallery, an institution on Main Street for over 44 years, talks about the intricate work on an authentic Native American tapestry as he welcomes patrons to his store on Wed. Aug. 21, 2019. The store is scheduled to close sometime before the end of the year.

As he completes the sale of a piece of pottery and wraps it in tissue for the customer, David Dunn can’t help but point out the artistry of the work.

“Very thin walls, very detailed,” Dunn said, pointing out the intricate design. “The movement [of the colors], like a cloud or the wind.”

Dunn, owner of TP Gallery on downtown Salt Lake City’s Main Street, has specialized in selling Native American artwork — jewelry, rugs, pottery, beadwork and paintings — for 44 years. That streak is ending soon, because Dunn has been told by his landlord that the building is being renovated, and he has until the end of the year to move out.

Dunn — who wouldn’t give his age — has been liquidating the stock in his gallery, and when that’s gone, he’s not planning to reopen somewhere else. But he bristles at the word “retirement.”

“Some people retire, and all they want to do is golf,” Dunn said. “I have other things to do, too. I am not a person that will set in front of a television.” Dunn has some property near Bryce Canyon that boasts cattle, pigs and sheep. “There’s always projects to keep me busy,” he said.

The closure of TP Gallery leaves one less outlet for Native American artists to sell their work — and for some artists, the options were limited already.

“When a gallery or store like that closes down, it’s closing down a whole avenue for artists,” said Suzanne Ruhlman, manager of the Museum Store at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

“I don’t think there’s one [Utah] gallery that focuses specifically on high-end fine art” made by Native Americans, said Cal Nez, a Navajo artist living in Salt Lake City. “You go to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Phoenix, they are just loaded with Native American art.”

Nez said he admires Dunn’s appreciation of the artists whose work he sells, but the cramped confines of TP Gallery don’t have the atmosphere of a fine art gallery.

“Every inch of that tiny space is used — shields, paintings, you name it,” Nez said. “You can’t put a painting next to a piece of pottery. Those are two different disciplines.”

Rad Cuch, a Northern Ute artist who lives in Holladay, avoids galleries altogether. “I rather like to sell it myself,” Cuch said.

“I tried selling my stuff here in Utah. It doesn’t really go anywhere,” said Cuch, whose art ranges from pen-and-ink drawings to acrylic paintings and beadwork on paper. “Not very many people here like Indian art.”

Many Native American artists sell their works online, either on their own websites or Etsy stores, or through established galleries across the Southwest. Then there are events, like the December sale Cuch organizes at the Urban Indian Center, or NHMU’s Indian Art Market, set for Oct. 12 and 13 — a juried art show that Nez feels is poorly named, with a title more suited to a roadside stand.

Ruhlman, who organizes the Indian Art Market, said NHMU’s event is small, compared to some of the larger events for Native American artists — like the Santa Fe Indian Market held in August, and the Heard Museum’s Indian Fair & Market in Phoenix each March.

“A lot of the artists really count on these markets,” Ruhlman said.

Nez said he would like to see Native American artists and business owners do more to encourage good work. “I would love to see a Native American owner start a Native American gallery and push it, so that it’s 100% owned by Native Americans,” Nez said.

Dunn, whose roots are Irish and English, fell in love with Native American art when he was a kid, working at the Big Rock Candy Mountain Resort south of Richfield. “We sold a lot of their jewelry,” Dunn recalled.

He opened TP Gallery in August 1975, at the same location at 252 Main St., next door to Sam Weller’s Books (until the bookstore moved to Trolley Square in 2012). He has developed relationships with artists and their families over the years — some coming to Salt Lake City with their work, others welcoming Dunn on trips in Arizona, New Mexico and southern Utah.

“My goal was supporting local Americans, for jobs and art,” Dunn said. “We wanted to support and have things made here.”

The gallery survived the traffic reductions of Main Street, the growth of the malls up the block (where City Creek Center now sits), the addition of the TRAX lines, and other downtown improvements that took their toll on foot traffic.

Dunn started the going-out-of-business sale in June, and will continue until the artwork is gone. “I don’t want to put them in storage,” he said.

Dunn said he’ll miss saying hello to his regular customers, some of whom he’s known across decades on Main Street. The buyer of the intricate pottery, for example, is George Sutton, an attorney in a downtown law office who has shopped there for years; the pottery was a going-away gift for a colleague leaving the firm.

“There are wonderful people I’ve met over the years,” Dunn said. “Money can’t do everything. It’s friendship that’s important.”