January 2008 Issue
Columbus siblings James and Timothy Keny enjoy sharing their passion for fine art.
It just wasn’t working.
Each evening, as twin brothers James and Timothy Keny burned the midnight oil at the Ohio State University Libraries in 1978, they’d ruminate about the careers they’d chosen, and whether they were indeed the right ones.
James, a law student, bored by talk of torts, was “becoming sort of terrified” at the thought of his future profession. Meanwhile, Timothy, well on his way to earning an M.B.A., wasn’t sure where the degree would lead.
As doubt deepened, one indisputable fact remained certain: The brothers were passionate about art.
Today, a visit to Keny Galleries in Columbus’ German Village confirms the fact that the 51-year-old brothers eventually chose the right vocation. For the past 28 years, the former 1850s cottage, which is visited by more than a thousand art aficionados and novice collectors a year, has also allowed the Kenys to showcase a renowned palette of artists, ranging from John Singer Sargent to Mary Cassatt, lovingly complemented by such appealing amenities as a roaring fireplace; backyard gardens filled with roses, hollyhocks and phlox; and a 5,000-volume library brimming with art-history books.
Clearly, they followed their hearts. “We were very interested in art,” says James, who received his bachelor’s degree in art history and economics from Harvard. (Timothy earned his bachelor’s degree in history and art history at New York’s Colgate University). “But we just never thought about it in terms of a career.”
Until, that is, those nights in the library, when the seeds of an idea began to germinate.
The Kenys loved their hometown of Columbus, especially German Village, with its eclectic assortment of cafes and boutiques that lend a bohemian aspect to the area.
“I had lived in Boston’s Beacon Hill for a year, and spent four years in Cambridge,” James says. “I really fell in love with those neighborhoods, so when I came back to Columbus to go to Ohio State, I knew that this really was the neighborhood I wanted to live in.”
Before making the commitment, the duo traveled to Oklahoma City, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville and several other metropolitan areas similar to Columbus to check out the art scene. They quickly realized Ohio’s capital city was underdeveloped in terms of the number of galleries it contained.
So, the brothers decided to help change that and open a gallery of their own.
“We figured the worst that could happen would be that we would have bought this beautiful building in German Village and have purchased fine art that would ultimately be an asset,” says James. “But we also knew that the upside would be really exciting.”
Their hunch paid off.
The pair decided to pattern their business after The Phillips Collection, exhibited in an 1897 Georgian Revival home in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, and the stately Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Boston’s Beacon Street, with its exquisite gardens and intimate interior.
“We wanted to steer clear of the whole New York ‘white box’ environment,” says Timothy, “where you have the phenomenon of going into these kind of austere spaces that are a bit foreboding, forbidding and intimating.” (That said, the Kenys’ expertise goes beyond central Ohio. James has organized exhibits on Ohio impressionism and post-impressionism and Andrew Wyeth at Youngstown’s Butler Institute of American Art, and Timothy helped the National Gallery of Art acquire “The Street,” a felt-tip-pen drawing by renowned artist Romare Bearden.)
The duo love their work environment, which has the accessibility and accoutrements of a beautiful home.
“When people look at the art we have here, they can essentially imagine how it could look in their own house,” says James.
The space also invites each brother to pursue and display exquisite pieces in his area of expertise. James professes a penchant for historic American art –– “from Homer to Hopper” –– including works by Columbus’ Alice Schille, considered to be one of America’s foremost female watercolorists. Timothy, on the other hand, manages the gallery’s folk and contemporary pieces, which range from works by notable 20th-century wood carver Elijah Pierce to stone carvings by Jackson, Ohio, native Ernest “Popeye” Reed.
“There’s truly something for everyone here,” James says. “There’s nothing we like better than helping people find their artistic preference.”
And that includes patrons who don’t have a clue about what –– or who –– to collect. That’s where the brothers’ laid-back demeanor comes into play.
“The question we ask is, ‘What do you love?’” says James.
“We want to get to know our customers and help them discover what they want, and then find it in items that are of excellent quality and fairly valued. The last thing we want is for people to be afraid to ask questions.”