For Halley K. Harrisburg '90, the world of art and art history—a world which she continues to explore and redefine—first presented itself to her within the Bowdoin classroom.
"I can remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday," said Harrisburg, reflecting upon her first art history class. "The lights went down and the images started to appear on the screen and through them Professor Olds wove together these ideas of religion and philosophy and culture. And through this process of watching and listening, I felt the world made sense to me."
The impact of that experience propelled Harrisburg toward a major in art history and later an honors thesis on Marcel Duchamp with Associate Professor of Art Linda Docherty.
"That experience with Linda was where I totally came alive and realized how very fortunate I was to have found something to believed in, to feel the whole world coming into focus," Harrisburg said.
Upon graduation, Harrisburg moved to New York City where she began her career at the Josh Baer Gallery, a contemporary gallery that, at the time, showed 16 of the most cutting-edge artists.
"It was an extraordinary experience," Harrisburg said. "I had this exceptional opportunity to meet all of the major players in the art world—the buyers, the curators, the artists."
Yet, while Harrisburg cherished her experience with the Josh Baer Gallery, she found herself becoming disillusioned with the contemporary art world.
"Part of me was not all fulfilled," Harrisburg said. "I loved being able to spend time with the artists—to understand their artistic process—but I was disillusioned with the way art was being collected."
"You know, there are the three P's of collecting—passion, promise and prestige," she said. "I was there—and I'm still here—because of passion, but I just felt like most collectors at the time were collecting for prestige and monetary promise. I had a hard time stomaching some of what I had to endure."
After leaving Josh Baer, Harrisburg began working with her future husband, gallery owner Michael Rosenfeld.
"I began working with him temporarily at the beginning, but even in those first four weeks I felt really fulfilled," Harrisbug said of the new work experience.
"One of the most fulfilling things about this new work was the fact that the audience was so different than what I was used to. The people who came into Michael's gallery were voracious readers of the art from the 1930s and 1940s that we sold," she said. "They knew everything about the artists, they knew how to see art. They really knew how to look and then how to talk about that."
After two weeks of work, Rosenfeld presented the idea of her staying permanently at the gallery.
"That's how it started," Harrisburg said, "and we've been working together for 18 years now."
Since Harrisburg joined the gallery in the early '90s, the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery has grown into one of the most significant gallery's on the New York City art scene. It continues to sell art from the '30s and '40s, although its focus has gravitated toward the contemporary: art from the '50s and '60s as well as representing four living artists.
"So much of our job at the gallery is rewarding," Harrisburg said, pointing to the shows she co-curates as well as her design and publication of exhibition catalogues.
"I am especially fulfilled by my relationship with my clients. When you witness a love affair happening before your eyes between a client and a piece of art, it's always a joy for me," she added.
Harrisburg also pointed to the influence the gallery has had on the field of African-American art history.
"Its an area that we have single-handedly developed and brought to great prominence," she said. "We're tremendously proud of our accomplishments in that area."
This process began in 1993 when the Rosenfeld Gallery launched the groundbreaking exhibition series, "African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks."
"Michael has always been very interested in what is underrepresented in American art. He has never wanted to show what people already know, instead he wants to show the best quality of work that has always fallen through the cracks," said Harrisburg.
"As Michael looked for these under-represented works, he realized that he was buying and selling, quite easily, works by one or two better known African-American artists," she said. "He became very intrigued by this idea of an exhibition that would contextualize these better known African-American artists and flesh out what was a very rich history of African-American art."
"There was this great drive to design the show, and we talked about it on and off, specifically, about what it meant to put together an exhibition based on race," Harrisburg added. "There was most certainly a need. So, with some reservation, but with much excitement ,we designed that first group show in 1993."
"The response was overwhelming. People were so appreciative of having the opportunity to see work they'd read about," Harrisburg said. "We were providing a whole other resource."
As a result of this success and encouragement, over the next 10 years Harrisburg and Rosenfeld designed a part two and tree of the exhibition.
"It hasn't come easily," Harrisburg said of their 10-year journey. "It has come with some resistance and we've really had to face that challenge. But as in any situation where you're forced to struggle, there is that much greater fulfillment."
"In those 10 years we have also felt such great leaps and bounds in other museums in terms of the development and celebration of the history of African-American art," Harrisburg added. "Today, in a library where there once was maybe four to 10 books on African-American art, there is now an entire wall filled. It's been truly remarkable to be at the center of this movement and feel progress being made all around us."
"Working with art and feeling its connection to society is a fulfillment I feel everyday," Harrisburg said of her life in the art world. "And you know, I didn't come from a 'collection family.' I didn't grow up knowing this power in art, and so I hold Bowdoin very dearly to me for giving me a passion and a profession, for helping me to realize a place and a belief to which I knew, instantaneously, that I belonged."