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The Journey of a Lifetime: Jack Rutberg honored by the International Art Association – By Luke Netzley, Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor

Mar 3, 2024
Jack Rutberg is the founder of Pasadena’s Jack Rutberg Fine Arts gallery and recipient of IAA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. (Chris Mortenson/Staff)

In a recent ceremony in celebration of International World Art Day, the International Art Association USA bestowed its first Lifetime Achievement Award to Pasadena’s Jack Rutberg, owner of the Jack Rutberg Fine Arts gallery at South Lake and California avenues. 

The International Art Association USA acts as an arm of the international body L’Association Internationale des Arts Plastiques, a nonprofit partner of UNESCO comprised of professional artists working with painting, sculpture, printmaking and other forms of creative practice in the visual arts. Rutberg described the honor as a humbling surprise.

“I was very touched by it, particularly because it comes from artists,” he said. “We live in an age where celebrity and power and the things that equate power seem to overtake everything, and I’d like to think that I’ve spent decades being accessible to artists and being kind to them because I have so much empathy for them. … They bleed for what they do. They sacrifice a great deal, and they live in hope, as we all do.”

The International Art Association, which was formed during the 1948 Third General Conference of UNESCO to improve the freedom of artists around the world, referred to Rutberg as a “legendary gallerist” and “genuine Los Angeles treasure” whose exhibitions have served as cultural milestones in LA.

“For almost half a century, Jack Rutberg has profoundly enhanced the cultural life of Angelenos, with museum-quality exhibitions of important modern and contemporary European, American and Latin American artists,” the award citation read. “He is a generous educator, offering lectures and crafting essays that have elevated our understanding of the nature and historical context of many modern artists.”

Rutberg founded his gallery in 1979 on La Brea Avenue as an accessible gathering place for people and all backgrounds, budgets and interests. His first exhibition, in January 1982, showcased 91 paintings and drawings by Arshile Gorky and Hans Burkhardt. He described that night as one he’ll never forget. 

“It was so heavily attended and so generously received by people that I was just taken aback,” Rutberg said. “The night was beyond expectations. … The next day, I had one of the most important art historians in America come to visit. … Herschel Chipp was his name, and he came up to me and he says, ‘I can’t believe what you’ve done here.’ And he gives me this big fatherly hug. … I was just on cloud nine.

“I didn’t even understand quite the consequence of what I had done, frankly. It’s not about modesty, it’s just about ignorance. I really just didn’t have that experience as a gallerist.”

Rutberg’s journey into the art world was forged through an “out-of-control” passion. He began by acquiring modest pieces like original prints, etchings, lithographs and wood cuts.

“I bought a few things for my little guest house apartment that I rented in my early 20s,” Rutberg described. “Now that I owned these things, what were they? I got a book on prints, on graphics. What is an original lithograph? What is an etching? … I was reading about the history of all this, and it introduced me to a world of literature, history, music, philosophy. And it became very consuming.”

Rutberg recalled the moment he first held a “great work of art.” He felt a striking realization that he had held an etching that was connected to the hand of a talented artist as well as those of all its caretakers that preceded him. 

“As a gallerist, I feel the same way,” he said. “Every time someone acquires a work of art, I’m relieved of the responsibility of caring for it. And if I can inspire people to have that kind of engagement with the works of art that they own, that they acquire, how fantastic! I’ve made them caretakers for generations that follow.”

Despite the love and reverence he feels for these exchanges, Rutberg described his industry as competitive and set in a world that’s everchanging.

“It’s a very demanding business and a challenging one,” he said. “It’s unique. There’s no other field equivalent, to be honest with you. … It’s also as vulnerable as every realm of endeavor. We’re at a crossroads that’s no less impactful, probably more, than the Industrial Revolution was. I’m the equivalent, maybe, of a really fine buggy whip manufacturer. Then the car is suddenly invented, and today we are living in a different kind of dynamic.

“I am all about the venerated object, not the virtual consideration of it, but the actual object. And I think that resonates with artists, frankly. The night when I was given this award, … I spoke about that a great deal, and all I could see were bobbing heads of approval and affirmation about this loss of history, in a sense, and acknowledgement of it and the importance of the venerated object not to be lost in the virtual.”

Since the opening of his gallery, Rutberg has witnessed the unrelenting and visceral power of artworks to stir emotions and awaken memories. He has seen these pieces become much more than physical objects to the people that view them. 

“I’ve literally had people in my galleries brought to tears. I mean that literally; I’m not speaking figuratively,” he said. “I’ve seen people cry in the gallery and don’t even know why. They’ve just been touched.”

These emotions still resonate deeply with Rutberg today. For him, the joy of his work is in sharing these experiences with others, particularly through showing artists like Patrick Graham.

“I was struck by the work,” he said. “I presented the work in the gallery. People came around to the gallery, initially walking in the door, seeing these very tough paintings, and by the time they left, I quit counting how many people were brought to tears. I’m not saying they were all bawling, by the way, with tears running down, but that did happen. … People come up to me with their eyes just completely filled with tears welling up and saying, ‘I don’t know what’s happening to me,’ and I would ask them, ‘Has this happened to you before?’ And they’d say, ‘No.’

“It’s a very rare occurrence, but we are so seldom touched in this hit-and-run kind of world that a private moment was had and our own vulnerabilities were engaged. … We’re so, I don’t know, self-protective. We go into a situation, and we bring all of our intellect and history to a situation that sometimes we don’t receive. At that unsuspecting moment, people have had that experience in my gallery, and I relish that. … When you find inspiration from those rare occasions, that’s nourishment for the rest of your life.”

Rutberg said that he enjoys being in the gallery’s new home of Pasadena, which he described as the “LA of old” and a landscape of iconic art museums. His hope is that the city acknowledges the worth of art galleries as complimentary spaces to the museums and as sources of inspiration for future generations.

“Museums are islands unto themselves in many instances. There would be no museums without art dealers because there would be no collectors without art dealers. You can’t bypass this scenario,” he explained. “The Pasadena museum world is very small. You’ve got amazing institutions like the Norton Simon or San Marino’s Huntington. There’s not a lot of cross pollination. There’s some, I’ve had it, but by design … it hasn’t been very significant. And I hope to change that. It’s just conversation. No one should be threatened by that. In fact, we all learn a little something from each other.

“There’s a hope though that Pasadena acknowledges the worth of an art gallery that is interested in complimenting its museums, not as a boutique, but as a venue where people can come and go, and students would come and draw some inspiration. … There has never been a gallery scene of consequence, and the comfort in that is unfortunate. I hope that maybe I can put a little English on the cue ball.”