Essential Sedona Magazine lives to introduce its readers to those people and places that are the heart and soul of the community. Therefore, we are excited to share with you our encounter with James Ratliff, the owner of the longest tenured operating art gallery in Sedona. The James Ratliff Gallery appears unassuming, tucked away at its current location on the first floor of the Hillside Shopping Center on Highway 179. Do not be deceived. Upon crossing the threshold, you enter a small but meticulously curated world of mastery, beauty, culture and creation. It is immediately clear how James Ratliff has thrived as a gallerist here for so long. He knows art. At 81, he still smiles a little shyly, but he walks with a modest confidence, surrounded by the pieces he has personally chosen and collected for this space. We settle into our chairs, pulled into the natural light of the front windows, and we start at the beginning.
“As soon as I got my hands on finger paints, as a kid, I remember I loved art,” Ratliff says, smiling a little to himself, sharing a brief glimpse of that boy twinkling in his eyes. “I guess it was more like high school. I had wonderful high school teachers, in Phoenix. All I was interested in was art, so I took all of the art classes.” James found every opportunity to participate and contribute in the art community. “I was interested in helping out any way I could. I helped silk screen the posters for the Sombrero Playhouse, and then I worked backstage for a while.” If you get the chance, ask him to share some stories from working backstage. Once again, memory and the hint of a smile settle on his face as we transition into his college years. It is no surprise that he continued to pursue all things art-relate
“I went to Arizona State College —It became a University while I was there. — I took every art course I could get my hands on. I wasn’t interested in anything else. I always got straight A’s in all my art classes (architecture, calligraphy, drawing, life drawing, everything). By the time I was a junior, there were no more art classes to take, so I quit.” James knew by then that the best education he could obtain would be experience. “I took the money it would have cost for that senior year and I traveled to museums. As I look back, that was training my eye and giving me the background necessary to do what I do today.” A few years later he was drafted into the military and sent to Korea. James greatly values the experiences he had there. He could have spent our entire conversation recounting stories and tales from his time in the service, but our chat gradually found its way back to the art world. “Right after I got out of the service, my family’s banker knew a woman from New York [Muriel Berkson] who was going to be opening a gallery. So, she hired me.” James, in his characteristic modesty, explains how underqualified he was for the job. “I was completely a novice. I didn’t know any business or anything like that, and I was shy as hell.”
James worked hard at the Scottsdale gallery and gave Berkson his absolute best, but after about six months it became clear that he really wasn’t ready for the huge job of running the modern art gallery. Berkson had a plan though. She got him a job in a department store around Christmas time. “What I didn’t know was, she had told them to watch me. When I got to a point where I was selling well and wasn’t so shy, they were to let her know. They did, and she hired me back.” Eventually, Berkson decided to move to Paris and she offered James the chance to buy the gallery. So, in the mid-1960s, James Ratliff found himself the proud new owner of his first art gallery. Around this same time, he also became art coordinator for the Arizona Commission on the Arts, a role that offered invaluable experience and gave him many wonderful connections in the art world.
James owned the gallery in Scottsdale for about 3 years, until two women with a competing business wanted him to join them. He eventually gave in, and sold his gallery, going to work for Elaine Horwitch and Suzanne Brown. Even after the women went their separate ways, James continued to work for Elaine. “I opened three galleries for her through the years.” He slips back into the past and recounts the time and effort he put into helping her open galleries in Scottsdale, Santa Fe and, eventually Sedona. All in all, James spent 16 years working for Elaine, and during all that time he was learning and absorbing and growing into the fine, smart, sharp-eyed gallerist that sits before us on this winter day. Eventually James struck out on his own once again. This time for good. He had seen the potential and the value in the Sedona market, and in 1984 he opened the first James Ratliff Gallery right downtown. He has had a space here ever since, though it moved a few times before finally settling into its current location about 10 years ago.
“People have been buying art from me for over 40 years,” James says. It’s not a proud statement or a bragging moment. It’s simply a fact. A fact made even more impressive once you know that, in that time, he has made a commitment to the one-of-a-kind, the original. “Nothing have I ever sold was a print or any reproduction. There is no value there.” The man before us is a lifetime away from that boy who had to work in a department store to gain the sureness and competence required to run an art gallery. The James Ratliff who sits among his collection of masterpieces, is now a master himself. He has sold the works of Georgia O’Keefe, Alexander Calder, David K. John, Rufino Tamayo and so many more. He has become someone to whom artists turn, not only to sell their work, but for guidance as well. “With my art background, I have been able to mentor artists and help them,” James explains. “I have a lot of artists come in and want to show here, and I can’t show them because they aren’t ready. And so, I try and help them.”
As the conversation comes to a close, our discussion meanders around the value of art as an investment, both financially and personally. James shares with us his optimism for the future of the arts in Sedona and in the nation as a whole. Naturally, we ask him about his future in the arts. “I don’t know why I’m still doing it,” he admits, rising from the chair. “I couldn’t stop. I would be lost. Even when I’m not here and I take a few days, I feel funny that I’m not here.” We feel honored to have gotten to sit down with James Ratliff. He has lived a full life, has met some amazing people and has some incredible stories to share with anyone who happens to find themselves perusing his gallery on a sunny, Sedona afternoon.
“I went to Arizona State College — It became a University while I was there. — I took every art course I could get my hands on. I wasn’t interested in anything else.” - James Ratliff ”
Story written by: Sara Knight Photos provided by: Mark Short