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CONCORD

Gallery's founder steps down

Mary McGowan brought a down-home air to her downtown space

You never know what you might find when you walk into McGowan Fine Art. For more than 25 years, the downtown gallery has been the sort of place where you can view the best abstract art by respected regional artists, along with familiar-looking pieces by local favorites. On any given day you may find collectors consulting over major purchases or a Girl Scout troop learning about various styles of painting.

One thing you won't find there is affectation.

Owner Mary McGowan started the business as a somewhat naive craftswoman looking for a way to showcase the work of talented area artists.

'I didn't know any better,' she said with a laugh. Over the years, McGowan Fine Art grew into a respected resource for businesses and organizations looking to purchase local art as well as a much-loved gallery for collectors and browsers alike.

But as she worked to attract high-caliber artists and made her mark on universities, banks and hospitals all over the state, McGowan worked just as hard to stay grounded. Several years ago, when the carpet in the gallery needed replacing, she briefly considered hardwood floors. But when she recalled her visit to fancy galleries in big cities, she quickly changed her mind. 'I'm always worried that my feet are making too much noise, and I didn't want people to feel that way,' she said.

Sadly, there's something else you won't find when you visit the gallery these days: McGowan herself. After 30 years of one of bringing great art to Concord, she's retiring.

But her wall-to-wall carpet mentality will remain intact.

'We like people to feel comfortable when they walk in,' said McGowan, who began the business in her home in 1980 and moved it to Hills Avenue in 1986. 'We're always working very consciously to have something that every budget can afford. We have toys for the kids . . . and classes that demystify galleries . . . We want to be someplace people feel like they can stop in anytime.'

Sarah Chaffee, who has worked as gallery director for the past 14 years, will be taking over the business. And at the risk of sounding boring, she doesn't plan to change a thing.

'This business is my baby the same way it is for her,' said Chaffee, who has built relationships with artists throughout New Hampshire and beyond. 'I love art. I love my artists and I love my customers.'

Chaffee gives credit to McGowan for nurturing that love and helping her find the right fit in the art world. She interviewed with McGowan multiple times over the course of four years before she finally got hired, and she's always respected the wisdom her mentor brought to such decisions.

'She just has an intuitive business sense,' Chaffee said. 'There's no good place that you can go to school to learn to sell art and run an art gallery . . . luckily, she just has a sense about such things.'

The gallery started off as a showcase for the best local craft, but over the years grew to include more and more fine art. 'As people were exposed to it and as the more sophisticated buyers discovered (McGowan), she was really able to up the ante for the work,' Chaffee said.

Eventually, the gallery became a hot spot for contemporary art. 'Concord is so damn lucky that Mary McGowan decided to do this here,' Chaffee said. 'It's given an outlet to the artists of the state who prior to that had to go elsewhere to sell their work. And it's brought really quality work to the city. There aren't many places to see contemporary art.'

Part of the momentum for the gallery came from McGowan's work with corporations and organizations, a mission that started when her husband, the late Duncan McGowan, was designing buildings downtown. Over the years, she has designed art displays for businesses including Concord Hospital, the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, Southern New Hampshire University and the Rath, Young & Pignatelli law firm.

'I love going into businesses where Mary's been and seeing her work,' Chaffee said. 'I can go into places where people purchased art 30 years ago, and it still looks good. It doesn't feel dated. That's what we do. We can be a little provocative but still be timeless.'

Amanda McGowan Lacasse will be taking over the corporate consulting end of the business, while Chaffee concentrates on the gallery. She hopes to continue bringing fresh, intriguing art to Concord while maintaining the gallery's homey feel. 'I love talking to people about art and answering their questions,' Chaffee said. 'I'm always trying to up the ante and get people looking and talking about and enjoying the arts.'

A retirement celebration for McGowan will take place next Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m. at the gallery. Many of the artists who have been affiliated with the gallery over the years will be showing recent work and attending. For information call 225-2515 or visit mcgowanfineart.com.

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