June 4 2014 12:00 AM

Artists, gallery owners recall ‘gentleman’ Bill Hankins


Bill Hankins was behind the times, by nature, and that put him a little bit ahead.

The death May 23 of the longtime East Lansing gallery owner has local artists musing about what´s still missing in the local arts community. Hankins was 81.

“When you walked into his gallery, time was frozen,” artist Irving Hankins Zane Taran said. “It was a place of slow time. You could gaze, think or speak.”

Hankins blended his passion for antique prints and maps with unwavering support of contemporary art in three East Lansing locations from 1990 to 2010.

“He was more interested in the art than the money,” artist Bruce Thayer said. “He brought real art to the area. He didn´t sell whatnots. For him to open a gallery that sophisticated was something good in East Lansing. He was sticking his neck out.”

In spite of Hankins’ old world charm and the grandfather-clock quietude of his shop, he was ahead of the curve in East Lansing. His sophistication and accessibility made him just the kind of art entrepreneur the 2-year-old Broad Art Museum was supposed to attract to East Lansing but still hasn’t.

“If Bill were still around, with the Broad coming in, that’s the type of thing that would have lifted up the East Lansing art scene,” Thayer said. “But he was working in a desert in terms of art. He was more of a pioneer.”

Hankins started his first gallery, Prints Ancient and Modern, on M.A.C. Avenue, after retiring from the State of Michigan in 1990. An inveterate traveler from his Army days, he rummaged Europe for old maps and prints with his wife and lifelong partner, Helen.

A visitor might enter the gallery and find Hankins’ tall, lean figure bent on all fours, enthusing over a bottom-drawer print from his specially made cabinet.

But the antiquarian shopkeeper embraced bold modern work. Over the years, Taran mounted half a dozen one-person shows at Hankins’ gallery, participated in many group shows and hung work in the gallery almost continuously. “He represented my work to the whole mid-Michigan community for 20 years, and I´m not the only one,” Taran said.

After a show at the cramped M.A.C. gallery, Hankins told Taran he needed a bigger space, if only to better showcase Taran’s heroic slabs of texture and color. In the mid- ‘90s, he moved the gallery to a second-story spot above the old Jocundry’s book store on Grand River Avenue.

“That was a beautiful location with three major skylights,” Taran said. “I´ll never forget them.”

Kind as he was, Hankins had a warrior spirit when it came to his artists. “He was the perfect person for me, because I´m very unassertive in selling my work,” artist Nancy Leiserowitz said. “He was ambitious for me.”

Hankins also featured young artists and up-and-coming creators from Europe and other places he visited.

“He stretched with untried people who didn´t have as long a track record as we did,” Taran said. “He gave people their first chance, which is always a professional risk.”

Thayer’s rough-hewn, populist art, with its pleas for social justice, had a special appeal for Hankins. In his Traverse City retirement years, Hankins was a frequent presence at Jubilee House, a ministry where people in trouble were fed and housed. He once rescued an alcoholic from a snowbank and drove him to the hospital.

Other galleries wouldn’t touch Thayer’s work; Hankins championed it. “I’ve gotten flak, even in Chicago,” Thayer said. “To go all the way from Irv’s work to my figurative work is quite a range, but it all worked to gether in his gallery.”

To counter the dip in interest and attendance that follows many openings, Hankins started a “night with the artist” series, heavily promoted through mailings to customers.

Taran gave the first talk. “There were 65 to 70 people,” he said. “There weren’t enough seats. We were on to something.”

Artists saw Hankins as a partner, even in the often contentious process of hanging a show.

“It was never a dead thing, where you just showed the pictures,” Taran said. “We’d work at spacing, color.”

Hankins even brought paintings to clients’ homes, helped them pick out a suitable spot and hung the work for them. Taran recalled trundling off in Hankins’ van to see his massive works safely to their destinations.

When hair salon Douglas J bought a massive Taran installation, the two had a ball putting up an array of 70 “raindrop” blobs after business hours. The painting is still there.

Hankins built a loyal base of clients and customers, many of whom made the trip from outstate areas just to visit his gallery, but a lack of walk-in traffic hurt him at the second-floor Grand River location. In the early ‘00s, he made one last move, to a storefront in East Lansing’s Marriott Hotel complex.

“There was a tenacity to his vision,” said Mackerel Sky co-owner Linda Dufelmeier, whose gallery is a block away from the Marriott. “We were lucky he continued to want a space, despite the difficulty in moving from place to place.”

For a 2003 show, Hankins and Taran went nuts, taking over a temporarily empty space next door at the Marriott. They worked together for days to hang the show.

“He was fun to work with,” Taran said. “We looked at the exhibition as a very lively enterprise between the gallery and the artists. You didn´t bring them in and drop them.”

Hankins´ wife, Helen, worked as a physical therapist to help the couple make ends meet, and was a constant presence in the gallery.

“Their love permeated the gallery,” Taran said.

Both of them volunteered at the Kresge Art Museum, where Helen was a docent, and supported local music and theater.

“Bill and Helen were such elegant people,” Dufelmeier said. “They brought such a refined sense of art to the community. They had that personal interest in antique prints, but then embraced people like Irv Taran. Their likes were all over the map. It was a real loss when they closed the shop.”

For most people who worked with Hankins, the loss of a classy gallery is inextricable with the loss of a classy man.

Catherine Babcock, director of the Lansing Art Gallery, recalled when a local reporter interviewed them both, along with Roy Saper of Saper Galleries, about the local gallery scene.

“He was incredibly charming,” Babcock said. “He was always about art and the artist, not about competition.”

Hankins stories are in short supply. He didn’t toss off bon mots, contrive “moments” or otherwise draw attention to himself.

“With Bill, I don´t have any anecdotes. All I have are adjectives,” Leiserowitz said.

“If I think about how successful dealers and owners act — Bill managed to succeed without being one of them. He was a gentleman, which is kind of an anachronism