A Man of Presence : Joe Rowand’s Legacy in the Triangle Arts Scene

The late Somerhill Gallery owner had a decades-long impact on the Raleigh and Chapel Hill arts community
by Larry Wheeler

Somerhill Gallery was already a celebrated center for new art in the Triangle when I moved here in 1974. Joe Rowand had opened it in Chapel Hill two years earlier, and his Sunday showings of new work by artists like Maud Gatewood, S. Tucker Cooke, and Herb Jackson drew hundreds of folks from all over the Triangle and beyond. They parked haphazardly on all entrances to the Straw Valley location, on US Highway 15/501, in anticipation of a glass of wine and an afternoon of fellowship with Joe.

The gallery was a little piece of New York, infused with Joe’s cutting-edge taste and awesome, hip energy.  He almost single-handedly reshaped the arts scene when he arrived 40 years ago. Somerhill moved to Eastgate Shopping Center in Chapel Hill in 1989, and then to an elegant new space in Durham in 2008, before closing in 2010.

To be sure, when Somerhill went belly-up, there was a lot of heartache left behind; Joe is not without his detractors. But to me, and many of the collectors and artists whose collections and careers he shaped, his influence was undeniable.

Joe embraced many good causes that he believed made the Triangle more dynamic. For several years, he chaired the advisory council for the then-new Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, served on the North Carolina Awards Committee, and hosted countless fundraising events for environmental awareness, animal rights, and progressive political causes at his chic country home near Hillsborough, designed by Phil Szostak.

When I asked Joe to co-chair the gala for the 50th Anniversary of the North Carolina Museum of Art in 1997, he — not surprisingly — produced table chargers crafted in Italy, opera singers, and ballet dancers to welcome guests, and, of course, the Duke Chorale to encircle the diners and sing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Sadly, Joe succumbed to the COVID-19 virus on February 25. It was a loss to all of us who admired Joe, considered him a dear friend, and collected his artists without reservation.

“Joe had a profound impact on my exciting journey of collecting art,” says friend and collector Marion Church of Raleigh. “I will miss the adventures he took me on through our conversations and the stories he told. He was an institution.”

“At Somerhill, art was presented with a Bergdorf Goodman touch that made you realize you could not continue life without that very work of art — or, at least, a Christmas ornament,” says longtime friend Melissa Peden, a former gallerist herself. “Joe was an original, a man of presence, a gentleman of style.”

But it was the artists he encouraged that inspired Joe the most. They were his life, and he gave them wings. “For me, as for many other North Carolina artists, Joe was a buoyant, all-stops-out advocate,” says photographer Elizabeth Matheson, long represented by Somerhill. “I am forever grateful for his support of my work and for the lovely and lively gift of friendship which followed.”

This month, we will finally be able to celebrate Joe’s life with a small ceremony. And I’m comforted to know that his legacy will live on: whenever I enter a home in Raleigh where art is collected and loved, and where the artists he championed are on view, I feel the spirit of Joe Rowand.