It can at first be intimidating to walk into the Douglas Albert Gallery. It’s a tiny little space, tucked into the McAllister Alleyway by the Tavern Restaurant on East College Avenue, under all the Big Ten flags.
It’s tight squeeze inside, too — close shelving and walls, packed to the brim with countless pieces and works of art. There’s a sort of “bull in the china shop” feeling, like one wrong step and you could shatter a $1000 work or tarnish some lovely little knick-knack.
But once you get past the cramped feeling, the space is nothing short of charming.
The gallery is owned and operated by its namesake, Douglas Albert. He’s also the owner of Uncle Eli’s Artist Marketplace and Frame Shop, an arts supply store on East Beaver Avenue. To the timid potential customer, Albert has one piece of advice:
“People say that they get overwhelmed here, but I always say, would you rather be overwhelmed or underwhelmed?”
Growing up in Clarks Green outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Douglas Albert always had a passion for art. He was constantly painting and drawing as a child, and later served as the art editor of his high school yearbook.
Albert eventually made his way to State College as a student at Penn State, studying art and graphic design and serving as the art editor of Phroth magazine. He noticed a need in the community while he was still a student.
“There wasn’t a good place, from my perspective, even though I knew nothing about business, to get good art supplies,” Albert said.
So Albert decided to open up Uncle Eli’s, even though it was a struggle at first because he had very little business experience. Living off a small investment, Albert moved his fledgling business five times before it was planted in its current location in 1975.
“No one taught me anything,” Albert said. “It was all self-taught. It was much easier to have a business back in the day.”
Uncle Eli’s soon began to do well for Albert, but he still wanted more. By that point he had begun to sell higher quality posters at Eli’s, along with signed and numbered art pieces.
“There were a lot of publishers and I had a lot of signed and numbered work, better quality work,” Albert said. “I kind of wanted to be an art dealer as opposed to just being a retailer because I like art and I know what good art is as opposed to the pedantic, superficial furniture store art.”
In 1981, Albert got his chance. The current location of the gallery opened after a ski supply shop, the Ski Station, had moved out of the storefront.
The small size was immediately apparent to Albert. After all, the gallery itself is only around 1500 square feet. T make matters worse, the brick alleyway present now next to the Tavern hadn’t been turned into an actual walkway yet — it was still just a dingy alley.
“Trucks used to come down and make deliveries to the Tavern restaurant and my sign got knocked down many times because of trunks coming to close to it,” Albert said.
Even so, Albert found a way to survive. He often had, and still has, well-known and famous works come through his doors.
“Way back in the ’80s I had a Norman Rockwell show,” Albert said. “I was dealing with Rockwell’s publisher Elanor Ettinger. They cosigned me what was a quarter of a million-dollar painting.”
And bringing in big-name art didn’t stop there.
“I’ve had Picasso’s here, all the big artists. I’ve had Dali’s. I privately brokered a couple of Van Gough drawings for a private collector who was a friend of mine, a very wealthy individual,” Albert said.
He makes the point in expanding his range and doesn’t take in as much local art as you might think.
“(Local artists) can be seen all year round. I deal with a couple local artists, but it’s more important for me to bring work in here that people will not see anywhere else,” Albert said.
But one of the things that Albert takes pride in isn’t the fact that he has access to great works from around the world. He hates the idea of being known as a place where you can only buy expensive paintings, a place to look and peruse and not find something you want to decorate your home with.
“If you have 50 bucks, you can buy something here. I don’t believe there’s anybody that I can’t find something for,” Albert said. “I’m not a museum. I don’t want to be treated like a museum. I want to be treated like I’m in the art business.”
The conflict of cheap versus expensive art is something Albert said he thinks a lot about. He’d love to see people branch out and purchase more expensive works, not just to make a greater profit, but because he thinks it’s good for them.
“I have portfolios of hand-made, signed and numbered work for 50 dollars and under. It doesn’t have to be a big expensive painting, but people have to think outside of their boxes and realize it’s better to have one nice thing than a lot of okay things. It’s better to have silk than polyester.”
Albert likens the experience of purchasing art to going to a nice restaurant to eat food prepared by an award-winning chef.
“You’re not going to be paying $2.95 for a hamburger there,” he said. “It’s because he’s using better ingredients. I think I have better ingredients here.”
Albert also prides himself on his approach to customer service and interaction. He’s realistic. If the customer is polite, so is he.
“I take pride in spending any time it takes to help someone. I don’t like when people come in and they say they like things and then they try and find it on the internet. I don’t like have my time wasted. My time is valuable, and so is yours,” Albert said. “But I take pride in people taking an interest in art work and people who came back after visiting here 20 years ago as adults and they remember being treated well by me than, and when they come back they’ll be treated well by me again.”
It’s not just paintings and priceless works that are stacked up in the gallery. Albert has everything from nutcrackers to bracelets.
“I always say, it sounds corny, but art comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes. It doesn’t have to be painting. I think a beautiful piece of glass is just as important as a beautiful painting,” Albert said. “I’ve sort of morphed in jewelry because at least it’s a commodity that everybody might want at some point as opposed to a piece of artwork, but the jewelry I try and get in here are really just small pieces of hand-made art.”
Albert is also a pillar of the small-business community in State College. He was a driving force behind the introduction of First Friday, an event when the stores in town offer special deals and host events to get people to come out on the first Friday of each month.
He considers the gallery an important part of State College, offering people a chance to see things they wouldn’t normally have a chance to.
“I’m not trying to be an art teacher or an educator,” Albert said. “I’m trying to show that especially in this town, which gets a lot better from having a place like Penn State in it, that there’s more to this town than t-shirt shops and Chinese restaurants and bars. I am a fish out of water,” Albert said.
Jeremy Sanchez is a State College resident and a frequent visitor to the galley. He loves it so much that he even helps Albert out with some of his financial work.
“I think this place is State College’s best kept secret,” Sanchez said. “It is a place that to me is a really great one to find intimate, one-of-a-kind pieces that mean something to you. It’s an experience.”
While Albert might not have a professional relationship with the Penn State student body, apart from the students he employs at Uncle Eli’s, he’s eager for students to approach him for opportunities.
“I’d love to have a student do social media work for me. I’ll admit I’m very behind the curve on that. If I could find a student who would want to do it, I’d love to have students sell things for me online also,” Albert said.
Albert may take his business seriously, but it comes from an honest perspective. Though he’s a businessman now, he still considers himself an art man through and through.
At the end of the day, in his tiny little gallery in the alleyway by the Tavern, self-taught businessman Douglas Albert is always up for finding a masterpiece.
“It think that’ll be on my tombstone: I’ll know it when I see it.”