Framed by Bruce Webber

Art? Lake Worth? You’re talking about veteran art dealer and gallery owner Bruce Webber. Since the 1970’s he’s been the man to see at The Art Shop, where he started out lifting boxes and graduated to building custom frames for celebs from Kate Smith to George Hamilton. He took over the business in 1985, and also operates a gallery where he gives local artists a place to shine. The Art Shop is celebrating its 50th year(!) in Lake Worth, where it once was the hub of the county’s growing art scene.

Shortly after a local artist set his studio on fire with chemicals that ignited while he was visiting the john — true story — he called on veteran art dealer Bruce Webber.

"He asked if he could use the studio upstairs at my gallery," Webber said with a laugh. "I told him I like to help artists, but I didn’t think that was such a good idea."

Webber’s The Art Shop has been helping artists for 50 years without incident — at least of the incendiary variety. Webber marked the anniversary last week with reception for the artists and customers who have made his art, frame and supply shop probably the oldest art business in Palm Beach County.

"If you were to look at a snapshot of Lake and Lucerne avenues from 1956, you’ll notice that The Art Shop is the only business from that era remaining in downtown Lake Worth," said former mayor Tom Ramiccio, president and CEO of the Greater Lake Worth Chamber of Commerce. "They’re still a destination business that attracts hundreds of visitors to Lake Worth."

At one time, it was the hub of the county’s growing art scene.

When I first had some acquaintance with the art scene here in the ‘70s, The Art Shop was a real presence," veteran painter Richard Frank said. "It was a place where all the artists went, and where you could get news about what was happening in the local art world. You don’t have that kind of central meeting place anymore."

Maybe not, but The Art Shop is still a homey place with local customers. One reason why is the personable Webber, a seemingly unlikely candidate to have perfected "a mean James Brown imitation," according to Frank.

A Vietnam vet, Webber spent a year at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in his hometown after his discharge, but "I got sick of being called ‘baby killer,’ and couldn’t take it anymore."

So he and some buddies visited Florida in 1970 "just for fishing and goofing off." He walked into a small art shop on Lucerne Avenue to pick up something for his friend’s mother. "I saw a whole room full of boxes," he recalled. "I said, ‘It looks like you could use some help.’ " The owner, Richard Purnell, reckoned that he could. Webber never left.

For a time, The Art Shop "was the only art supplies store between West Palm Beach and Delray Beach," Webber said. In 1956, Remsen Jennings opened the shop on Lake Avenue. In 1961, it was bought by Richard and Lucy Purnell, Michigan transplants.

"Dick had worked in the movie industry as a lettering man, and he later headed an advertising agency for the auto industry," Webber said. "He was never trained as a picture-framer, but he had a good eye from his background in the graphic arts."

From lifting boxes, Webber graduated to stretching canvases and making frames. His teacher was a Hungarian emigre named Leopold Weisman who had run an art store in New York.

"He was an old gentleman from the old school who knew the old way of doing things. He knew how to make frames to last," Webber said. "Dick (Purnell) was a commercial artists used to getting things done quickly. Leopold felt that it didn’t matter how long it took, it had to be done right. In Florida’s humidity, cheap frames won’t last three weeks."

Webber became a skilled frame-maker. "I never got out of the back shop," he said laughing. "I was just cranking out picture frames. I must have made a million of them."

One day, he and a fellow worker were bored, so they decided to compete to see how many frames they could make in a day. (Weisman, the taskmaster, wasn’t around.) Webber won. "I cut, joined and assembled forty-some frames," he said. "It made Mr. Purnell happy."

He became close friends of he owners. "Dick always promised that he’d sell the shop to me some day, and he kept his word." Webber scraped together the money to buy the store in 1985. He was soon selling paintings, as well as frames and supplies.

"Nobody was really buying Florida paintings at the time," he said. One day, a man walked in demanding to know how Webber got a painting of a Florida landscape that was in the window. "He sounded really angry," he recalled. "I told him it was on consignment. He brightened up and said, ‘Well, do you want some more? The artist was my dad.’ "

The artist was a disciple of the ever-popular painter of traditional Florida landscapes, A.E. "Bean" Backus. Along with some of his father’s works, the son brought in seven Backus paintings. Soon after a Palm Beacher brought in seven more Backus pictures for consignment. "Through luck, some of the first works I ever sold were fourteen Backus paintings," Webber said.

Operating as Bruce Webber Gallery, in the same building as The Art Shop, he reckons he has sold 44 Backus paintings over the years, as well as 50 pictures by the artist’s brother-in-law, James Hutchinson, and 80-100 paintings by The Highwaymen, the black artists from the Fort Pierce area who studied with Backus.

Webber has also given exhibitions to such noted local artists as photographer Tom McCartney, and painters Richard Frank, Skip Measelle and Thorvald Sanchez.

He has created frames for such celebrities as the late Kate Smith and Curt Gowdy, soap star and Lake Worth native Deidre Hall, and actor George Hamilton. The late millionaire art collector J. Patrick Lannan was also a regular, as well as Palm Beach collectors Robert and Mary Montgomery.

Some of Webber’s more unusual framing jobs were "shadow boxes" created to hold Sitting Bull’s peace pipe and chest plate. Last week, he created a "shadow box" to hold a clarinet.

Webber jokes that his shop looks like a department store, offering everything from paintings and brushes to jewelry and clothing, the latter items in a gallery run by his wife, Maryanne.

"I think one reason why the business has thrived is that the Webbers haven’t put all their eggs in one basket," said Ramiccio. Webber’s two children, David and Dana, are poised to continue the business.

"Stores like this don’t last as long as we have", Webber said. "The picture-framing business is changing," he said. "A salesman recently told me there were once 40,000 frame shops in the U.S. Now there are just 11,000."

"Sixty percent of frames are mass-produced," he said with disdain. "They’re done quickly and cheaply. But my customers want to become involved in the framing. They want to see how it’s done. It’s personal to them."

He paused to introduce his son, and glanced around the gallery.

‘It’s amazing to me. Once, I was the kid around here. And now I’m the old man.’

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Webber marked the anniversary last week with reception for the artists and customers who have made his art, frame and supply shop probably the oldest art business in Palm Beach County.

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