The Art of Sacrifice: Ron Bishop & The Bob Rauschenberg Gallery

by Frank Messina

Ron Bishop

"The first half of the 20th century belongs to Picasso, the second half to Rauschenberg. While Picasso blew the doors off the art house, Bob knocked it down." 
Ron Bishop - Director, Bob Rauschenberg Gallery

On a recent Thursday night, I walked into Bert’s Bar in Matlacha, Florida—a popular local watering hole that promises good grub and cold beer. I passed the pool table with the faded green felt and propped myself up on a stool. On the opposite wall, a yellow sign with black letters read: “NO POLITICS / NO RELIGION”.

Respecting the house rules, I turned to the couple next to me and asked if they knew where I could find some art. Good art. The heavyset man, sporting a Harley Davidson shirt turned toward me, raised his left arm as if carrying a barbell, and flexed. “See this? Art.” I immediately recognized the image on his tattooed flesh as a warped version of a Pablo Picasso painting.

“Weeping Woman, 1937,” I said, referring to the artist’s famed painting. “You know your stuff,” the man said. “You’re good,” his female companion replied, who was inked up on both arms and neck, framed by a faded Talking Heads t-shirt.

“Well, not really,” I said. "But I do know that image.”

After a couple of drinks and some small talk, we discussed Picasso, Pollock, and Rauschenberg. "The art critic Clement Greenberg once said Jackson Pollock was better than Picasso," I said. 

“That’s ridiculous,” an agitated Ben said. 

“And I just spoke with a guy from the Rauschenberg Gallery in Fort Myers who said that while the first half of the 20th century belongs to Picasso, the second half belongs to Rauschenberg," I said.

“That’s blasphemous!” Ben said. “Picasso owns all of the 20th century and this part of the 21st!" Katie shook her head in disgust. “Picasso is God," she yelled, slamming her bottle on the bar. "God!" The room quieted. The bartender shot over. "Hey, everything alright here, guys?"

I looked up at the yellow sign with black lettering and read part of its message again: NO RELIGION. “I’ll take the check," I said.

New Century Recent Acquisitions from the Martin Z. Marguilies Collection
The next day, I made a call to the man who had uttered the quote which almost got me tossed out of a bar.

“I have a great job,” Ron Bishop said, director of the Rauschenberg Gallery at Edison State College in Fort Myers, Florida. “Because I get to look at art all day long.” The words came from a man who has dedicated much of his professional life to the legacy of the late Robert Rauschenberg, an artist who has cast a huge shadow over the cultural landscape of contemporary American art, whose philanthropy has benefited many, and inspired millions.

Much of Bishop’s job as director is developing and organizing exhibits for the gallery—a task that entails long hours and meticulous planning. “I cover a lot of territory,” Bishop said. “But I don’t complain about that work."

And why should he? The gallery bustles with energy—a collegiate presence augmented by contemporary, albeit profound artworks. The gallery is in a pristine building highlighted by a space large enough to display an ambitious art installation. In my visit there last March, an exhibition of Ray Burggraf's art was hanging. The gallery afforded ample breathing room for Burggraf's large format paintings.

Rauschenberg's Scenarios Exhibition, 2007
Rauschenberg moved to nearby Captiva Island in 1970. The Gallery of Fine Art was founded in 1979 and would become Rauschenberg's home gallery. By the time Bishop was hired in 1999, Rauschenberg had made a huge cultural and financial impact in Fort Myers. Bishop continued the friendship with Rauschenberg, an alliance that would prove paramount to the existence of the gallery itself.

"Bob had done so much for us," Bishop said. "When we had a show with him, he gave us limited edition prints, an edition of 100 or 160, entirely for us to to sell and benefit the gallery. We put it through the state of Florida's cultural endowment and we were able to stabilize the gallery," Bishop said.

"The Division of Cultural Affairs has a program that matches two-thirds to one the money that you put into a holding account and we live off of that interest," Bishop said. "The principal is essentially what Bob gave us through the sale of those prints. That’s my exhibition money."

Recognizing the huge impact Rauschenberg was having on the gallery's success, Bishop set the wheels in motion that would eventually result in renaming the gallery in the artist's honor. I asked Bishop how that developed. "I identified quickly that this was our future and that Bob had given it to us," Bishop said. "I went to the foundation department and said, we name buildings all over campus for donations that people give us." He brought the idea of renaming the gallery in Rauschenberg's honor to the president and board of directors, which they readily endorsed. "Then we went and asked Bob if he'd agree, and he did," Bishop said. In 2004, the gallery was officially renamed.

"One of the things I do each summer is try to find an event that supports an organization in the community," Bishop said.  In this spirit, Bishop works tirelessly to help produce and present "Arts for ACT Fine Art Auction" to benefit the Abuse Counseling and Treatment, Inc.  (ACT) organization.

Artists from around the area donate a piece to ACT to be sold at their annual summer auction. The artist's work is showcased in the gallery for about a month where visitors can preview the works before auction.

Raushcenberg's generosity has rubbed off on a new generation of successful artists.
Michelle Weinberg, an artist from Miami and New York says she's pleased to donate her work, a silkscreen called Artist Studio in Landscape.

"I frequently donate works to fundraisers," Weinberg said. "I try to participate when the cause is worthy. In fact, I created the silkscreen editioned work, so that I could say yes to all the requests for donations I receive."

Bishop said Weinberg's extremely generous gift emanates directly from the Rauschenberg's legacy. "Bob did exactly that. He donated pieces to ACT."

A Quake in Paradise exhibition, 2005
Bishop also organizes a charity event for the state-run program, Very Special Arts, which benefits young and adult artists with various sorts of challenges. I asked Bishop how much money is raised from the Rauschenberg-inspired donations. "Hundreds of thousands annually," Bishop said. "Donations range from anywhere from three-hundred to half-a-million."

Rauschenberg's generosity has become the stuff of legend among collectors and admirers. In a New York Times Op-Ed piece written shortly after Rauschenberg's death, musician David Byrne waxed poetic on the subject of the artist's giving nature both in money and time. "Bob was extraordinarily generous. I don’t mean he gave away art — though he did that, too — but he was generous with his time and with his ideas and spirit. He started Change Inc., a foundation that awards grants to emerging artists who can’t pay their rent, utility or medical bills. No questions asked. Bob’s generosity of vision was, it seemed to me, more profound than the financial kind," Byrne wrote.

Ron Bishop with Bob Rauschenberg
Bishop echoed Byrne's sentiment. "Aside from your first observation of generosity, I think seeing Bob's work throughout his life all the way to the end of his life it was always cutting edge. He was always exploring, always trying new materials, always looking for a new way to present imagery," Bishop said.

"I think he gave people an in-road that freed them and gave them permission to think about art differently and just opened the door for them," Bishop said. "He changed everything. He used everything. Anything of today. Anything in the world was Bob's image. And if we look at his career and the imagery he used throughout this career it was always of the world. It was always now. He collaborated with everyone. He loved that energy of free thinking, coming to new conclusions, not having a set path. He said to me once, 'Art is organic.'"

I asked Bishop about Rauschenberg's influence on local artists. "There are people in the community that more freely incorporate collage imagery—imagery out of magazines, world imagery as opposed to painting everything by hand. You don't find Rauschenberg-influenced work everywhere. But you do here, and I think that is a direct relationship to the amount of opportunities people had in seeing Bob's work. We got to see his work more than anyone. We got to see more of his than anyone and that's pretty amazing. We're privileged to have been in the same community as him.

Bishop's love and admiration for Rauschenberg is obvious, and like many people who dedicate their lives to another,  he has made big sacrifices. By our last interview, I sensed Bishop was a man of many layers. I wasn't sure how to explain it, but it seemed there was more to Ron Bishop than meets the eye. And I was right.

Geomantic Wisdom by Ron Bishop, 8" x 10", acrylic on canvas
"I'm a painter," Bishop said. "I have a masters degree in painting from Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan." And perhaps even more impressive, he has fifty exhibitions to his credit.

When I asked if he'd send a few images of his work, he was squeamish. But why?

"Because of the respect and reputation this gallery has," Bishop said. "I haven't shown my work in twelve years." 

Damn shame, I thought. Because, good art should be seen.

Transcript of Magic and Life by Ron Bishop, 12" x 34", acrylic on canvas
Guardian of Time by Ron Bishop, 18" x 56", acrylic on canvas
"So, you've been more dedicated to the gallery than your own work?" I asked.

"Absolutely," he said. "I have so much fun and enjoy what I do here, even though in fact it has been a sacrifice it doesn't feel like it. I got to have six shows with Robert Rauschenberg. It's kind of hard to miss my career as an artist when I get to work with people with such marvelous acclaim, wonderful people."

"My work is fairly intimate in scale. I want to bring you close into it."

I hovered over the image and studied the colors. "My work comes from a metaphysical place," Bishop said. "I am a colorist." And then another revelation: "This is probably the last year of my work at the gallery."

"Why?" I asked.

"I'm at a point in my life where I'd like to catch trout and paint pictures," he said.

About a week later, I went back to Bert's Bar. I passed the pool table with the faded green felt and propped myself up on a stool. On the opposite wall, the yellow sign with black letters stared back. But it was different this time. Someone had used a magic marker to amend the house rules: “NO POLITICS / NO RELIGION...and NO ART".

Big Ben leaned up against the bar. "So did you find any good art?" he asked.

"Yes, I did."

"Good, tell me," he said.

"Well, there's an artist, and his name is Ron Bishop."

 8099 College Parkway SW
Ft. Myers Florida 33919 | Phone: 239.489.9313

Acknowledgements: Thanks to the Bob Rauschenberg Gallery,  Michelle Weinberg, Ron Bishop and the Archives of American Art
 All photo copyrights revert to the photographer except where noted. All material copyright protected and may not be copied or disseminated without the expressed written consent of Fine Art Investigations, Frank Messina, Bob Rauschenberg Gallery, the Archives of American Art and the Artist Rights Society.