Home Is Where the Art Is: Rooms for ExpressionWe

In this Web-only exclusive, a pair of local gallery owners put art first in making their Andover house a haven for their collection.

Also inside: A Q & A with the owners as they discuss their approach to buying art, how owning a gallery impacts collecting, and more.

Camellia Genovese and David Sullivan’s house in Andover isn’t what one might envision as the residence of contemporary art collectors and gallery owners. For starters, the 1890 clapboard house is pale pink and surrounded by a high white wooden fence that could use a little paint. There’s no boxy, modern addition. There aren’t any brushed aluminum house numbers. The only thing suggesting something different might be happening inside is a tall black metal sculpture set in the middle of the porch between the twin front doors.

The interior, however, tells a completely different story.

To use the phrase “living with art” to describe Genovese and Sullivan’s residence would be a drastic understatement—like saying David Ortiz has hit a few home runs this year. The pair doesn’t just live with art; they live around it, over it, beside it, and on it. They eat and sleep with it. In this house, art is like a child who’s allowed to do what it wants, where it wants. It has taken over the walls, of course, but also the floors, the stairway, the bedrooms, and even the furniture. It’s unfettered but, luckily, not misbehaved, like a prodigy that’s been coddled and nurtured but minds its Ps and Qs.

When Genovese and Sullivan moved here in 1968, they paid $20 a week in rent for one of the house’s two apartments. But they told the landlord that if he ever wanted to sell the place to let them know; about a week later, they were scrambling to get the $27,000 purchase price together.

Fixing up the house has never been a priority for the couple, except where it concerns creating an environment for their ever expanding art collection. Tasks such as re-wallpapering a bathroom and prettying up the backyard take a back seat to buying more art during this four-decade-long work in progress. Room colors, such as the almost-shocking chartreuse of the front entry and stairway, are carefully chosen to complement their collection’s wide-ranging mix of styles, eras, and aesthetics. Pieces are never purchased as investments to be flipped; they’re always for keeps (though occasionally pieces have been sold to make ends meet) and are chosen unanimously. “We have to agree on a piece to buy it,” says Sullivan, himself an artist.

The couple wasn’t always so well versed in contemporary art. For instance, Sullivan was a traditionalist when he began his career. But beginning in 1974 they’d travel to New York once a month, kids in tow, to explore the contemporary art scene, a routine they kept up for eight years. Eventually, their enthusiasm translated into opening a gallery in Boston in 1987, on Harrison Street. But to showcase their growing personal collection, Genovese and Sullivan transformed the downstairs of one of their house’s apartments into a living room and gallery. Dozens of works—paintings, sketches, sculptures, mixed-media installations—cover the walls and floors. They kept structural changes to a minimum (one doorway was widened, a stairway was removed) with the goal of creating as much hanging space as possible. Movable gallery walls—some even cover windows to create more surface area—allow the couple to reposition works frequently.

“This is basically our living room,” says Genovese of the gallery area—though for an entertaining spot it has a surprising dearth of furniture, with just two wingbacks and a loveseat. Upholstered in artist’s canvas and painted in bold colors by their daughter when she was 16 (she’s now 42 and a performance artist; their son, 37, is a lawyer), the furnishings seem more like works of art than anything one would sit on. But that’s exactly the point: With no boundary between art and function, the seating serves double duty.

Nearby, a large-scale painting by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Wallenstein, anchors the room and introduces a lightning-bolt flash of yellow, which interacts with a mustardy hallway above, revealed through the empty space where a staircase once landed on the second floor. A balustrade frames the cutout, draped with the green cords that support Lee Boroson’s billowy Pleasure Ground, made from inflated parachute material and hovering softly on the gallery floor like oversized lily pads. From here the yellows, pinks, and whites of dozens of pieces by artists such as Calvin Brown, Mary Boochever, and Kelly Spalding create a path of color that leads the eye around the room.

Works are clustered tightly, partly due to space restrictions but also to create an intimacy that initiates conversation among the pieces themselves. “The way we hang the house is similar to the gesture of the paintings,” explains Sullivan. “Some pieces just go together, so you get a lot of connections.”

Nothing, however, stays in the same place for long, and so all the dots must be reconnected when, say, the couple buy a new painting, trade art with a friend, or just feel like rearranging, which occurs about once a month. “Once you rehang something, you have to move other stuff around,” Sullivan says, “to keep things alive.”

Creating the gallery required deleting one apartment’s kitchen; moving the other downstairs into the above-ground basement freed up space that was later transformed into the dining room, which has been outfitted with moldings and a fireplace surround from 1740 that the couple stumbled upon in New Hampshire. To accommodate the distressed, gray-green antique pieces, they rejiggered doorframes and carved out a new doorway, which provides access to the gallery.

When the doors close, the room comes alive. A traditional portrait of the couple’s daughter hangs on one wall, with one of a niece on another, below a red and white woodblock print by Pat Keck. The circa-1820 black and white door leading to the gallery is rustic and unrefined, but thought-provoking, and somehow reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown. Its top panel features a dark, almost sinister silhouette of a bearded man; the bottom panel shows his facial features. “It’s two views of the same person with maximum distance between them,” says Sullivan.

That duality is heightened in the contrast between a curvilinear custom forged-iron chandelier designed in the 1980s by Jake Grossman and his vertical, more folksy sculpture from 1992, which stands beside the table like a dinner guest. (Sculpture is never tucked in a corner; it always takes place of pride. To wit, a large metal sculpture in the master bedroom challenges the bed for attention.) “A lot of the art we collect is from the same artists throughout different periods,” says Sullivan. “So we see all the changes they go through.” A carved tribal New Guinea chair—one side a face, the other a seat—also joins the party, while a smaller Hans Accola piece rests on the floor. At first glance, it looks like a bunch of plywood roughly slapped together, but closer inspection reveals a much more intricate, polished, and beautiful intention.

Similarly, the house’s organization may appear haphazard, but there is purpose behind each placement. Mistakes, of course, can sometimes occur—but even errors can have their glory. When Sullivan cut the hole for the two-faced door, for instance, he measured incorrectly, leaving an awkwardly exposed heating pipe just inches from the center of the threshold. Just beyond the pipe, a steel sculpture, like a single train track, lies on the floor. It has to be stepped around and over so often that after a while it just became part of the landscape.

“You know that painting by Magritte, This Is Not a Pipe? The pipe-pipe thing, it’s a joke I rather liked,” says Sullivan, referring to the surrealist’s famous visual-linguistic play. “The sculpture on the ground participates in that. That mistake stays there.”

Like the dining room, the kitchen retains a rustic feel, but is also a study in color. Cabinetry and trim are painted deep teal, offset by spring green accents. Somehow the deep violet of an accent wall and the island manages to be both subtle and rich. With three large windows framing the exterior view, the backyard figures into the composition, too. Goldfinches flit about, their bright yellow feathers interacting with the interior palette. Sullivan, who picks all the color combinations, writes his own formulas for the paints. Sometimes this takes a few tries—a few rooms have been painted more than once before the desired effect was achieved.

Art, of course, has its place in the kitchen, too. Functional, earth-colored pottery is displayed on the open shelves. A gouache by Gilbert-Rolfe—the first piece of contemporary art the couple bought, in 1980—hangs near the sink. “We thought we’d be sick of it in a month,” says Sullivan of the purchase. Today, however, they continue to look at it lovingly, as if still discovering its personality. This, they say, is the whole point of owning art: to develop a relationship with a piece over time. “Looking is such a slow process,” says Sullivan. “You have to own a painting to understand it.” Now Gilbert-Rolfe’s colorful work appears throughout the house, showing up in the entryway, the gallery, and in one of the second-floor bedrooms, which, since the couple have become empty-nesters, are now repositories for more art. One Gilbert-Rolfe has been hung in shrinelike homage in a spare bedroom where the walls have been painted a sunny yellow to perfectly complement it.

Above the bedrooms, Sullivan works diligently in the third-floor attic, a lofty space filled with reams of paper and sketches, and the only spot with an air conditioner—a gift from a patron to help combat Sullivan’s asthma. The rest of the house remains climate-controlled by nature (the study doesn’t even have heat). This isn’t ideal for the art— paper can crinkle with humidity and flatten with the cold—but Genovese and Sullivan shrug it off as a fact of life, like wrinkles, or taxes. “Everything changes,” says Genovese. “That’s very important.” She’s talking about the art on her walls, but in a way it’s a fitting metaphor for their life in this house. Change comes, though not always quickly. It’s all about perspective, and a willingness to take the time to look.