The Shareholder Online The alumni magazine of Auburn University’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business

1961 Auburn business graduate masters the art of entrepreneurship

Robert Harris, left, is joined by artist Victor Bregeda, center, and Scott Peck, Director of the Biblical Museum of Art in Dallas, at the Dallas Museum of Art in April.

Robert Harris, Sr. (above left), learned the principles of hard work and developed an entrepreneurial spirit on the family farm near Bessemer, Ala., in the 1950s and 1960s. “My dad (Harvey) was a merchant, a farmer and a trader, a businessman, and an opportunity person,” said the 1961 Harbert College of Business graduate. “It didn’t make any difference if it was chickens or eggs, as long as it was something that he could sell. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit too.”

But you won’t find chickens or eggs at Harris’ business today. Instead, his clientele at R. Alexander Gallery in Atlanta purchase fine art, including works of some of the most recognized painters and sculptors in the world.

This is the story of a man who parlayed his agri-business degree from Auburn University into a 25-year career in the trucking industry with International Harvester before turning a part-time art sales gig into one of the South’s leading galleries. How did it happen? It began by chance in a grocery store.

“A neighbor saw my wife (Pat) in a grocery store and invited us to come over to what they call an art party on a Friday evening,” said Harris, who was based in Chicago at the time. “It was sort of like a Tupperware party. My wife told me about it and I said, ‘I don’t know anything about art. I’ve been traveling all week and I don’t want to go to some darn art party.’”

Pat prevailed.

“I was really amazed at the presentation,” Harris said. “Knowing nothing about art, anything he (the presenter) showed me looked great. It intrigued me and I said to myself, ‘This must be an interesting way to make some money.’”

Then Harris found a Chicago art distributor, and his business wheels began to turn again.

“One day during my lunch hour their office was close to where my office was, I walked over there and I wound up buying about 50 little 8×10 paintings,” he explained. “I went home and told my wife, ‘We’re in the art business.’

“We started doing these home art shows, trying to emulate what we had seen at these parties we’d been to. It’s a pitch and sell deal. They still do these with various types of products.”

Once the Harris’ moved to Atlanta in 1981, the family’s art business continued to grow. There, Harris operated an International Harvester dealer-development program for six years before joining Pat full-time in the art business, and DE Fine Art, later R. Alexander, was born.

A visit to the Atlanta Merchandise Mart, one of the largest markets full of exhibitors, introduced the Harris’ to tapestries, many made in France and Belgium. Before too long, the Harris’ purchased an entire booth of exquisite Dutch tapestries.

“We went from being like a used car dealer to becoming a Mercedes dealer,” he added. “Over the years we grew from a purely decorative level of art to a much higher quality of artwork sold to a much narrower market.”

An expanded R. Alexander Art Gallery is expected to re-open this fall near Peachtree Corners in northeast Atlanta.

An expanded R. Alexander Art Gallery is expected to re-open this fall near Peachtree Corners in northeast Atlanta.

R. Alexander Gallery is moving from downtown Atlanta to a much more expansive location near Peachtree Corners. How big? Try 10,000 square feet with 2.75 acres with sculptures (including an 1,800-pound, $145,000 work by Martin Varro), and a mini-waterfall and gardens. There, the business will operate in retail and wholesale.

“We want to make it a ‘wow’ place,” Harris added. “It will be an eye-catching spot. I want it to be where people come in here and, particularly if they are homeowners, they like the nicer amenities of their home and garden. It’s not just another brick and mortar building. It’s an environment that makes them feel comfortable and let their eyes leap to see different things. We’ll have a lot of different types of plant material that they just don’t normally see in the everyday environment of a home — like going to a botanical gardens.”

The official grand re-opening is scheduled for this September.

How does one go from a family farm to the trucking industry to becoming one of the most prominent art dealers in the South?

“You have to believe in yourself and what you’re doing,” Harris said. “You also have to have to ability to relate and connect with people and sell yourself. If you can’t sell yourself you can’t sell your product.”

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Joe McAdory

Joe McAdory is Communications Editor at The Raymond J. Harbert College of Business. Prior to his appointment at Auburn University in January of 2013, McAdory was Editorial Page Editor (2004 to 2013) and Sports Editor (1999-2003) at the Opelika-Auburn News. He has been recognized by the Alabama Press Association and Alabama Associated Press for his sports columns, news columns, investigative reporting and news features. He is a 1992 graduate of Auburn University.
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One Comment

  1. I will look forward to coming down for a visit and tour of your gallery, Mr. Harris.
    Thank you, Kay for sending this amazing talent to us here in Virginia. Your brother is certainly one to look up to and admire. You come from very good stock, Kay, give him my compliments on a wonderful venture to take great pride & joy giving to others the beauty and love of the arts. Kay, your designing talents add to the family gifts as well; you both come from amazing people and are an inspiration to all who know you.
    Fondly, Grace McGraw
    Virginia Beach, VA

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