Marian Swersky Locks, 95, art dealer

Posted: March 28, 2010

In 1937, the newly married Marian Swersky Locks acquired her first significant painting.

At the unheated studio of Beauford Delaney in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, her husband, Jerry, bought for her a Delaney work - for $50 - and a potbellied stove.

It was in that studio that she would meet legends such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Marcel Duchamp, and Henry Miller.

But it took her until 1968, the year she turned 54, to open her first gallery.

It was then that the Philadelphia art world changed.

On Feb. 26, Marian Swersky Locks, 95, the retired owner of Marian Locks Gallery on Washington Square, died of congestive heart failure at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, Fla. She lived nearby, in Surfside, Fla.

In a 1994 appreciation of the influence of Mrs. Locks, Inquirer art critic Victoria Donohoe called her the "doyenne of area art dealers."

She had just received the Mayor's Arts and Culture Award from Ed Rendell for significant contributions to the visual arts.

In a talk to the parents' association at the Haverford School that year, Mrs. Locks urged potential art collectors: "Make an effort to know the art and the artists."

Her own emphasis, several accounts said, was on local, emerging artists.

Donohoe wrote that "in stressing her midwife role of attempting to push artists and collectors closer, she explained that 'the collector is buying a part of an artist's life.' "

So, Mrs. Locks warned the Haverford audience, in acquiring art, "the key ingredient is courage to try, not cash."

Born in Queen Village, she grew up in Fairmount and took courses at the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and the New School for Social Research in Manhattan.

Donohoe wrote that in the 1930s, "her friends were WPA artists and people with daytime jobs who, like her, were little theater buffs in the evening. . . .

"Her own art-collecting began when she met artists who sold small works to her for pocket money. During the 1950s and '60s, Locks continued to collect new local art at modest prices."

In 1990, Mrs. Locks told The Inquirer's Karen Heller that when young, "I belonged to a set that hung out at the Horn & Hardart at Broad and Locust and talked about ideas and art."

Heller wrote that "eventually, when she had more money, she took art-history courses at area schools, but she never painted or drew or sculpted; those are not her gifts."

Her daughter-in-law, Sueyun Locks, said that she never took a paying job and that it was only after the retirement of her husband, Jerry, a vending-machine executive, that, in 1968, she opened her first gallery.

Heller wrote that it was in the back of a gift shop in the 1800 block of Chestnut Street, "an absurd space - 50 feet long, 7 1/2 feet wide."

In 1971, she moved the gallery into the former home of the Yale Club on the second floor of 1524 Walnut St.

Critic Donohoe wrote that the new gallery "is not only one of the few bastions of 'new' art anywhere in town, but it has been willing to accomplish the 'seemingly impossible' task of presenting mostly local work.

"This gallery has assumed leadership, the image is getting broader, and the place is making waves."

In 1975, Mrs. Locks told Inquirer columnist Maralyn Lois Polak:

"I've always been called motherly and a doer of good, but I just don't see it as simple as that. . . . I get just as much out of it as the artists do.

"I grew up with the artists, I learned through their eyes. I've got the most important part of their lives here."

In 1990, the gallery made its final move, to the former home of the Lea & Febiger publishing firm on the south side of Washington Square. In 1988, Mrs. Locks had retired, Sueyun said, and she had become the gallery director.

But Mrs. Locks was not out of the public eye.

In 1989, the Philadelphia Museum of Art gave her its third annual Art Matters Award for Excellence in the Arts.

In 1990, the Moore College of Art and Design awarded an honorary doctorate in fine arts. In 1991, Mayor W. Wilson Goode named her to the Mayor's Cultural Advisory Council.

A 1994 Inquirer article stated that she was then chair of the Governor's Residence Art Program and a member of the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts.

In 1995, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts gave her its distinguished service award. In 1998, the Fleisher Art Memorial gave her its Founders Award and, a year later, named her to its board.

In the mid-'90s, Sueyun said, Mrs. Locks and her husband became year-round residents at their vacation home in Surfside, where he died in 2007.

Besides Sueyun, Mrs. Locks is survived by son Gene and six granddaughters.

A May memorial is planned.

Contact staff writer Walter F. Naedele at 215-854-5607 or

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