Credit: Illustration by Josh Neufeld

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Martin Kotler is the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s frame conservator. But matchmaker might be a more appropriate descriptor for much of the work he does at the museum’s Lunder Conservation Center.

According to Chief Curator Eleanor Harvey, in the ’50s and ’60s, the art world retreated from ornate frames, snatching up minimalist frames instead to accompany growing collections of modern art. Some museums even “swapped out” their decorative frames altogether, only to buy them back a few decades later at “greatly increased prices,” she says.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum never got rid of its elaborate frames, and now, Harvey says, it’s one of two or three American museums making frame research a priority. “It’s kind of a detective hunt, because you’re trying to match up the original frame with the original work of art….The kind of research Martin is doing is popping up across the country. We’re starting to look at the backs of frames. Martin’s really on the leading edge.”

Well, most of the time, anyway. Last July, Kotler was asked to get his most exciting frame ready for the museum’s big reopening. Immediately, he knew which one to get.

“I knew that this frame would really be glitzy,” he says, pointing to the giant lemon-gold rectangle at the conservation center. “And I recognized it immediately as a Carrig-Rohane.”

A Carrig-Rohane, Kotler says, is the Rolls-Royce of frames. Made by a Boston-based frame shop at the turn of the 20th century, the frames were hand-carved by renowned artisans and commanded enormous sums of money.

On July 4, 2006, a crowd of people formed outside of the glass-enclosed conservation center to watch Kotler unveil the frame. “There were hundreds of people trying to figure out what they’re looking at. They’re in a hall, looking through the glass at me.”

Before Kotler got to work, he explained the history of the prestigious Carrig-Rohane Shop. “This was not just a frame company, but this was a frame company made by artists,” Kotler says, referring to owners Hermann Dudley Murphy, Walfred Thulin, and Charles Prendergast. Prendergast’s brother, famed artist Maurice, also played a role.

“Even down to frames, America was saying, I want to come up with something new,” he says. “This is America at a pivotal time in history. This is America saying, I’m going to exist and I’m screaming.”

Every few minutes, Kotler peeked out of his cube to stump a bit about Carrig-Rohane frames—or about frames more generally. “For framers, you’re never going to be the bride. You’re going to be the bridesmaid. The frame has never gotten its due in history.”

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Between speeches, however, Kotler was beginning to get worried. The name Carrig-Rohane comes from the Gaelic words for red cliff, and all Carrig-Rohanes have red backs. But as Kotler began to wet the acid-laden paper on the back of the frame and carefully remove it with a scalpel, he noticed that the wood looked dark—very dark. “I’m removing the paper, and I’m getting nervous ’cause I know it’s supposed to be painted red, and there’s no red.”

Kotler glanced at his audience. For 20 minutes he had been telling them that the frame they were looking at was an original Carrig-Rohane, one of the best frames in the business. “And I was very cocky, ’cause I thought I knew what this was.”

He began feeling around the back of the frame for a signature, a company name carved into the wood. “I just went nuts,” he says. “And then all of a sudden, I start removing the bottom of this [paper], and that’s when I saw Slater.”

Slater Studios, a turn-of-the-century frame shop located in New York, wasn’t as prestigious as Carrig-Rohane, but it was close. “If it was a Carrig-Rohane, it was a Rolls-Royce. Slater is a Bentley. It’s still a high-end frame.”

Kotler was flush with the rush of revelation. He wondered whether he should inform his audience. “I was very excited. I was kind of like a guy on a first date….Here I’m telling people it’s a Carrig-Rohane, and I’m wrong….How was I going to tell them?”

As it turned out, admitting his mistake wasn’t so bad, Kotler says. “They were kind of happy for the whole idea of a discovery.” Besides, explaining the difference between a Carrig-Rohane and a Slater frame is “kind of like speaking French to people who don’t speak French.” Nobody seemed particularly betrayed. “I don’t think anyone was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

Willa Trifiatis, one of the people who watched Kotler unwrap the frame that day, says she certainly didn’t realize the magnitude of his discovery. “I didn’t know any of the detail of that,” she says, adding that “he was gesturing to a few people about the frame,” but “all we could do was observe through the glass.” Mostly, she says, she was impressed by the museum’s emphasis on education.

Looking back, Kotler says he understands why he originally misidentified the Slater frame. “Back in the day, there was no copyrighting. So it could have been reproduced….It’s a rip-off, so to speak.”

William Adair, a frame conservator and owner of Gold Leaf Studios, a D.C. workshop specializing in historic replicas and frame restoration, says it’s quite possible that Slater copied a Carrig-Rohane frame.

“Value is a relative thing. Each frame is different,” he warns. Still, he says, “A replica or a reproduction is always going to be less value than an original, no matter how well made. Carrig-Rohane was often replicated but never duplicated.”

Dischord “Surprised” By Lack of Reviews

Dischord Records is a bit peeved with the press.

Over the past few months, the Arlington-based label has put out a bunch of CDs. The Aquarium’s self-titled album. Joe Lally’s There to Here. Releases by Soccer Team and French Toast. But according to Alec Bourgeois, Dischord’s spokesperson, few media outlets seem to care.

In an e-mail circulated to reviewers Nov. 30, he complained, “Over the last several months, I have been somewhat surprised and disappointed by the lack of reviews coming from the magazines and writers we send our CDs to. First, I want to make sure you are receiving the CDs I mail out; and second, I want to make sure if you are receiving them that you are indeed interested in reviewing them,” he began.

Then he made a play for the label’s lesser-knowns.

“Many of our new releases are from newer bands and projects that will not stir up the kind of mainstream press of a new Fugazi release, but who are making important contributions which deserve to be acknowledged and critiqued by the alternative sources we feel most connected to.”

He made a distinction. “As most of you know, Dischord has a pace, rhythm, and economy that is rather unlike any other label. We don’t spend large amounts of money painting unrealistic portraits of our artists and we don’t get involved with many of the standard ‘industry’ practices that we consider unsavory. However, this should not be construed as a lack of respect.”

Finally, he made a promise. “In this spirit your mailbox will not get flooded with filler, nor will you receive calls from me pressuring or back slapping for more flattering pieces in your magazines.”

Bourgeois asked recipients to let him know if they weren’t receiving Dischord’s records. Most of all, he asked for feedback.

In an interview following his e-blast, Bourgeois explained his concerns and the responses he got. Unlike certain larger labels, Dischord doesn’t ply reviewers with a “freebie avalanche.” And, unlike some of its competitors, it doesn’t engage in “pay for play” practices, promising to run ads in return for reviews.

The problem is the relationship between a label and a music publication has turned “strictly into a business,” he says. “It’s the same as in politics. When a lobbyist is responsible for 90 percent of a campaign’s finances, you can’t pass legislation that puts that lobbyist out of business.” It’s time to get back to the music, he says.

“Alec’s e-mail reads pretty sensibly to me,” says Rob Tannenbaum, music editor at Blender. “I think it expresses a lot of what indie publicists feel.” Still, he says, it’s important to remember that magazines and newspapers are feeling the squeeze, too. “Most music publications are not doing very well. There’s less room to run reviews. It just makes the odds bad.” A lot of people talk about declining CD sales, but “just because CD sales are down, it doesn’t mean that fewer CDs are being released,” he says. “Even we cover a fraction of what we get.”

As for Dischord, “They’re a label who has always counted on true believers.…It’s an e-mail that’s predicated on an ideal, and the ideal is, if you like our music, we don’t need to wheedle or beg, you’ll come to us.”

Charles Aaron, music editor at Spin, however, says that in an era of CD- and cyber-saturation, a publicist has to be a little more aggressive. “And if there’s a band on Dischord that an editor’s not initially enthusiastic about, and then the editor gets no communication from a publicist about it, there’s a chance it might slip through the cracks,” he writes in an e-mail. Soccer Team must have fallen through Spin’s cracks, for example, since a search for the band on the magazine’s Web site only yields articles about the World Cup and sneakers. Or perhaps Dischord didn’t send Spin a CD to review. Several reviewers contacted by the City Paper, including Aaron, said they weren’t on Dischord’s mailing list.

Josh Jackson, editor-in-chief of Paste, wrote in an e-mail, “I have a ton of respect for what Dischord has done over the last 25 years.… But it’s unrealistic to expect national stories on low-profile bands because the competition is fierce.”

On Dec. 4, Bourgeois circulated a second e-mail, promising to be a little more outgoing. He decided to ditch the hard-to-get attitude, and promised “to check in on a more individual basis and make sure you have the materials you need.”