(Above left) Roni Neuer, Herb Libertson and Tomomi Seki, together for over 40 years. (Above right) Roni Neuer and Tomomi Seki.
The story of Ronin Gallery began long before there was a Ronin Gallery. It began with the co-founder Herb Libertson’s love affair with Japan, a passion born from his father’s tales as a merchant seaman in the South China Seas in the 1920s. These stories sparked Herb’s imagination - an impact that would last for decades. In particular, Herb found himself drawn to “the floating world” captured in Japanese woodblock prints. As Herb pursued a successful career in New York City real estate brokerage and development, he began to not merely admire, but also collect these works. In the 1960s, Herb had the opportunity to purchase works from Frank Lloyd Wright’s collection of Japanese woodblock prints. His fate was sealed. Just as Wright himself described, “the prints choose who they love and there is no salvation but surrender, ” Herb surrendered completely.
In the early 1970s, Herb met Roni Neuer, a young art educator equally enchanted by the prints’ fine line, delicate color, and contemporary perspectives. Together, the two traveled the world as explorers. Sponsored by Nikon, Polaroid, the Royal Geographic Society, and the Explorers Club, they made numerous first contacts in Western New Guinea, traversed Borneo, and led photographic and medical expeditions to South Sudan. The pair would co-produce acclaimed documentary films on their findings, write articles, and exhibit their photography at Nikon House. In addition, during their travels to Asia and Europe, they slowly began to assemble what would become the largest collection of Japanese prints for sale in the United States.
In 1975, Roni and Herb rented the 4th floor in the Explorers Club Mansion. In this historic space, Ronin Gallery was born. During the gallery’s early days it was not uncommon to see great explorers such as Tenzing Norgay, Lowell Thomas, Edmund Hilary, and Jim Fowler enjoying a glass of scotch around the fireplace. Time or fate was on their side, for the galley’s opening coincided with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blockbuster exhibition The Great Wave. As they acquired major collections, Ronin Gallery began curating exhibitions ranging from ukiyo-e to Sosaku Hanga. Roni authored the bestselling book Ukiyo-e: 250 Years of Japanese Art, which went through six printings in over four languages.
(Above left) Explorers Club Mansion on 70th Street on the Upper East Side. (Above right) Roni Neuer at the entrance to the Explorers Club Mansion.
As the gallery grew, it came time to leave the Explorers Club Mansion. In 1978, they moved to 57th Street and Madison Avenue, customizing the space with a Japanese teahouse. At this location, they opened the first shunga (Japanese erotic art) exhibition in New York, as well as major exhibitions of Utamaro, Koryusai, Hiroshige, and Hokusai, to name but a few.
(Above left) The gallery's 57th Street location was an oasis in midtown Manhattan. (Above right) The gallery's second home on 57th Street and Madison Avenue.
Yet, life rarely follows a straight path. In the late 1990s, the gallery was forced to scale back due to a major health issue for Roni. Nevertheless, their passion for the prints endured. At this time, the gallery took its first steps online. Following Roni’s full recovery in 2003, Ronin Gallery moved to the corner of 49th Street and Madison Avenue. There they continued to curate major exhibitions of Japanese art in the gallery and grew their online presence, featuring bimonthly digital exhibitions.
In 2012, the gallery entered its second generation, as Roni and Herb’s son David Libertson became gallery president. With an urge for innovation, David carries on his parents’ legacy. Under his lead, the gallery has reimagined its digital presence, increased the emphasis on contemporary collecting, and presented cutting-edge exhibitions, such as Taboo|Tattoo, Toulouse-Lautrec and the Floating World, and Munakata and the Disciples of Buddha. In the spirit of collaboration, the gallery co-founded the Ronin|Globus Artist-in-Residence Program with the Globus family in 2015.
(Above left) Ronin Gallery's third home at 49th Street and Madison Avenue. (Above right) Roni Neuer and David Libertson.
As Ronin Gallery nears its 45th anniversary, this family business now makes its home in the historic Engineers Club at Bryant Park Place. In a sense, the gallery has come full circle. From one New York landmark to another, Ronin Gallery intertwines the art of Japan and the history of New York City.