Art Of Selling Kitsch

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Seven years ago, struggling artist Thomas Kinkade sat in a secluded gallery well past closing time, determinedly propounding the virtues of his luminescent garden-and-cottage scenes to a young couple. He was going to give it a few more months, Kinkade told the couple, and if he couldn't sell enough paintings to earn a living, well, he'd close up shop and move on.

Today the shop is not only open, it is one of more than 200 Kinkade galleries nationwide. Media Arts Group, the artist's publicly traded company, based in San Jose, Calif., recorded $126 million in sales last year. Kinkade, who owns 24% of the shares, is worth $30 million. Canvas lithographs of his paintings routinely sell for as much as $15,000. "It's staggering," he admits. Equally staggering are the profits--$5 million last year--derived from slapping the images from Kinkade's paintings onto everything from calendars to table lamps. The merchandising machine will go into overdrive this winter when construction is scheduled to begin on Kinkade-inspired houses near Sacramento, Calif. Says Frank Sisser, publisher of the trade magazine U.S. Art: "The man is a consummate marketer."

Kinkade is foremost of more than 30 palette-to-paycheck artists whose status as multimillionaires flies in the face of the archetypal image of the starving artist. Among the other great successes: Terry Redlin, who sells more than $20 million worth of Americana images each year and built a $12 million museum in Watertown, S.D., to showcase his work; Bev Doolittle, a painter of Native American themes who in the past decade has sold more than $60 million worth of prints; G. Harvey, who sold 30,000 prints last year, many at $1,500 or higher; Robert Bateman, a Canadian wildlife artist whose $100,000 originals led to a display of his work at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington; and Wyland, who legally ditched his first name (Robert) after his whale murals built a $50 million empire and won him a designation as official artist of the U.N. "This is a hidden industry," says Redlin, "and people are making a lot of money at it." Last year that industry generated an estimated $400 million in sales. "I call it art gone wild," says Wyland. "It's the best time in history to be an artist."

Artist? Says who? Critics, art historians and fine-art galleries cringe at the thought that any of these "populist artists" should be taken seriously. In the highbrow art world, accessibility and affordability are often inversely proportional to merit. The populist industry's aggressive replication strategy, on the other hand, is designed to move the merchandise. "Limited editions" from populist artists are often released in quantities of 20,000 and up, using a variety of formats that range from canvas to three sizes of paper prints. Throw in the T shirts, mugs and pillows with the same images, and limited looks limitless. "These guys haven't invented anything, they've just discovered an image that's salable, and they pump the market until they can't sell any more," says Herbert Palmer, owner of a gallery on Los Angeles' Melrose Avenue that sells works by the respected contemporary abstractionists Gordon Onslow Ford and Choichi Ida at prices as high as $200,000.

The art-vs.-commerce debate isn't a new one--Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is said to be the most reproduced painting in history--but the corporate approach of Media Arts brings the argument to a new level. "I have an N.C. Wyeth hanging in my office that was a tire ad in 1916," says Scott Usher, president of Greenwich Workshop, a publisher in Shelton, Conn., "and very few art critics are going to say Wyeth was just an illustrator." Norman Rockwell battled the same demon, and Andy Warhol took heat for suggesting it was O.K. to have assistants do some of the work--a tactic several populist artists now use. Collectors such as Bob and Cathy Adorni, a Castaic, Calif., couple who own 58 Kinkade prints, view such techniques as an acceptable means to an end. "You can't blame someone for earning a living with their talent," says Bob Adorni. Or can you? "People say I've sold out," says Kinkade. "But not reproducing my art would be like telling a writer not to publish a manuscript because it's one of a kind."

Technology has entered the picture. In the past, the quality of print reproductions was so poor that it preserved, by default, both the economic and the artistic value of the original work. Today artists such as Kinkade operate high-tech facilities that bond lithographs to an acrylic that can be rolled or even sprayed onto canvas with the details so fine that even the brush strokes are replicated. Kinkade's studio employs a team of 30 touch-up artists whose sole task is to hand-paint highlights onto the prints, enabling the sales team to market each one as a "unique" work that looks very much like an original.

The populists point out that it is this reproduction capability, not the art, that the Establishment fears most. "The fine art galleries saw how good the canvas prints looked and didn't want them, because they felt it would compromise the product they already had," contends Kevin Samara, president of the National Association of Limited Edition Dealers. Says Ken Raasch, Kinkade's founding partner at Media Arts: "The art establishment in this country knows there's a payoff if they keep art out of the reach of the average person."

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