James Snidle: Collector and creator

The Chico gallery owner talks about his love of fine art

Painter, collector and gallery owner James Snidle to receive Turner Prize for Excellence in the Arts.

Painter, collector and gallery owner James Snidle to receive Turner Prize for Excellence in the Arts.

Photo By James Snidle

Collector’s Choice, from the collection of James Snidle, showing through Nov. 4, at Chico State’s University Art Gallery. Plus, Snidle receives Turner Prize at Turner Print Museum Thursday, Oct. 27, 5:30 p.m., followed by collector’s talk and collection viewing at University Art Gallery, 6:30-7:30 p.m.

Prior to being asked to show works from his personal art collection at Chico State’s University Art Gallery (on display through Nov. 4) James Snidle had never taken a full inventory of the pieces he’d begun accumulating roughly 40 years ago.

“I was shocked to realize I have about 300,” Snidle said via phone interview from San Francisco, where he currently resides and owns a gallery, James Snidle Fine Arts and Appraisals. The Chico State graduate also owns a gallery in Chico, and splits his time and expertise as a collector, dealer, broker, appraiser and creator of fine art between the two cities. “My walls are pretty full, and that’s not even counting the ceramics. I counted more than 300 and thought, ‘Ahh, what have I done?’”

What Snidle has done is dedicate the bulk of his adult life to his passion for art—both creating (ceramics, painting and printmaking) and collecting—which he said was ignited by an exceptional middle-school teacher. While studying art in college, he traded pieces with friends and still remembers his first big score.

“When I was still an undergraduate, they had a collection of contemporary paintings on display at the public library, and I fell in love with Jim Dine’s work. I had an opportunity to buy a really large, 2 1/2-by-3 1/2 piece for around $7,000. It was the most amount of money I’d ever bought anything for, a huge amount of money to me at the time. It was at an auction in New York, and I remember being on the phone with my heart pounding.

“Years later I ended up selling it for what I’d paid for it, but you know, sometimes you do what you have to do,” Snidle said, alluding to the fact that buying and selling art can be a financial roller coaster, particularly in today’s bleak economic atmosphere. “Art is a luxury. On the gallery level, with new artists, it’s very difficult right now because people can’t spend money on art when they need to buy food and pay bills. Contemporary artists and, say, Chico artists might not sell a lot.”

But even in his role as a collector and dealer, Snidle said money is secondary: “I think that art should be purchased because you want it and you love it. It may never be a good investment, honestly. And if you want to collect art as an investment, you have to look at a different level of art, known artists with auction records.

“My own collection is probably a 50/50 mix of smaller artists whose work I love and want to be supportive of, and the other 50 percent is big-name artists. But even those I didn’t collect because of the big name, but because I admired those artists so much. People like Wayne Thiebaud and Nathan Oliveira were like superheroes to me as a young artist, and to be able to own a print or drawing by them is very important to me.”

Works by those artists and others, including Robert Arneson, Francis Bacon, Jean Calogero, Francesco Clemente, Robert Colescott, Roy De Forest, David Hockney and Sol LeWitt, are on display at the University Art Gallery exhibit, and before the Oct. 27 reception, Snidle will be awarded the Turner Prize for Excellence in the Arts during a ceremony at the Turner Print Museum. Snidle was a long-time member of the Turner board who fondly remembers trading pieces from his Chico State graduate show with Janet Turner, the late printmaker and educator for whom the award is named.

When asked if any of the pieces featured in the local exhibit conjure particularly warm memories, he doesn’t hesitate to pinpoint the Oliveira piece: “Thirty years ago when I was at Chico State getting my degree, I went to a lecture and was blown away by him and got to meet him.”

Years later Snidle bought a 1959 print titled “Lisa,” named after the artist’s daughter. In 1959, Oliveira was physically making his own prints and Snidle said he believes only six copies exist.

“A few years later, I went to a release party for Nathan and got to meet him again. I told him, ‘Nathan, I have a copy of ‘Lisa,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Jimmy, you’d better keep that one!’ It was great to have an interaction like that with one of my heroes.”