The art of valuing art

Putting a price tag on someone’s creation is no easy task

HANGING TIGHT <br>Jana Donoho-Strong hangs one of Jake Early’s prints from his Bidwell Park series at Chico Paper Co. Some of the prints now sell for up to $1,200 unframed.

Jana Donoho-Strong hangs one of Jake Early’s prints from his Bidwell Park series at Chico Paper Co. Some of the prints now sell for up to $1,200 unframed.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Brad Brown, a language development specialist at the University of La Verne, previously wrote CN&R’s June 8 cover story (” ‘Get legal?’ Get real").

Artoberfest continues:
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“Every artist was first an amateur.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.”
—Frank Zappa

Mary Gardner is the art projects coordinator for the city—the liaison of sorts from the hard-heads to the high-brows.

Her clothes are casual (but, being in Chico, not too casual). It’s her curly red hair that grabs attention—and as one finds out, it’s like her: bold, bouncy and a little wild. She used to control it, until she went to art school.

Her medium, then, was clay. Today she works in words and actions.

“It’s easy to sell art [in big cities],” Gardner says, “because everyone wants it, everyone knows it, everyone buys it.”

Small towns, however, are a different matter. The equation has been especially hard to crack in Chico.

“Art is the poor stepchild, willing to take crumbs. Being an artist is one of the lowest-paid professions, according to tax rolls. A lot of people have a problem understanding the value.”

Assisting the general public in building confidence in and appreciation for art is her role and goal. How would she do it?

Gardner says she hesitates using the word “education,” but adds that events like the Open Studios Tour, which is part of Artoberfest, can get people to take the time to see a variety of artists in their environments. Different artists. Different media. Different approaches.

“I really just encourage people to buy something—prints, something small and affordable. Find something that appeals to you … something that just calls you,” Gardner explains. “It’s important to spend the money on [art]—the commitment, the sacrifice … being a little brave. People are afraid that they will laugh at what they buy, ‘You paid that for that?’ So, they just go for something generic.”

Some, like Chico State President Paul Zingg, see value in collecting varieties of art—including local works.

“There is a truth to collecting art, knowing why you like a piece,” he says. “There is a quality of the piece, a message, a spirit. A piece of this world is a part of me. They’re good friends.”

Zingg is a well-respected, expert collector who started out with posters, then commercial prints of limited edition then, as he says, “sooner or later” there is that fateful purchase of a great piece of high value.

The question then becomes, is there enough awareness in our area of this talent, and if not, why?

Zingg is working with his art community connections to create an “Arts Summit” that might address promotion of local artists and its corollary, the acquisition and collection of that art.

Richard Braley knocks out another iridescent vase at Orient & Flume. Braley has worked at Orient & Flume, the largest glass-blowing studio in the United States, for 18 years.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

“It’s a challenge to promote our local artists more effectively, to appreciate them,” Zingg says. “I sometimes think our local artists are not appreciated as they should be because we’re too close to them. If you go to Los Angeles, or San Francisco, or New York, the galleries there are famous and therefore the artists there must be famous.”

Most everyone agrees that there are great artists and great art in Chico. And those in a position to know acknowledge that this great visual and 3-D art sells for bargain prices.

The grand tension here is age-old: An artist needs money to survive and the aficionado needs the art—but at what price?

This is a story of the creative and the crass. The paint and the purse. The artist and the marketplace.

In November 2000, Greg Strong and his wife, Jana Donoho-Strong, took over operation of Chico Paper Co., a poster and framing store located right in the center of downtown.

The couple had a plan for the shop that was met with skepticism from those who knew the business and its clients: They wanted to sell original art at a price that was reasonable—to the artist. Strong and Donoho-Strong were told, point-blank by gallery staff, that they were making a mistake when they exhibited a painting in their gallery that had a price tag of $2,000.

The painting sold the day they hung it; the rest is Chico art history.

Donoho-Strong is not part of the gallery Gestapo portrayed in the film Art School Confidential. She is young, trim, alert, active and personable. Tall and stylish, Donoho-Strong is animated and is not only fully engaged during conversation, but often guides it.

Among the powerful, colorful art—from sculpture to charcoal—she stands with purpose and prominence, describing why it’s important to value the artist by paying what a piece of art would merit. “If a piece is worth the price, why demean it?”

While Donoho-Strong is forthright in her determination to “educate” the public about the worth of a piece of art she feels she has a job to do when it comes to the artist as well.

“They want to do their art and don’t really know the value of their work,” she explains. “Artists would just take what they could get to make a living … they short-change themselves.” Donoho-Strong advises the artists to not “haggle” over price; “if the customer walks, the artist is worried. I ask, ‘At what price would you be happy? At what price would you be sad?’ “

Strong sits on a bar stool at a display counter. He is the yin to his wife’s yang. Casual and subdued, he seems like the guy who would be sitting on a couch on a Chico porch in his T-shirt and tennies. For nearly 20 years he has been framing in town. He graduated from Chico State and in the ‘90s picked up to travel and study in the Pacific Northwest, Idaho and Japan.

He says the issue of “value” and art pricing has to do with “perceptions.” Because an artist is local, for example, buyers sometimes believe that work is somehow inferior.

The irony is that since Chico is seen as one of the premiere art communities in the nation, galleries from Southern California and as far away as Texas, Boston and New York “shop” local galleries for fine art. Acrylic artist Chun Hong Chang signed to a Southern California gallery after its owners visited Chico Paper Co. and bought one of Chang’s works.

And, of course there’s travel writer John Villani’s designation of Chico as the 10th Best Small Art Town in America, and a recent article in Sunset Magazine also has drawn attention to the city.

Strong sees hope: “The level of understanding in the general art-consuming public has gone up in the last few years.”

“We spend money on art,” Strong says in a moment of excitement, “and people are buying more. They see it as adding value to their lives.”

“Squash and Folk Figures” by Chun Hong Chang

Douglas Boyd is shredding papers from his chair behind a desk. He is and likely always will be a hands-on guy.

His office is like he is—spare and utilitarian, not ostentatious but decorous, natty. It is perched above the gallery, museum and sales room that is his company’s visitor center. As spacious, stunning and full of light as it is downstairs, it’s easy to see that up here it’s all business.

Boyd’s hair is pure white, like spun glass is white and pure. It is shorter than it was when he and a friend started the Chico art glass studio Orient & Flume more than three decades ago. Then, he was a young artist. Now he claims to be neither.

“Every single day was extremely creative and challenging,” he recalls.

The two of them had to hit all the craft shows and Renaissance fairs on the West Coast, often splitting up to do the job. They were attempting to sell something that no one else was selling.

“There was literally no competition, the gallery scene was almost nonexistent and we said, ‘How the hell do we make a living, how do we pay the bills?’ “

Back then, they would produce 10 pieces a day, melting 10 pounds of glass at a time. But, now, it’s “apples and oranges,” Boyd says.

“It is a company now, not a two-man studio.”

This function of scale, he notes, and the nature of the art make it easy to assign value: “The obvious has to be factored—there’s just stark realism.”

For an art-producing company such as his, the overhead is automatic. Key components are payroll for six artists and a support staff of 18, raw materials (including his prized chemical elements that create the trademark “silver luster"), and, of course, the tremendous volume of natural gas to fire the Orient & Flume furnaces.

“If you’re a one-man band, you’re forced to charge much more just to stay in business,” Boyd explains. “Most artists starve to death. Anywhere you want to go, all the way back to Europe, historically art has been undervalued. We [the two young partners back in the 1970s] had no choice. If the public had not been willing to pay what we were asking, we would not have been in business. The stark realism is: Finances! It’s mostly just staying afloat.”

A break helps, too.

And that is what the pair’s fledgling venture got when the well-respected Gustin Co. of Los Angeles discovered the nascent works and carried the art glass in showrooms in Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago and New York.

For all the assured manner of this man, Boyd still can’t identify that illusive “line” where the price of art is just right and fair to artist and buyer alike.

“I don’t know where that line is; you worry about it all the time. You can’t charge 10 times more than it’s worth, because of the competition. But, really it’s basic math—you start up this furnace and you get your bill from PG&E and you have to charge at least that … and to eat.”

Artist Jake Early, who’s also a surfer and a helicopter pilot, is sporting the traditional Central Coast costume: floppy sandals, shorts and casual, cotton button shirt. His red hair is close-cropped and thinning. His eyes are unguarded, and his smile loose and constant.

He creates serigraphs and sells them. Some have sold at $1,200, unframed.

HEART OF GLASS <br>Douglas Boyd started his business Orient & Flume 35 years ago with a friend by hitting craft shows up and down the West Coast. The studio has grown quite a bit since then. “You can’t go anywhere else in the world, literally, and find this amount of art glass,” Boyd says.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Sunset and Santa Barbara magazines have been courting him for their pages. His last series of 20 prints (each limited edition) on Bidwell Park has sold out. Collectors are buying a full 20-print set of his new series on the California Coast, with only the first serigraph completed.

Early is 36.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he off-handedly quips about his success.

Really, though, his destination is as directed and focused as his “process” of creating. “People don’t ask me what I am proud of; I get really fired up in the craft itself.”

With all the kudos and cash, Early still has the greatest pleasure at his kitchen table, where he still does the work cutting the massive “masks” from opaque film that are used to channel ink to the right spot when making the prints. “It’s meditative; it’s magical and mysterious,” he says.

The process Early embraces is full of grunt-work as well. For a limited run of 160 he needs to create 300 prints to get the number of “perfect” copies. That translates to 3,000 individual squeegee pulls.

“Every night I go to bed my hands tingle, there are calluses in weird places, and my body is aching,” he says. “But only 25 percent is actually printing. There are the sketches, cutting the color separations, there are a million steps in preparing the screens. I mix all my inks by hand, I have to sort and sign and number. Once you start you can’t stop until it’s done.”

Right after his graduation from Chico State, he and a friend began an enterprise to make and sell posters. His little shop was also his home—until an arson fire burned the place down and he lost everything, literally. From there, he moved out, all the way to Detroit where he worked in a project that remodeled crack houses. By July of 1998 he decided to head back to California. When he got to Chico he had to borrow a shirt with a collar for an interview for graphic designer at Enloe Hospital. He got the job and was there until he left last October to devote his full time to print-making.

“I started doing [the prints] for fun. I didn’t think about selling them at first. I was just so interested in making the art I never thought past that. I do now, but then I was just compelled to make them. For some reason it never crossed my mind that I spent thousands of dollars building a press; it never crossed my mind to recover that.”

At one point he had a spot in Farmers Market and was selling the first of his Chico series for $25.

Not one was bought.

“I put [the prints] away; it was the last time for farmers market,” Early says.

An old art professor suggested selling some prints out of the Chico Museum. Some sold. “They found their way to Chico Paper Co. and they got excited about [the prints]. Jana and I sat down and took a look at the time, the materials, how many there were. We tried to get $45 a piece for them. If people wanted to pay that much, that felt terrific. This is kind of a happy accident …”

There was interest in the Jake Early Chico Series and by the fourth release, “that seemed to be the tipping point. There was something building [in the body of work]. It was tangible.” A reputation and therefore some cache has been made.

The 10th and final release from the Upper Bidwell Park series was released just this month and is completely sold out.

“It’s a surprise,” Early said of the image. “I wanted it to be special.”

The entire series sold out in advance.

A PRICKLY SUBJECT <br>Ceramic sculpture by Trevor Koch.

Early’s early farmers market $25 prints? They’re now reselling for around $1,000.

“Chico is really young when it comes to appreciating art,” Early said. “You go to the traditional centers of art—L.A., New York, Paris—[price] is not an issue. Wages and cost of living are less here.”

Many artists can agree, however, that they are the ones who have to promote themselves.

At 36, Trevor Koch (pronounced Cook) has that college-aged younger look in his blue California Academy of Science T-shirt with the jumping dolphins, his bunch of red hair and a prominent silver loop in each ear. His name came up when the Chico State Art Department was asked for students who might find future success.

He graduated in May; his specialty is ceramic sculpture.

Koch moved here from Modesto four years ago and art has always been part of his life, “I’ve drawn since I was very young. I was an amateur musician in my 20s.”

As for the Chico experience, he is impressed with the artistic talent in town. The test ahead for Koch is how to parlay the degree into a paying profession.

“The biggest challenge is finding work in your field,” he says. “You don’t want to spend all this time applying for the same types of jobs you were finding before you got into school.”

Koch works part-time at the Alex Marshall Studios in Corning and teaches art once a week at the Academy for Change Continuation School.

The artists’ creed, though, arises when he says, “I think it’s great if an artist has space and time pursuing what they love, and can pay the bills. You have to do it because you love it.”

Koch has friends his age and experience who sell work often, but, he notes, it’s not their sole source of income. He adds that because Chico is not urban and because income is lower, the area might need outside interest to support its artists.

“Chico has cultivated an arts environment but not as a marketplace; it’s not a place where people come to buy [art].”

But, Koch puts the focus squarely on the artists themselves. He and his peers have new avenues and instruments for success. He notes that any artist can take a community college class on Web design and set up their own site.

“People are not taking advantage of basic media outlets that are out there. It’s too easy to promote yourself. You have to go against the old grain that it’s prostitution—it’s just promoting yourself. You need to take the time and take a very small step past [that attitude]. These things add up over time—it won’t happen overnight. We have our portfolio in our car and a CD with our works and an artist’s statement ready.”

This is all part of art-school training these days. Chico State has a Professional Practices class for its BFA candidates.

Koch sees the artist as commanding his or her own life.

“An artist is not the hermit sitting in a loft eating beans and rice, pulling his hair out waiting for inspiration,” Koch says of a public perception. “Competition is out there. Day-to-day life begins to happen and [some artists'] dreams fall to the wayside if success doesn’t just happen. It takes perseverance.”

The answer to what is a fair price for art will likely be forever illusive.

“What the market will bear,” and “name recognition” are defining charters to these negotiations. “Location, location, location,” enters in to it, too, as we’ve seen.

The fundamental features rest with the purchaser, though.

The artist does still toil, Trevor Koch’s and Jake Early’s comments not withstanding, in a vacuum—or, more accurately, in a void—where the purest of the art process is one that Rollo May says is a “knock on silence.”

And the viewer of art is as knowledgeable or unsophisticated wherever it is they are. A painting or a glass sculpture—or any art form—comes with investment and commitment from both sides of the transaction. In the end, what do you say when art says something to you?