Arts scene | February 20, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - February 20, 2009

Arts scene

Fates, angels and phoenixes play their part in the Danville area

by John A. Barry

From the fates of the ancient Greeks to Rowan and Martin with their Fickle Finger of Fate, choruses, comics and commentators have contemplated fate's vicissitudes. As of 2007, the fates had not smiled favorably on the Danville art scene.

Bill Carmel, a professional artist who lives in Danville, has witnessed the demise of three local private art galleries as well as the Danville Fine Art Gallery. The Fine Art Gallery was run by the Danville Area Cultural Alliance (DACA), which also bit the artistic dust.

Still standing is the Alamo Danville Artists' Society, known as ADAS. Founded in 1977, ADAS helps sponsor various arts events through the year, including the popular Open Studios Tour in June and October's Art in the Park. The group holds monthly meetings at the Danville Congregational Church. Although ADAS showed members' works at local businesses, it had no venue of its own prior to October 2007.

In an attempt to remedy that situation, Carmel, plein air painter Stephen Sanfilippo and Fred Turner - who had presided over a salon at the Fine Art Gallery - approached the board of ADAS with a proposition for the recently vacated building at 522-24 Hartz Ave.:

"Bradley Blake, CEO of BNB Ventures, LLC and co-owner of the property, has expressed an interest in obtaining a temporary tenant with not-for-profit status that specifically focuses on art. The tenancy is expected to last between six and nine months, during which time plans for tearing down the existing building and rebuilding on the property will be drawn and eventually approved by the Town of Danville."

The board was happy; fate was pleased. In October 2007, approximately 50 members of ADAS moved into the vacant building on Danville's main drag. The structure has just been vacated by the San Ramon Valley Times and once had housed the Valley Pioneer newspaper.

Working in teams, these artists transformed the drab, dingy hulk into the attractive, member-supported Pioneer Art Gallery with 2,000 square feet of exhibition space on the ground floor and the second floor devoted to studios for artists. The building's owner, Brad Blake, is a successful developer as well as a supporter of the arts, and he was recently named citizen of the year by the Danville Area Chamber of Commerce. Fate again intervened as development was postponed and the gallery continued operations for nearly another year.

Displays run the gamut in style and media, although landscapes tend to predominate, as exemplified by the work of noted plein air artists Charles White and Sanfilippo. Carmel, who also serves as the gallery's director, is primarily a sculptor, as is active member Joe Cleary. Another artist who works primarily in 3D is Cynthia Brody. Each month or so, a portion of the gallery is devoted to a new featured artist. The overall exhibit changes every six weeks to two months.

Carmel, a former university art professor/instructor, is one of several members with a pedagogical bent. Leroy Parker, whose work ranges from organic assemblages to vibrant geometrically patterned paintings, is a professor of art at San Jose State University. Noel Williams and Bill DiMichele teach at private schools.

Several gallery members offer painting and drawing classes at the building. The Pioneer recently converted a large underused room into a classroom, complete with tables, easels and storage space for canvases, compliments of gallery member Kathy McCartney, who inherited the contents of a private art school that closed. Oil painter Diana Busse offers private lessons to member and non-member students in her second-floor studio.

Informally, multimedia artist Diane Pruett has spent 11 years volunteering as an art docent, teaching elementary and middle school children about famous artists. "We discussed their lives and the people that influenced their lives," said Pruett, who worked with the P.T.A. on the Reflections program and put together art shows for the grade schools.

"My motivation to be an art docent came from the desperate need of the public school system to get volunteers," she noted.

A percentage of gallery sales goes to support arts programs in the schools. "We are especially proud of our fundraising efforts for art programs in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. Our Community Art Education Program (CAEP) grants are awarded annually to these schools," reads the ADAS Web site. Additionally, the Pioneer Gallery holds an annual juried showing of works by local high school students.

In late 2008, several members transformed a room in front of the building into a gallery store to sell prints, paintings, jewelry and other items. Beyond its role as exhibition and studio venue and instructional facility, the gallery also facilitates community outreach. In the summer of 2008, for example, the gallery worked in conjunction with the Eugene O'Neill Foundation to sponsor an exhibition about the great American actor and civil rights pioneer Paul Robeson.

The gallery participates in annual town-sponsored events such as Art in the Park and the Art and Wine Stroll. Also, every Thursday night, a jam session draws musicians and music enthusiasts from as far away as San Francisco.

Just down the street from the Pioneer, artist Kevin Milligan recently opened a gallery, despite the local art venue track record. Milligan, a plein air painter, has operated a gallery in Mendocino for nearly 12 years but is originally from the East Bay. He says that he'd been thinking about Danville as a gallery location for a couple of years. Then in August 2008, he was walking down Hartz Avenue with his partner and they saw an available building.

In October, the Kevin Milligan Gallery opened. Milligan says that business so far has been OK, and he plans to expand the operation by opening a wine bar in his approximately 1,000-square-foot space.

But if the experiences at Art D'Cor (see sidebar), which went down during "good" economic times, foreshadow Milligan's fate, he may be in for tough times as the recession deepens and more people put off discretionary purchases.

"I used to joke that only an idiot would open a restaurant or an art gallery," said Milligan, adding more seriously, "I don't make predictions about success. This is what I do: I'm a painter, and I help other people sell their work."

Although demolition of the Pioneer building is not slated to begin until next year, Rakestraw Books will assume occupancy of the first floor on March 15, said bookstore owner Michael Barnard, opening for business April 1. Rakestraw was located for the last 10 years on Railroad Avenue, but Barnard indicated that rent there has become prohibitive. In light of the building's eventual razing, Barnard calls his tenancy a "stopgap measure."

It was a bittersweet day for the artists to hear that their gallery must close - sadness at losing the venue but gratitude toward Blake for his ongoing support. The gallery's lease had always contained a provision to end the tenancy with written notice.

The final day for Pioneer Gallery in the building is March 14. But angels may wait in the wings. In the financial world, "angel" investors provide capital for business startups. As of this writing, prospects do exist for the Pioneer Gallery to find a new home although nothing has been made public.

During its year-and-a-half lifetime, the Pioneer Gallery has become a home and magnet for the local community of visual artists, musicians, poets and art-lovers - all of them are hoping that the gallery will rise again.

John A. Barry, a former professional writer and editor, is an amateur artist and prolific author of song parodies and limericks.

Dissolving DACA: A personal perspective

In the spring of 2005, the annual Open Studios Tour did not materialize. This concerned me. I see the arts as a celebration of life. Appreciation of art is an expression of gratitude for our capacity for wonder, imagination and creativity. What is life if we lose that?

I searched for the Danville arts community and found the Danville Area Cultural Alliance. By the summer of 2005, however, there was little left of DACA. It had begun with enthusiasm and promise, only to fade as people lost interest. The gallery space above the Village Theatre had wonderful light, ample space to display art, bathrooms and a small kitchen.

I was told that people stopped coming to the Gallery because the stairs were steep. I was told that an elevator had been proposed, but the Town Council rejected the idea. I was told that a handicapped person had wanted to take an art class offered at the Gallery and was accommodated by moving the class. I was told that the town objected to any further classes being taught in the Gallery.

I tried to help save the Gallery but wound up filing paperwork to dissolve DACA.

--Fred Turner

The demise of my fine art shop

Even in good economic times, nothing is sadder than closing down a business. Two years ago Tiffany Dow and I purchased an existing retail store in hopes of creating a fine-art outlet in Danville. Located at Tassajara Crossings in Blackhawk, the location and surroundings seemed right for Art D'Cor.

Tiffany had experience with the store, having worked for the previous owners prior to the purchase. A CPA checked the income records of the store, and Wells Fargo Bank performed a valuation calculation. According to the information we were given, it all looked like a go.

But things were different after we took over. In our best month, the store produced about half of what the former owners had claimed. We extended the hours, redecorated the facade, increased the number of items for sale, and increased the advertising.

The store had traditionally sold decorative items and manufactured paintings; the main clientele were interior decorators and the occasional homeowner. Under Tiffany's management, we brought in fine art from accomplished and emerging artists. Each month we also held an art opening for a featured artist. These events were well attended.

Nonetheless, revenues always came in below what was needed to sustain the business. We found ourselves reaching into our pockets every month. In March 2008, Tiffany finally threw in the towel and went to work as a product manager for The loss of the store made a sad lasting impression on us.

The most striking thing about the whole experience was how little original art sold in the two years we ran the store. One month we sold more than $18,000 in manufactured and reproduced art without selling even one original piece. That should tell us all something about the art market around here.

To anyone contemplating a business in art, I recommend having adequate capital reserves, keeping costs lower than you might first imagine, and having more sources of revenue than selling fine objects of original creation. You might also want to have a day job that pays the bills!

--Randy Stockton


Like this comment
Posted by Pauline
a resident of Danville
on Feb 22, 2009 at 4:27 pm

Enjoyed your front cover. Who is this handsome artist? I'd like
to meet him. Is he married?

Like this comment
Posted by Dolores Fox Ciardelli
a resident of Danville
on Feb 22, 2009 at 9:40 pm

His name is Stephen Sanfilippo - yes, sorry, he is married.

Like this comment
Posted by Milo Divincenzo
a resident of Walnut Creek
on Jun 4, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Hello Randy,

It was good to read your reflection on Art D'cor. I'm thankful to both you and Tiffany to have been a part of it. During a brief stint at Downtown Danville's Heart Studio in 2010, I faced the same challenges that we had faced at Art D'cor. Although the overhead at Heart Studio was a fraction of what it was at Art D'cor, the seemingly insurmountable challenge was the same (with respect to selling original local art); offering an item that has no utilitarian value, no brand name status attached to it, and will probably not match the drapes.

If I had been given one dollar for every time I was asked to paint something other than what I typically painted, Heart Studio would have made me rich. Accepting all those proposals also would have made me miserable, and not worthy of the title "artist". It was especially difficult to watch visitors carrying $800 purses wince at the price of a beautiful, original, never-to-be-reproduced oil painting with a price tag of $400. In other words, most people don't see the value of original artwork by an unknown artist but never question the value of a Hermes bracelet.

However, there were the few who did have an understanding, and they would quickly snatch the painting from the wall when they leaned in to read it's price. I'm eternally grateful to them.

But still, most of those buyers took my work home simply because they loved looking at the images; they were not concerned about the possibility of later finding the image shrink-wrapped in the poster bin at Cost Plus, or whether I would become a famous artist.

Despite witnessing so many art retailers go down in flames, I have an optimistic view about selling art in this area (to be clear, I'm not talking about tasteless, poorly crafted oil paintings of Italian villas made in Asian art sweatshops). Selling artwork has to be approached in a different way than what we naturally assume is the optimal way (find a high foot traffic location and pay ridiculous rent for it, get attractive lighting and signage, gather a few talented artists, advertise, and wait). Artists must cooperate in mass, and build a living culture, not a store. A culture of art-making not only draws people, but "educates" them. "Open studios" must no longer be treated as an isolated event. A massive group of studios should be open, active, growing, and changing at every hour of the day. Publications should not be quarterly distributions, but active blogs.

The brutal reality is that Northern California is art "backwater" (to quote my friend Dale Lanzoni of New York's Marlboro Galleries). There is brilliant art being made in someone's Pleasant Hill garage as I write this, but there is no infectious culture to promote it. Semi-annual art and wine festivals won't help; in fact, I believe that they make the situation worse for a myriad of reasons.

Selling art in Contra Costa County can be lucrative, but not in the way that it is repeatedly approached. To drudge up a tired expression, it's time to think outside the box (or ArtBin).

Like this comment
Posted by Lisa
a resident of Danville
on Jun 18, 2011 at 8:28 am

To Randy, sorry to hear that the store Art D'Cor didn't last. We never put in a claim to the ammount we made at the location...we showed bank statements. As you know Wells Fargo is a nononsense bank and we had showed what we produced. As for going towards selling mostly originals, it just doesn't work as they customers want something to just decorate. The investors are out there but they also bought the other stuff too. The economy was not as good as you probably thought towards the end of your year. No one person could have seen the economy downturn as it played out. On the outside it probably looked as though it were still ok, but I was running into people who were selling the expensive cars and the favourite home in Carmel, (the one they were always at)because they never went there. The bubble burst, more tiny bubbles on the was as this is not over yet. As for the art of the asians. There are some out there selling the art from asia with their signatures on them, selling as thier own stuff. I have actually heard how wonderful that artists work is, not knowing it is from China with a forged name on it. I have bought great original stuff from locals and also have original stuff from the asians as they have good stuff too. They are highly educated artists and when someone puts them down because of where they come from as though we have a corner on classy art, then that shows thier classlessness and little mind. I got out of California because of its phoney nature. The facade that Danville was doing good was just a facade. The crash came long before it showed. I remembering someone joking about riding the wave before it crashed. How true.

Like this comment
Posted by Milo Divincenzo
a resident of Walnut Creek
on Jun 18, 2011 at 8:33 pm

[Removed because of innuendo and unverifiable information]