The accidental dealer

October 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

Photograph of Charles Campbell by Matt Gonzalez

By PETER STEINHART

Charles Campbell stands in his small Potrero Hill living room looking up at a painting. It has been in the house for years, one of dozens he believed in, bought or traded for, and held onto. The walls around him are clamorous with paintings, most of them by artists who became famous partly through Charlie’s efforts. There are Diebenkorns, Oliveiras, Wonners, Weekses and Thiebauds. Each one has deep personal associations. They’re all old friends, guests at his party.

This one he has just moved from another wall and been installed over the fireplace, where he can have a long last conversation with it. For it is about to leave. He has just sold it to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur for close to $2 million dollars. Charlie stands before it like a father before a son he is about to send off into the world: appraisingly but proud.

A San Francisco art dealer for six decades, Charlie asks me not to divulge the name of the painting, its price or its buyer. Discretion is an essential condition of dealing with wealth. But right now Charlie is clearly bragging. He poses, bird-like, hawk-nosed, chin up, gray sweat pants all but falling off his rail-thin hips, and it is a posture of triumph as if to say: “I wasn’t given a lot of advantages, but how do you like me now, world?” And then, his gaze shuffles behind his thick eyeglasses, his chin lowers and something softens in him and you see he is sad at parting with an old friend.

Charlie doesn’t look much like a gallery man. He doesn’t seem to calculate your social standing or your net worth as you walk in his door. He hasn’t got a day of academic training, has never taken a college art history course. No ascot, no fancy suit, no monocle. If you entered his gallery, he would not stand over your shoulder lecturing about the artist or the painting or how the painting’s value is expected to grow. “I always felt, look, I’ll put up what I think is the best stuff and you come and look at it and make your own decision,” he told interviewer Joan Bossart. It’s up to the people who come into his gallery to decide what the paintings are about.

There is a common man quality to him. His close friend Wayne Thiebaud calls him “the accidental dealer.” Unlike most of his gallery competitors, he backed into the business, with no preconceived idea of the nobility of art or its patrons. And one gets the impression that he did it not for beauty or wealth or social standing, but because he has always taken pleasure in sharing the enjoyment he gets out of life.

— excerpted from The Accidental Dealer by Peter Steinhart, copyright 2011.

‘O, what a delightful little picture’

December 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

Blackberries | Raphaelle Peale | de Young Museum, San Francisco

Many of the finest treasures in San Francisco’s de Young Museum, including this small still life, came from the Rockefeller Collection of American Art, donated by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III. A passage on page 17 of the Rockefeller catalog describes the unusual grading system they used to buy works of art.

“The Rockefellers … used a gradually developed classification system to rank candidates for purchase — A, B, C, D, X and O. The last two categories were evolved to deal with surprises, the `X’ label was for rare works of extraordinary attractiveness by little-known artists, the `O’ rank was given to exquisite, small-scale works that, no matter what the artist’s fame, generated sufficient pleasure to prompt exclamation, `O, what a delightful little picture!'”

The catalog notes that works from the last two classifications are crucial in giving the Rockefeller collection its personal, idiosyncratic flavor — what one scholar called its “note of individual taste and connoisseurship, and a love of the arts for their own sake, independent of fame or price.”

Collecting local art

October 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

John and Pat Martin have filled the walls of their home with local art.

John and Pat Martin have filled the walls of their home with local art.

BY ELAINE GUTSCH

With a collection that includes works from more than 30 local artists, Pat and John Martin are deeply connected to the Sonoma County art world. Every room of their Petaluma home contains artwork that spans genres, styles and mediums, reflecting a pursuit of beauty and meaning unique to the couple’s history together.

From roots in his mother’s art-filled home in Grass Valley, through 35 years in Berkeley, a career as CFO of two Marin hospitals, and his eventual settling in Sonoma County, John’s love of art has grown to include his own pursuits as a painter in oil and acrylic. Pat, a massage therapist and Eden Energy Medicine Practitioner, is an equally devoted art lover. To fuel their passion for art, the two regularly take workshops, read voraciously from their massive art book collection and frequent museums and galleries in the Bay Area and New York.

When they married and started collecting art together 15 years ago, the pair discovered their harmonious artistic instincts. Their visits to galleries or artists’ studios would more often than not follow a pattern: They would individually walk around, quietly viewing and absorbing the artwork, then reconvene to discover that they were eyeing the exact same one or two pieces. Neither one views their purchases as investments; rather, the artwork is brought home to bring enjoyment and inspiration to their surroundings every day.

“It’s really great when you’re constantly affected emotionally, inspired, even cajoled on some days by a piece of art that reminds you of things you’ve done together, places you’ve known and loved,” says Pat. “Your eyes skim across a piece time and time again during the day and it really does something to your soul. It’s beautiful and meaningful on so many levels.” Each piece in their collection has a special resonance for the couple — whether it’s the bold color and freshness of a Janet Moore landscape of West County or the whimsy of a Nancy Morgan ceramic featuring fish bursting out of the pot’s surface.

The Martins enjoy watching artists develop, change and grow. They personally know most of the artists represented in their collection. As Pat and John cultivate those relationships, the artists themselves become part of the experience of the art. “We feel that when we buy a piece of art, we bring the artist into our house,” says John. The result is a home that resonates with all the creative energy of the Sonoma County art community.

Pat says she is always struck with the infinite variety of ways artists see things. “Art exposes you to different minds, great minds, allowing you to see things in fascinating new ways,” she explains. She also speaks of artists’ “hardworking hearts” as they generously share their gifts in workshops and in demonstrations at open studios, recalling in particular Micah Schwaberow’s in-depth wood-block printing demos and Mario Uribe’s tireless devotion of time and energy to the local arts community.

John believes Sonoma County is special for its support of public art. “I think that one of the things that’s important to the artist community here is the value of public art — the fact that we have public art,” he says. “The development tax creates an environment where art is more valued by the community and where the community experientially is enhanced by the art.”

Pat cites the myriad of people working hard to keep the region’s arts alive. “You take ARTrails, Sonoma County Museum, the Arts Centers in Petaluma and Sebastopol, the art walks, the local galleries, the wineries and gardens that feature art — you keep it all stirring around, ultimately it makes a big difference.”

The Martins believe it is vitally important to support local artists for the richness they provide to the community fabric, and collecting is a great way to show that support. The couple recommends taking your time when perusing studios and galleries. For example, when Pat and John embark on their annual ARTrails Open Studios tours, they don’t try to see more than five or six studios per day, allowing them plenty of time in each one.

When asked if she has any advice for novice collectors, Pat says, “Do it! There is no right or wrong; if a piece resonates with your soul, then that’s what you need to go home with — don’t leave that behind. And don’t be afraid to spend time and ask questions. You’ll learn so much and develop an even deeper connection to the artist and the art.”

Tea with the Gettys

June 23, 2003 § Leave a comment

C-NOV-HOUSE-04-2000

The original Temple of the Wings was designed by Bernard Maybeck.

GORDON AND ANN GETTY invite you to join them for tea at Temple of the Wings.

So said the invitation to my friend William Whitney, who traffics in upper-crust circles. Could I come along as his driver?

So off we went across the bridge to the Berkeley hills, to one of the great architect Bernard Maybeck’s creations, redone and outfitted to the nines – at least – by the heirs to the Getty oil fortune.

After an earlier outing to the Getty’s San Francisco double-mansion on Outer Broadway, William had scoffed that their approach to design was, “Don’t do. Overdo.”

This place was impressive. William was greeted as the Grand Pooh-bah of the Attingham Society, the group of aesthetes being received at the tea, who have toured and studied the great English country houses. William was an Attingham fellow back in the 1960s when he headed the California Historical Society. Among the alumni is the curator of the Getty Collection – yes, they have their own, responsible for the various treasures spread among their houses in the Bay Area.

C-NOV-HOUSE

Original columns support an open entry.

Temple of the Wings was designed by Maybeck at the turn of the century for a family of Berkeley eccentrics. They were dance enthusiasts, and their temple was built as something of a dance studio. It has a crescent spine of massive twin Corinthian columns and looks out over the bay directly through the Golden Gate. The family dressed in flowing robes, held dance pageants and ate peanuts, leading the neighbors to refer to their perch as Nut Hill.

The Gettys bought it in 1994 after a period of some decline. Ann Getty, just then emerging into her new role as a doyenne of design, set about collecting some exceptionally fine furnishings and artwork from the late 19th century British Arts & Crafts Movement – the perfect complement to Maybeck’s composition. Inside were excellent examples from all of the major figures, with textiles by William Morris, silver from Liberty of London and furniture by the Herter Brothers. Major paintings by Bougereau, Alma-Tadema and the Pre-Raphaelites hung on the walls. Upstairs were choice pieces from California’s Arts & Crafts elite, including, in the bathroom, a mahogany sconce by Greene & Greene.

My favorite single item was in the living room, on a side table, under a Tiffany lamp. There sat a framed family photograph. It was Grandpa: J. Paul Getty, sitting bolt upright on a severe high-backed sofa, surrounded by grandchildren, not a smile to be seen.

Someone asked whether anybody lived in the house. Oh yes, said the curator, Mrs. Getty has a sleepover here with her granddaughters every year.

MORE: “A paean to the Aesthetic Movement

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