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Future Clouded for 'Painter of Light's' Galleries

February 03, 2003|MICHAEL HILTZIK

Thomas Kinkade, the self-styled "Painter of Light," whose works are available through richly appointed galleries found in shopping malls around the country, obviously views his calling as more elevated than that of a mere dauber of paint.

His works, he says in a video playing on his company Web site, "are messengers."

"They go into the home," the artist continues, "and day in and day out they share that message silently with people who maybe need a little inspiration, a little light in their life."

Something in this speaks profoundly to great multitudes, judging by the sales racked up over the years by Media Arts Group, the San Jose-area merchandising firm of which Kinkade is the largest shareholder and more or less the sole asset.

But Kinkade and Media Arts have not been speaking much lately to people like Larry DiGiovanni. "We've asked them a number of times for help," DiGiovanni says, "and they've turned a deaf ear."

DiGiovanni is the owner of a string of Kinkade galleries in the Minneapolis area that are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. The former defense company executive, who says he was led to believe he could match his $225,000 salary by becoming a Kinkade dealer, is facing the loss of his life savings.

The story he tells of his venture with the Painter of Light is mirrored by legal complaints coming in from many other corners of the nation that Kinkade and Media Arts have systematically defrauded their dealers, sucked them financially dry and reduced many to ruin.

This column is not the best place to debate the artistic stature of Thomas Kinkade. Suffice it to say that he does not exemplify the school that deems it art's purpose to evoke what Aristotle termed "pity and terror" in the viewer. The Kinkade school, rather, regards art as a sedative. His subjects tend toward cozy cottages in floral bowers, Elysian gardens and cityscapes at dusk. It's probably no accident that the hushed atmosphere of the typical "Signature Gallery" suggests not an art museum suffused with natural light but a mortuary.

Still, there's no point in pretending this isn't a remarkable venture. Many California entrepreneurs, especially during the heyday of high tech, turned moneymaking into an art; for his part, Kinkade figured out how to turn art into money.

Kinkade produces his original canvases at a California studio. These then are reproduced on textured paper or canvas backing, at which point a cadre of "highlighters" on hourly wages, some working from paint-by-numbers guides, apply paint to each print to accentuate, for example, the hearth-lit glow from a mullioned window. The products then are marketed through the network of 300 privately owned Signature Galleries and a few other supposedly carefully vetted outlets.

For a while, Kinkadiana enjoyed fabulous success across America. Burly, bluff Thom seemed to be everywhere. He executed a landscape live on the air for "Good Morning America" and sat for a profile by "60 Minutes" that managed to be both fawning and condescending. There was a ghostwritten novel ("Cape Light") on Kinkadian themes, along with Kinkade- esque Christmas ornaments, statuettes, night lights, water globes.... The list goes on.

Folks lined up to become Kinkade dealers. Media Arts, which Kinkade co-founded in 1990 and took public in 1994, required applicants to attend, at their own expense, "Thomas Kinkade University," where they were assured that as dealers they could expect a profit margin of as much as 18% by selling what were blue-chip collectibles. Many committed themselves to opening one new gallery a year, at a launch cost of more than $200,000 each, plus inventory that came to $300,000 or so more.

Dealers say they made money -- at first. But sales crested after 2000. Media Arts revenue fell by 25% the following year, which the company blames on the crummy economy.

Yet the dealers have their own ideas about why sales have slowed: Media Arts has been flooding the market with cheap reproductions of the same art for which they're forced to charge top dollar.

Although dealers are prohibited by contract from discounting the paintings by even a dime, Kinkades have been showing up at national discount chains, puncturing the carefully wrought myth that they are collectibles with a generous scarcity premium. One Louisiana gallery owner, Tom Baggett, contends that after the discount outlet Tuesday Morning announced a consignment of Kinkades, his best customers, a group of elderly widows who had thought nothing of building collections out of $4,000 and $8,000 Kinkade prints, stormed his premises in rage. They demanded he buy them all back.

Anthony Thomopoulos, who became chief executive of Media Arts nearly two years ago, says that this is the inevitable fallout of a major change in strategy.

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