When artist Dick Crispo moved to Carmel in 1957, there were just two art galleries in town.

Today, there are 111. More than 23 of them have opened in the past 18 months, representing a commercial explosion unprecedented in Carmel''s long--and, some would say, uneven--art history.

And those new galleries are paying unprecedented rental prices for the privilege of doing business here. Back in 1965, Crispo rented his first studio on Casanova Street, just off Ocean Avenue, for $85 a month. Today, rents can range from about $800 per month for a courtyard hole-in-the-wall two or three blocks off prestigious Ocean Avenue, to $25,000 or more for a big, prime Ocean Avenue space.

Don Bowen of Carmel Business Sales, Inc. says desirable Dolores Street locations rent for $3-$4 per square-foot, spaces on lesser-trafficked streets like Lincoln Street can be had for $2 per square-foot, while Ocean Avenue rentals demand $5 or $6 per square-foot, or more, every month. "It wasn''t that way even 10 years ago," he says.

On one hand, more doesn''t always mean better. Dick Crispo echoes the feelings of a number of local artists when he says the town''s reputation as an "arts colony" is today undeserved. "I don''t consider Carmel an artists'' town, I consider it a town that has many galleries," he states.

At the same time, however, not only are there many more new galleries than ever before in Carmel, paying ever-higher rental prices for buildings on the more desirable streets, they are offering more "serious" art than ever before--both early California art and contemporary work--at commensurably higher prices. And people are buying it.

The Comeback Trail

Carmel has presented itself as a cultural center since its founding in 1903, when developer Frank Devendorf advertised his new town by mailing out fliers to draw in "the school teachers of California and other brain workers." By 1910 its reputation was already legendary, when the L.A. Times wrote, "Carmel [is] a hotbed of soulful culture and a vortex of erotic erudition."

In its heyday, from the creation of the Carmel Art Association in 1927 through the Second World War, some of the most prominent California artists lived and worked in the one-mile-square village, including luminaries such as Armin Hansen, William Ritschel, Paul Dougherty, Edgar Payne, Percy Gray and A.H. Gilbert, not to mention world-class photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

Since those years, the town''s artistic reputation has had its high points and its periodic slumps. "Carmel goes in and out of fashion," says Dean Chapman, owner with his wife Joanna of Chapman Gallery on 7th Avenue.

Now, Chapman believes, despite an 18-month economic slump due largely to bad weather, the town''s art scene is on the verge of a revival. "This area, the Peninsula, has been rediscovered in a way," he insists. "It''s in the process of swinging back."

At present, there is no legal cap on the number of galleries within city limits, but since last November, the Carmel Planning Commission has been studying a City Council recommendation to declare such a cap. Already, because virtually all the good locations are spoken for, the only way a new gallery can come in is by paying "key money" to buy out a previous business'' lease.

"They''ll pay $30,000 to $40,000, just for the location and the right to pay rent," Bowen states. "We''ve sold some [key-money leases] for $75,000 to $90,000 on Dolores, on so-called ''gallery row.''"

But many businesses are happy to pay those hefty rates for a choice location in a highly competitive, resort town market that depends so heavily on foot-traffic.

Chris Winfield moved his Winfield Gallery from the out-of-town Carmel Crossroads to its present location on Dolores Street and 6th Avenue''s "gallery row" six years ago. He says business is up "120 percent" since then. "You can forget Monterey, forget PG, forget even two blocks in the wrong direction in Carmel," he insists. "You need the right location. This is the place. There are gadzillions of people who come to Carmel, wandering around, looking for something that resonates with them, that vibrates. And they buy it."

Given the spiraling number of galleries crammed into the town''s tiny business district, it''s astonishing, say many local artists and dealers, that so much of the stuff being hawked by those galleries is so bad.

Pretty Crappy?

"The art scene here is pretty crappy," says Joe Daniels, a photographer of international repute who has owned the Josephus Daniels Gallery on Dolores Street for the past 20 years. "Very little art, and a lot of scene. Ninety percent of the galleries show back-lighted blue-green waves or rainy Parisian cafes done in a pseudo-impressionistic style. You''d think there would be a rough filter to [prevent] people who obviously don''t know what they''re doing from opening another gallery."

Many other local gallery owners are more circumspect, tip-toeing around outright criticism, using words like "accessible" and "sellable" to deride much of what''s shown in their colleagues'' window displays.

Not so Sylvia Savage, co-owner of the 3-year-old Savage Contemporary Fine Art gallery on Dolores Street. Prominently posted in the gallery''s front window is a sign reading "No beach scenes, No landscapes, No florals!" It''s a "good-humored" warning, Savage says, to the legions of tourists who wander the local galleries looking for just that right "piece of Carmel" to take home as a high-priced memento.

"This is the town of the gold frame, the big seascape and the dead artist behind it," Savage quips.

Conservative, traditional, representational artwork sells in Carmel, those in the local art field agree, because that''s what is preferred by the large majority of visitors, the "walk-in" business that most of the less-pricey galleries rely upon. Jennifer Walker, director of Hanson Gallery on Ocean Avenue since 1995, was vice president of the national gallery chain for nine years. "Carmel attracts an older tourist," she says. "Traditional, representational art is more successful."

And those customers are paying increasingly high prices for their "Paris-in-Carmel" souvenirs, pictures and sculptures by artists they may know nothing about.

In fact, no one may know anything about those artists. When art experts criticize the Carmel art scene for its "bad art," they don''t always mean "art I don''t like because it''s too boring." They''re also talking about art that is not what it seems. They''re talking about paintings mass-produced on assembly lines in the Far East. "Limited-edition" prints that may number in the tens of thousands. Computer-generated copies glued onto canvases that look like original oils. Sculptures by "world-famous" artists whose works are shown exclusively in other branches of the same gallery.

There''s nothing wrong with paying $20,000 for a pretty picture that makes you happy, if that''s all you think you''re buying. If you have that kind of money to blow on decoration, why not? But if you think you''re "investing" in a picture that in fact has no resale value, and you''re relying on the advice of a salesperson who makes her living from selling you this picture, as well as the story that goes with it--well, say the experts, you''d better do a little research before you deplete your bank account quite so precipitously.

"In this town, you have people coming here who don''t have any knowledge, but who have a lot of money to spend on what looks like art and isn''t," says Winfield. "They think they''re buying something, and they''re not. A lot of it is factory-made, knocked-off in the Far East. There are plenty of hired brushes around. If you want a ''look-like,'' you can buy it. And the price tags on some of the stuff is absolutely ridiculous."

"It hurts me to see people pay $10,000 or $20,000 for a factory-made painting," says Crispo. "It gives the entire town a bad name. When you start doing that, it''s fraud. If they were a Realtor or a broker, they''d be arrested."

Buyer Beware

There''s very little outright fraud in Carmel. Fraud is a difficult charge to prove, requiring both intent to deceive for gain and false--not simply misleading--claims of authenticity.

Only one Carmel gallery has been investigated in recent years for fraud--Simic Galleries, the subject of a 1988 federal investigation following FBI suspicion that paintings allegedly done by one Paul Valere were in fact produced by several artists. The case was dropped after the gallery produced the elderly Mr. Valere in France, and he was able to paint a reasonable "Valere" under the watchful eye of a visiting FBI agent. The gallery was cleared of wrong-doing, although Valere''s dealer eventually pleaded guilty to fraud, says Monterey attorney Philip Daunt, who represented Simic in the case. "There were some discrepancies in the biography [the dealer] gave Simic," Daunt says. But the sting remained. "The case cost the gallery a fortune," Daunt says.

That doesn''t mean misleading practices don''t abound. This reporter visited one Carmel gallery and admired an "original oil painting" of a small child. The next day she returned, and the painting seemed to be framed differently. The gallery''s saleswoman insisted the reporter had been admiring another painting that was similar, but not quite the same, which she had moved to a back storage room. The saleswoman went to fetch the first picture, and when she saw it was, indeed, an exact copy of the "original" now hanging on the gallery wall, she quickly flipped it over in her hand and whisked it away again, murmuring a quick, "Oh, no, this is the wrong painting," over her shoulder as she fled.

Fraud? Not really, another gallery owner explains. Both pictures were probably painted by a human being, somewhere in the world. They''re "originals" to that painter, even if he and his co-workers produce another 10,000 versions of the same work. On the other hand, they might have been "repligraphs," printed and pasted onto canvas to look like originals. To the untrained eye, it''s hard to tell the difference.

How to prevent being taken in? "Make the rounds, go to the galleries, do the research, and, if possible, talk to the artists themselves before you buy," advises Dean Chapman. "Don''t get bludgeoned by aggressive salespeople. There''s certainly enough of them around."

Growing Sophistication

If there''s plenty of bad art in Carmel galleries, recent years have also brought in more and more good art, along with folks willing and able to buy it.

In 1980, Terry and Paula Trotter established Trotter Gallery on San Carlos Street, today one of just four or five galleries in Carmel carrying investment-quality early California art. When they opened, there was very little knowledge of or serious interest in California art, Terry says. The U.S. market was still dominated by Europe and New York. The first inkling that things were about to change, he says, came in 1976 when Washington''s National Gallery mounted an exhibition of Rocky Mountain School artists. The L.A. County Museum held a major auction of early California art three years later. In 1981 the Oakland Museum opened the first major exhibit of early Northern California artists, and in 1982 the first scholarly book on the period was published, Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland.

"Prices began elevating," Terry says. "The growth in collectorship goes hand in hand with dissemination of knowledge."

Trotter''s carries a wide selection of the state''s most prestigious painters from the key period of 1890 to 1940: the California impressionists, the great plein air painters. The Trotters say prices for that artwork began shooting skyward in the mid- to late ''80s, in tandem with the U.S. economy and the California real estate market.

Patrick Kraft at William A. Karges Fine Art, another Carmel gallery carrying early California art, says those high prices "dropped by a third" in 1991 during the Gulf War and resulting recession, and then shot up again in ''98.

It''s not surprising there is greater interest in California art. It''s axiomatic that, throughout history, wherever the world''s wealth is centered, so is that area''s artistic production elevated. As the world''s wealth shifted from Europe and New York to California, particularly Silicon Valley, in the past decade, the fortunes of California art has risen with it. "California is the world''s seventh largest economy," Terry points out. "As the art heritage of that region becomes more explored, you have regional pride fueled by the economy. That''s spurred the prices to escalate.

"We''ve never had a greater pool of collectors who are well-funded and knowledgeable," Terry continues. "When we first started, people were purchasing what they liked. Anything with a good ''California look'' sold. In the past three or four years, we are certainly seeing a more sophisticated collectorship."

"The plein air market isn''t going away," predicts Ted Mills, an art consultant at the 10-year-old Masterpiece Gallery on Dolores Street, another gallery specializing in early California art. "Ten years ago, no one had the balls to price a painting over $100,000. When that psychological barrier broke, the flood gates opened."

While most of the best California paintings for sale in Carmel still carry five-figure price tags, usually in the under-$50,000 range, a handful have crept over that $100,000 barrier.

"The paintings are getting much harder to find," says Kraft. "And there are many more collectors of California art than there used to be--I''d say 10 times as many. In the late ''80s you could buy a gorgeous California painting for $30,000, but you''d have to spend $300,000 for an East Coast painting." Those days, he notes, are over.

Most of the more important works never see gallery walls in Carmel, but are sold from back rooms, over the phone, fax or via e-mail, to private collectors. Still, points out Mills, as a resort town with an incredibly compact downtown, Carmel has a "much higher number of casual buyers" of art than, say, New York or San Francisco. The town draws well-heeled tourists, who stroll around a tightly confined area, and who are willing, even eager, to spend money on art as easily as on anything else.

''Brighter, Quieter, More Spiritual'' Carmel Art

In the past decade or so, a number of galleries offering high-quality original contemporary artwork have also opened in downtown Carmel. They, too, report a growing sophistication among their buyers, a willingness to spend serious money for serious art, even works by relatively new and unknown artists.

Even the more traditional galleries are feeling the change. Zantman Art Galleries at 6th Avenue and Mission Street was Carmel''s third gallery when it opened in 1959; today it is Carmel''s oldest surviving commercial gallery. Although Zantman''s continues to focus on "traditional art," according to gallery Director Diana Tumlin, the present owners began updating its look early in the decade, putting in lighter floors and walls, and carrying "brighter paintings," she says. The formula seems to work--last month, the gallery sold a painting by Carmel artist Frank Ashley for close to $150,000.

The Savage Contemporary Fine Art gallery, which opened three years ago, has done so well it has already tripled in size. It carries the original paintings and sculptures of just five California artists, including the large abstract paintings of David Stephens, who owns the gallery together with his wife, Sylvia Savage.

"These are artists who won''t show in publisher-driven galleries, who choose only to create original works that won''t be reproduced," says Savage. And her gallery is reaping the benefit of an art-buying public that will spend larger amounts of money for new, original art. "In this technological world, there are very few things that are made just by human hands," she explains.

Chris Winfield took the same gamble when he opened his first gallery 10 years ago. At first he sold crafts as well, but he was soon able to focus entirely on painting and sculpture, as his reputation and his clientele grew. Winfield is a working painter himself, and will be curating a November show at the Monterey Museum of Art. But in his business, he doesn''t range too far out aesthetically, selling what he describes as "rather conservative contemporary work, well-crafted, by mainly American and California artists."

Still, the artists he carries are not household names--yet. And people are buying them, at least enough to keep the gallery afloat. "Some work just doesn''t sell in this town," he admits. "But I carry this work because it''s amazing stuff, it''s worth my while to have it and I don''t care if it sells every day. So far, I''ve been lucky. I''ve been able to survive."

The Hanson Gallery on Ocean Avenue is one larger art business that survived the recession of the early ''90s by downsizing and moving more heavily into publishing. Established 20 years ago by Scott Hanson, the gallery opened its Carmel branch in 1982, then expanded to 10 branches across the country, before downsizing recently to its original four: Carmel, San Francisco, Sausalito and New Orleans.

Gallery Director Walker has seen definite changes in her clientele''s preferences over the years. "In the past five years, I''ve seen a shift from more external factors controlling people''s decisions--the media, and the investment factor, which was real big in the ''80s--to people being more comfortable with their own aesthetic choices," she says. "In Carmel, we''re selling quieter art, more spiritual art, compared to the ''80s, when we had bolder art, more ''sexy'' art. Like Peter Max."

Hanson''s handled Max''s re-emergence in the art market 13 years ago, making $65 million in three years in the process. But that success was due as much to Max''s image as his art, Walker says. "It was the whole atmosphere around him, people wanted to be close to it," she says. Buyers are different today than 15 years ago, she says. First, more women are buying art. Second, the market has widened on both ends: Hanson''s carries more inexpensive art than it ever did, selling much of it by mail; and they also carry more high-end original works, costing more than $70,000. Quite simply, more people, and more kinds of people, are buying art.

That''s why so many galleries have opened recently during Carmel''s latest, greatest "art explosion." Many of them have closed just as rapidly, however.

They Come, They Go

Savage says four galleries came and went in the space next to her gallery in the first six months they were in business in 1996. And before the Chapmans moved to their current 7th Avenue location three years ago, Joanna Chapman watched eight or nine galleries move through one rental space on San Carlos Street in less than 18 months.

"Some of them would move out in the middle of the night," she marvels.

The Chapman Gallery maintains a stronger focus on local artists than the other new, contemporary galleries. The Chapman''s is a quirky collection, ranging from original oils, acrylics and watercolors by local artists such as Hank Ketcham, S.C. Yuan and Sam Colburn, to a handful of older Italian botanical, reflecting the couple''s own individual taste.

Business "has been tough" this past year, Dean Chapman admits. Bad weather was a problem. And their off-Ocean location also makes it hard for tourists to find them. "We have a good local following, but the tour buses don''t get over here," says Joanna. "Just once, we got a busload of Japanese tourists. But they didn''t seem as interested in looking at the art as taking pictures of themselves with our dog, Hardy."

Still, they''re making it, due partly to the well-established framing business they maintain behind the main gallery showroom and partly to their reasonable prices. "Being off Ocean Avenue means we don''t pay Ocean Avenue prices, and that means we can hang less expensive paintings on our wall," says Dean.

And they will persist in maintaining their high level of integrity, the Chapmans say, because that''s why they got into the business. "Having a gallery and having what we think are good paintings to sell, is something that''s held in trust," Dean says. "This generation holds paintings in trust for the next generation. I look at paintings not as a commodity, but as a legacy."

It''s quite probable that the Carmel City Council will decide, in the near future, to limit the number of galleries within village limits.

Some local galleries oppose the move. "Carmel is a destination for fine art, but we wouldn''t be if there weren''t a lot of galleries, offering a wide range of art," says Zantman gallery Director Tumlin. "It''s important that people coming here for art have that opportunity to explore."

Winfield disagrees. "Quite honestly, I hope some of the galleries go under," he admits. "There''s only so many dollars walking around at one time."

Whatever the council decides, if the art market continues to expand, commanding ever higher prices, it will become more and more difficult for the smaller, independent galleries in Carmel--and elsewhere--to hold their own against the big chain galleries.

"It''s a constant, constant battle," says Crispo. "Guys like Chris Winfield work their butts off. Some of these galleries have $1.5 million budgets, just for advertising. How do you compete with that?"

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