Portrait of the artist: Sonoma painter Keith Wicks.
Year of Living Artfully
One Year, One Show treats one painter as one (hell of an) investment
By Jordan E. Rosenfeld
When did the act of patronage, in which an artist is commissioned to do good work for good wages, stop being commonplace? Possibly right after Michelangelo finished the Sistine Chapel. North Bay artists might want to take note: A new concept in patronage, created by a Bay Area business investor to support one artist for one year, could inspire a renaissance of its very own.
Darius Anderson, founder and partner of Kenwood Investments, has an art collector's eye and the courage of a venture capitalist. Anderson is known for an eclectic range of investment projects; he has dabbled in projects ranging from the redevelopment of Treasure Island to the purchase of the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco. In 2004, when Anderson, a Sonoman, was introduced to the work of painter Keith Wicks, founder of the Sonoma Plein Air Foundation, another unusual investment idea took shape in his mind.
"Keith told me about a problem he was having with several of his galleries, and how they had not paid him in a timely manner," Anderson says by phone from his San Francisco office. "In one situation, he had to fly to Chicago to demand a check, and even then they paid him in installments. I thought that was awful, and I said, 'Why don't we think about putting together a little investment group to support you?'"
The result is One Year, One Show, an unusual patronage program devised by Anderson and supported by an eclectic cluster of seven colleagues, people he calls "luminaries and bigwigs." They include Mark Emmerson, the CEO of Sierra Pacific Lumber; Linda Reiff, executive director of the Napa Valley Vintners Association; a New York-based Wall Street trader; and four others. (Anderson is quick to point out that the investors put up personal funds that were not connected to or sponsored by their place of employment.)
Most savvy investors have a common approach: they are loath to part with their cash until they're reassured that their investment has the power to deliver. Anderson's plan was to raise $200,000. This sum would support Wicks for a year, allow him to buy supplies and provide for international travel so that he would have many new sights and experiences to inspire him. In return, Wicks had to agree to forgo any standing gallery arrangements while creating 100 saleable works of art.
While Anderson had faith in Wicks' work, he and his wife Sarah couldn't foot the bill alone; he needed seven people to each invest $25,000 for a total of $200,000. They had to be willing to trust that Wicks could create 100 pieces in just 12 months time and they had to be willing to trust that all 100 of those pieces were "saleable," a laughably slippery concept in the art world.
In addition to supporting Wicks, some of the $200,000 would go to arranging social gatherings among the investors. This last is perhaps the most daring of the plan's many components. Anderson, a professional risk-taker, banked on what he calls a "lifestyle investment." His concept, developed after many conversations with Wicks, was not just to support the artist, but to allow the investors to participate in Wicks' artistic process by joining him on trips to Mexico, Paris, New Orleans and New York.
If Anderson was worried about attracting enough investors, his fears were quickly allayed. "We sent out 15 e-mails to people we knew, and got so many immediate responses that we had to turn people away," he chuckles.
There is a waiting list of interested investors for the next round.
The year went exactly as Anderson planned. With the freedom to work and not worry about sales or business, Wicks was able to produce more than 100 paintings, effectively creating a yearlong biography of his artistic process. The result will be shown in a two-day exhibit Sept. 16-17 at Building One on Treasure Island. Anderson anticipates that sales will be healthy.
"The first $200,000 will go to pay back the investors," he explains, already divvying up Wicks' worth. "After that, all revenue from the works in this show will be split 50-50 between Keith and the investors."
"I wanted to prove that this could work," he continues. "I knew that in terms of a lifestyle experience it would be successful; many investors have never had this level of access to an artist. It's been fun for them because they now understand the process of what an artist goes through in the creation of an actual piece of art. And on the level of financial return, I'm confident that it will pay off. If we can return just $10,000 to each person in addition to their initial investment, that would be a huge return compared to the stock market or other kinds of investment. I have great confidence in the quality of Keith's work that this will happen."
Whitney Black is special projects manager for Kenwood Investments and has been an integral part of the administrative side of the project.
"For me, being a part of this has felt like a Renaissance revival, like when the Medici family invested in artists," she says by phone from her San Francisco office. "To have an experiential component to an investment is great; there is no price that can be set on that piece of it. Plus, the investors were excited to get a first look at Wicks' collection and to see the results of the couple of trips they personally took with him."
Anderson adds with a chuckle, "The whole concept of breaking down the traditional gallery structure was very satisfying to me. Galleries don't pay up front; an artist creates a body of work, brings it in and then, after they sell, he gets maybe 40 percent--that is, when they get around to paying him."
Free fall: During the year of his patronage, Wicks experimented with larger canvases and changing themes.
Keith Wicks is by no means a starving artist. He has enjoyed national TV and magazine coverage of his work, and was instrumental in creating the nonprofit Sonoma Plein Air Foundation in 2002. Wicks has been painting most of his life, though his art degree is in illustration. He supported himself and family for many years by making storyboards for media, even doing a stint at Industrial Light & Magic, and as a freelance artist, he says, for "every big ad agency in San Francisco."
"It's only the last 10 years that I have been making a living [as a painter]," Wicks says. "I worked in the multimedia industry and I taught at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, but eventually I knew I wanted to get away from it all and just paint. I got out of that business entirely and moved to Sonoma, where I set up a studio."
The Foundation sponsors an event each year in which artists from all over the country come to paint in Sonoma for a week. (This year's event is slated for Sept. 4-10.) Of the nearly 500 applications received each year, only 40 are invited to participate. Each artist creates 10 to 15 paintings in the week's time and submits his or her best piece to a "best in show" juried event, culminating in a gala event on the Friday at the end of the week. The artwork is then auctioned off.
"Sixty percent goes back to the artists, and 40 percent is distributed to the elementary schools, the community center and the Sonoma Valley Museum's Art Rewards for Students program," Wicks says with obvious pride. "Last year, we put $120,000 back into the arts in Sonoma.
"It took a couple years for it to get off the ground, but now it's really successful," he continues. "Then I was approached to start a similar one in Telluride, Colorado, which I did."
Wicks' business-minded approach as much as his painting style is what sold Darius Anderson on creating the investment concept on his behalf. And Wicks himself is satisfied with the result.
"I think that is an unusual opportunity for art collectors to see [a full year's work]," Wicks says. "I've grown tremendously in this year, because painting takes on a kind of momentum when you can do it uninterrupted. The more you paint, the better you get. The amount of concentration I was able to give to my painting really changed my work, and I think that this will be visible in the show when you look at the early paintings versus the ones done later in the year."
Wicks' painting style has been favorably compared to Edward Hopper, though his canvases evoke more obvious emotion than Hopper's austere settings and simple colors.
"It's an honor to be compared to Hopper," he says, "but I think if you look at my work you can also see the influences of painters like Sargent, Saroyan and other traditional painters who had a little bravado to their style and paint reality in an impressionistic way.
"There's a certain twilight that I like and am often looking for," he says. "I like to paint moods. I lean toward realistic scenes, but I skew everything to a more romantic feeling through light. I paint with a transparent oil that has a lot of varnish in it. This lets the light pass through the oil and gives it a kind of luminosity. When it's lit up, many of my paintings really do glow."
Wicks admits that he had to have a certain stamina and disposition to be able to do the sheer amount of work that the year required of him. "I spoke to some of my other artist friends who are in my same league and a lot of them said, 'I don't know if I could pull that off. What about the pressure? What if you fail?'"
Wicks chose not to dwell on failure, but rather to glory in the fullness of experience that the year gave him.
"I had the freedom to paint and create anything I wanted," he exults. "Under normal circumstances, I am under financial pressure each month to supply galleries with what they're asking for and to attend to the business end of things, which takes up most of my time."
With the investors' financial support, Wicks was able to paint much larger canvases than he would normally opt for, producing a number of 6-foot-by-8-foot paintings. He also did far more in-studio painting, instead of the swifter plein air style, which is done in the open air of a natural setting and in a short period of time to capture a specific time of day or mood.
Wick says that the best part is that he now feels he has leverage to begin setting higher prices and getting his work into higher-end galleries.
"This experience was like a catapult. I wanted to raise the level and value of my work, and I feel that I've been able to do that."
Cottage industry: Trained as an illustrator, Wicks cofounded the Sonoma Plein Air Foundation in 2002.
Love and Money
While the investors interviewed agreed that they are not art collectors in any serious way, they got involved because they were sold on the energy of Anderson's enthusiasm and Wicks' past work.
Linda Reiff says that she and her husband, Richard Ward, "fell in love" with Wicks' work when they saw a show of his in San Francisco. When Anderson asked them if they were interested in supporting the concept, she says they jumped at the chance.
"We definitely have an interest and appreciation for the arts, and have made a few minor purchases. My husband was very active and an initial contributor to the di Rosa Preserve and is on their board," Reiff says from her Napa office. "What really drew us to Keith's work is that his paintings are very much of place; they're so vivid and real. My husband and I are both in the wine business, which is also a business of place. The first exhibit we went to was his work of Cuba, which is where my husband and I were married, so we had an immediate connection."
Mark Emmerson of Redding found a different allure. "What attracted me to the project was the people. I'm not sure investing is the right term," he says. "I mean, we invested in the arts and in the artist, but most of us liked the other investors Darius brought together, and Keith's artwork was fantastic. My wife and my tastes are simple, and as I'm getting older, I'm coming to appreciate art more."
Emmerson and his wife Marisa were drawn to Wicks' work because it is "warm, has energy and is positive," he says. "Keith paints places I would like to go to. And he makes a scene look a certain way with light that is inviting and makes you feel good."
Emmerson says that he was surprised by what developed among the group of investors. "The most enjoyable thing was the memories we have of the folks we participated with, who are a wonderfully warm group of people. We had some great dinners where we'd argue and carouse and have a great time. It's a passionate group."
Like Emmerson, Reiff and her husband enjoyed the social aspect of the business relationship. "Not many of us knew each other in advance of the project," she says, "but the relationships we built will definitely continue. We had a great camaraderie, and the time we've been able to spend getting to know Keith and his insights and views and artwork has been extremely rewarding."
Color Me Green
Even though the financial return on the investment is still in question until the Treasure Island show in September, Anderson considers the concept a success already. Ideally, he hopes they will make close to $500,000 when the show is done, pay back everyone's investment and give Wicks a return on his year of hard work. Anderson is also gearing up for a second round. This time, Wicks will be one of the investors and will head up the selection process to choose the next artist.
"I'm on the board of directors for the California Artists Club, and I know hundreds of artists," Wicks says. "We'll hand-pick one based on the work, their professionalism and [their feasibility] from an investment standpoint. It comes down to the quality of work and its potential for longevity. We have to be pretty selective."
In the end, Wicks is glad he had those early conversations with Anderson.
"I feel very fortunate," he grins. "It's been a fantastic year."
'One Year, One Show: A Keith Wicks' Collection' exhibits Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 16-17, at Building One on Treasure Island. Exhibit open to the public, 10am-5pm; opening reception, Sept. 16, 6-8pm. RSVP necessary for reception. 415.955.1100, ext. 105.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.