The More the Merrier

Are the "published" and decorated prints of Edina's Fingerhut Gallery the same as collectible originals? Or are they exceptionally expensive posters?

The décor of the Fingerhut Gallery in the Edina Galleria is a study in oxblood. On the outside, four windows of smoky glass connect four oxblood-colored columns. Inside, the walls are black and velvety, the carpet is oxblood and velvety, and the light is warm and bright. A chandelier of gold and crystal hangs down over bronze sculptures of women in loose clothing. There are a number of high-end shops in the Galleria, and the locals whose chaises and carriages fill the shrub-lined parking lot finger and sift through the wares. There's Scheherazade, which sells clever jewelry; Ataz, which sells cheerful home furnishings; the Brass Handle, which sells, well, brass handles. And then, there is the Fingerhut Gallery.

"Art is about romancing," says assistant gallery director Lonni Ranallo, a sharply dressed, well-spoken woman in her 30s with a relaxed manner. She sits on an overstuffed couch--which is yet another shade of oxblood--in the cool and spacious main gallery. "Art is one of the few fields left where you can still live out a Romantic ideal. Allan [Fingerhut, the gallery owner] wanted to play this up in his gallery. To give people some comfort, to romance them and make them fall in love with the artwork."

And the seduction is, apparently, nothing less than brilliant. Fingerhut is among the most successful galleries on the Twin Cities art scene--a status that is made all the more impressive by the fact that the majority of the gallery's sales involve what might be described as $2,000 posters. Mass-producing works in print runs of up to 500 copies, the Fingerhut Galleries and their publishing wing represent a curious, lucrative, and popular trend in commercial fine art.

Tomorrow belongs to you: Jiang Tiefang's "Beautiful Tomorrow" (above), from a print run of 375 copies, and assistant gallery director Lonni Ranallo
Diana Watters
Tomorrow belongs to you: Jiang Tiefang's "Beautiful Tomorrow" (above), from a print run of 375 copies, and assistant gallery director Lonni Ranallo

Behind Ranallo on one wall are etchings by Marc Chagall in large brass frames. Nearby is a piece by Jiang Tiefang, a mainstay artist of Fingerhut who came to the U.S. from China in 1983. Touted as the founder of the "Yunnan School" of painting, Jiang draws large and heroic jungle animals using a crisp and edgy line that creates interlocking, abstract shapes much like a puzzle. Like other Fingerhut artists, Jiang then has the drawings "published" by Fingerhut using a photomechanical screen-printing method called serigraphy to create an edition of perhaps 300 to 500. He paints onto these prints using bright primary colors and lively brush strokes that, as Ranallo puts it, "personalize" each work for the buyer. One image by Jiang, "Beautiful Tomorrow," for instance, depicts a large, cheerful tiger whose stripes serve as abstract jungle foliage for a pink rhino and a flower-hugging panda bear, and as kelp that surrounds a swimming killer whale. Abstract dots and star shapes add liveliness to an already animated scene, while behind the coterie of animals spins a rainbow-colored representation of Earth. One framed copy of "Beautiful Tomorrow," from an edition of 375, costs $2,500.

For a while, Ranallo talks about the Gallery's "educational" mission. She says we live in a time when a lot of people have made fast money and have not really figured out their taste yet. "If they haven't been brought up in a family that valued art, they don't know where to start," she says. The Gallery's mission, then, is to teach such people what kind of art to install in their home.

"There are some very strong collectors in the Twin Cities," says Ranallo. "People are buying, though there is definitely a mentality of buying art for investment. People are looking for 'safe' art to buy."

As we speak, several well-dressed people who speak loudly and laugh with their mouths fully open come into the gallery and are quickly joined by Fingerhut's young and cheerful salespeople. There is a clear difference between the two groups. The salespeople are tensed and alert and they listen closely. The customers, meanwhile, are soft in the middle, slouched, slow, and satisfied. The only distraction to the conversations between the two is the constant beep of the store's security system as the curious come and go. One thing the salespeople at Fingerhut will not do is leave a visitor to wander alone. Instead, they follow at a polite distance as the visitor moves through the gallery, and load the visitor up on cards and flyers on the way out.

Allan Fingerhut, who started his first gallery back in 1976 and currently runs the four-outlet franchise from California, had good preparation for the sales business. He is the son of Manny Fingerhut, inventor of the "free gift" marketing concept, and founder of the vast catalogue merchandising company Fingerhut Corp., which sells a diverse range of goods all over the country, from housewares and linens to apparel and sporting goods. Allan worked in PR and marketing for his father over many years before he set off on his own in the art biz.

Allan Fingerhut began running galleries in the heyday of Minneapolis's downtown art scene in the 1970s and 1980s: He opened the Allan F Gallery in Uptown in the early 1980s, and the Fingerhut Publishing Group in the Wyman Building in the Warehouse District in the mid-1980s. He is also the founder and owner of First Avenue, the seminal local music club. (Allan Fingerhut was unavailable to speak for this story.)

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