Bill Daley never set out to corner the Hilda market. (More on that in a minute.) Nor did the former Gopher football star and sports announcer have the faintest wisp of a business plan when he entered the art racket in 1970.
"I had just gotten fired from a job and was looking for something to do," the white-haired collector recalls, his six-foot-plus frame poured, as usual, into an antique chair near the gallery's entrance. Wife and co-proprietor Melba sits quietly on the other side of a big wooden desk, gently chastising her wiseacre spouse when he cracks a dirty joke, which is about once every three minutes. "I walk into this gallery on Nicollet and the guy who ran it is saying, 'Thanks for the nice Christmas present.' The owners had just called to let him know they were selling. I say, 'Can you get them on the phone?'"
Thirty-five years later, the Daley Illustration Gallery is as busy as it needs to be. Granted, the current space--a bright, white-walled nook in the downtown Hyatt Regency, just across from Manny's Steak House--doesn't have half the charm of the spot that Daley bought and turned into a temple of pinups, pulp covers, still lifes, clown scenes, and all manner of other illustration-related originals back when the area around 10th and Nicollet was essentially a cluster mall for brides-to-be. But it still makes for one of downtown Minneapolis's most intriguing storefronts.
Plus, professionals and the public take illustration art considerably more seriously than they did in the gallery's early days, when Norman Rockwell's homespun Americana stood as a symbol of pre-'60s repression and straight-up realism was perceived as impossibly corny, no matter how fantastic the setting or situation. Even the risqué conceits of Gil Elvgren, Earl Moran, and other pinup giants were out of sync with '70s mores. Who needed titillation when, at long last, readily available release was the order of the day?
"Most people didn't even consider what I sold art back then," Daley notes.
Knowing that unpopular often means cheap, Daley wisely visited St. Paul-based Brown and Bigelow, buying up the former big-time commissioner of calendar and advertising art's forgotten pinup trove for a song. Duane Bryers's watercolor portrayals of once-beloved zaftig redhead Hilda in various silly situations and states of undress were cheapest of all at 50 bucks a pop. "I bought every one," says Daley.
His remaining Hildas are priced at around $3,000 now, while less elliptical examples of mid-century pulchritude sell for much more. The Elvgren oil All Smiles tops the list at $50,000. Reproduced in several books over the past decade or so, the painting depicts an attractive brunette in black bra, garter belt, stockings, and high heels--as well as strategically placed apron--proudly displaying a newly carved jack-o'-lantern with a facial expression identical to hers. "It'll be going in the window very soon," Mrs. Daley notes of the Halloween favorite.
While they're not looking to gouge anyone, the independently wealthy Daleys have no interest in blowing out their inventory. More than 500 paintings strong, the gallery's collection is all but unmatched nationally, even by the Rockwell-heavy, Newport, Rhode Island-based Museum of American Illustration Art, which boasts more extensive holdings but lacks the Daley Gallery's lurid charm. Certainly, no place in the world has as many paintings by Minneapolis-based Bruce Berkey, whose vibrant, tech-intensive acrylics have graced the covers of countless science fiction paperbacks, including Star Wars and Star Trek novelizations galore. "We see this as an act of preservation as much as anything," says Daley.
Still, at 86--17 years older than his wife--he acknowledges his advanced age, despite his current excellent health. "This is my last hurrah," he says enthusiastically, "a wonderful hobby. People say, 'What do you know about art?' to me. I say, 'Nothing, except that I like it.' I've had a great life and this is the perfect final act."