The More the Merrier

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

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.

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.)

"I really admire him," Justin Fingerhut, age 28, says of his father. "He's extremely creative, and always busy. His wheels are always spinning, and he's very diverse in his life." Justin followed his father into the business and is the director of the Edina gallery, a career choice made easy by a lifetime of art appreciation. "For me," he says, "it started early in my childhood when my father started his first gallery. It was seeing the excitement and passion of what he had. It empowered me...

"My father discovered Jiang in 1984, and knew immediately that he had the artist to take him into the future. He decided then to start the publishing company. The first piece my father had of Jiang's sold within an hour, and it wasn't even framed."

Throughout the gallery, Jiang's editions of colorful animals figure prominently, as do the Mediterranean scenes of Barbara McCann in their cake-decoration color schemes, the Toulouse-Lautrec-meets-Boris Vallejo café scenes of Joanna Zjawinska, and the brightly colored jazz-riff abstractions of Peter Max. These artists work with the same method as Jiang, touching up editions of screen prints with paint to make them unique. All of the selections are encircled by thick, ornamental frames made of various shiny metals.

As Ranallo talks about the history of the gallery, a few visitors become interested in the work of Michael Wilkinson. These are two-foot-high blocks of clear acrylic in which the artist has carved out, in great anatomical nuance, the negative shapes of nude women. (Imagine embedding a tiny woman in a block of ice, then removing the woman.) The largest of Wilkinson's sculptures, which is nearly three feet tall, costs $40,000. The visitors laugh loudly and perhaps nervously at his work, then leave.

"This is not an easy business," says Ranallo. "It's stressful and hard to make money." She describes customers who are still suspicious from the crazy art market of the 1980s, when prices were wildly inflated in the Twin Cities and across the nation. She says today's art market is dominated by a "best price" mentality. "Frankly, I wish this would go away. I hate to turn people away, but they come in and try to negotiate our prices....And I'm not marking up my paintings three times or anything like that. It's a low-margin business--I mark up maybe 20 to 40 percent--and there's not a huge turnover. We don't have a bunch of $300 prints by the front door priced to move....Our business is very labor-intensive. We carry expensive pieces, pay high rent, and are open 12 hours a day."


Let there be no mistake, though: The artwork does move out the door. Although neither Ranallo nor Justin Fingerhut will give precise sales figures, they both say it is not unusual for the gallery to sell out a show. During a phone call a few weeks ago, Barbara McCann, the artist whose new show of prints and originals opened on August 14, indicated that she expected to sell out the work. The McCann exhibit comprises seven or eight prints at $2,000 or so apiece, and fifteen paintings at $6,000 apiece. (As of this writing, the paintings were nearly sold out.) This one show, then, out of about ten to twelve that Fingerhut holds each year, stood to take in about $100,000, a nearly unheard-of amount at most Twin Cities galleries. If most of the Gallery's exhibitions over the year do as well, then the Edina gallery likely takes in $1 million in sales each year.

Furthermore, as McCann went on to explain, all four of the national Fingerhut Galleries (the other three are in the high-rent California towns of Sausalito, Laguna, and La Jolla) would open displays of her work over the course of the following week, and each gallery expected to sell out each show. According to McCann, the Fingerhut Publishing Group, a connected company that produces the serigraph prints for each of the Fingerhut Gallery artists, also regularly sells out the large editions of each artist's work which they publish every three months. These editions, Jason Fingerhut explains, go to as many as 1,000 other galleries across the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan. "Allan really loves this business," McCann says. "I think he's a frustrated artist at heart.  

"Everybody thinks they're a publisher these days," McCann adds later. "But there are really only about six really good ones. Tons of galleries carry this kind of work across the country. Allan's operation is on the higher end. His serigraphs are more expensive to make [than off-set lithographs]....Allan shoots to reach the top of the line." According to McCann, a print run of up to 500 costs "a couple of thousand dollars" to create--although she later says that she's unfamiliar with this aspect of the business. This does not include the cost of hiring assistants to paint on every print, a process McCann supervises. (Ranallo and Justin declined to discuss the cost of publishing prints.)

While McCann meets with Allan Fingerhut to choose the works he will then publish, the artist also speaks enthusiastically about the Edina gallery. "They're great," she says. "It's been fun...They're well-educated and fun to work with. They sell my work."

Still, not everyone appreciates the success of galleries like Fingerhut.

"[Allan Fingerhut] is successful because he's selling to the uneducated," says Doug Flanders, owner of Flanders Contemporary Art, a downtown art gallery that has sold the work of many local artists for the past 27 years in the same Wyman Building where Allan Fingerhut once had an office in the 1980s. "To me, he's taking advantage of a lot of people's ignorance. People try to sell stuff later that they've bought from Fingerhut, and they can't. No one wants to buy it. It's not original art. There's no market for it... None of Fingerhut's artists will ever show in a place like the Walker or the Institute of Arts"--as many of Flanders's artists have.

Flanders's response no doubt reflects a streak of professional jealousy. Even established galleries such as his struggle to sell local talents to Twin Citians; more than 90 percent of his sales goes to people outside the state. Yet several art experts had similar responses to the work Fingerhut sells. The thrust of their complaints is that touched-up serigraphs are merely photomechanically reproduced products and not original works of art.

"In effect, these works are posters," says Siri Engberg, the curator of prints at the Walker Art Center. "Dealers who deal with originals take issue with a place like this, and understandably so... Such [photomechanical] reproductions would never show at the Walker. They have no value as artwork.

"It is a tricky area though," she adds. Engberg goes on to explain how numerous galleries often abuse terms like "limited edition" to mislead potential collectors. She reports that an edition size of even 100, let alone 500, is considered unusually large for print art, and that the larger edition size greatly diminishes the value of the work. And she is somewhat amazed at the prices Fingerhut typically commands for its prints. "People are probably paying mostly for the frame," she says.

In a sense, what is at issue here is whether the value of art should be determined by the basis of its originality--and its exclusivity. Since the days of Warhol's "factory," several artists have designed their careers to comment on this dynamic. Bratty New York prankster Mark Kostabi made his name in the Eighties by hiring a stable of subordinates to create "original" Kostabi works. And a more populist New York artist, Steve Keene, has challenged the idea of art as a limited commodity by painting thousands of small, original works each year that he then sells for $5-$25 each.

Prominent art critic David Hickey, who lives in Las Vegas and writes on bad taste in art and popular culture, concurs with Engberg to some degree on the valuation of mass-produced work. At the same time, he holds a more circumspect and democratic view of the overall art industry and the role of galleries such as Fingerhut within the market. "Art values come from the outside," Hickey says. "If you think it's valuable, it's valuable. The issue is what you want to look at. Bad taste is real taste. There's not much to say [about Fingerhut art] except it's different."

Still, Doug Flanders finds the naiveté of local art collectors astounding. "It's funny," he says. "These people spend more time shopping for cars, or even furniture, than they do shopping for art. They might go to ten or twelve stores before they decide on a dining set, but they won't do the same for art. They buy the first thing they see."

Flanders then tells a story of one couple who had bought art from Fingerhut to fill a new house and then called him to appraise their booty on the suggestion of a mutual friend. "I went to the house of this couple," says Flanders, "and I couldn't believe it. They'd paid a lot of money for some really ugly pieces. $8,000 for a print by this Jiang of a rainbow-colored zebra. A print! And this tiny drawing for $10,000...I had to tell them, 'Please do us a favor before you buy this and come to my gallery.' They did, and ended up buying an $8,000 original Picasso drawing from me, along with works by several other local artists I carry who show regularly at the Walker and other such national venues. I was tickled to death; this hardly ever happens... But then, wouldn't you rather have an original Picasso for your money?"  

David Hickey, a former art dealer who now writes on art as well as teaches art theory and aesthetics, shrugs when I mention that these kinds of galleries are proliferating, and that the work of Peter Max and Leroy Neiman, as well as many other artists, now regularly sell on eBay. "Maybe this is a national trend. But I still believe there is absolute value in art. If you hang a Picasso in a room next to a Peter Max, eventually most people will tend to take the Peter Max down."

In fact, Hickey only takes exception to this kind of art when discussing the pricing of it. "It's not worth as much as the galleries charge for it," he says. "It has no auction prices to back it up, and no official accreditation. This becomes a problem if people want to resell the art."

"I think it's the marketplace that confuses people as to what is valuable art and what is not," says the Walker's Engberg.

Perhaps it is to be decried that good salesmanship may be putting art into the hands of collectors with more disposable income than market savvy. Or maybe, instead, it should be celebrated that someone, somewhere is selling some art. What matters most in the end is how the potential customers respond to the work when they walk into the gallery, and whether or not they are moved enough to buy. One customer Fingerhut pointed out for this article is Marty Lunde, a doctor from Eden Prairie. Lunde has bought numerous works from Fingerhut and describes himself as fully satisfied with his purchases.

"I like their variety," he says over the phone. "Their workers are friendly....They take a lot of time to educate people. They seem to like the art they're selling and are not just trying to get a profit."

Though this collector admitted he had not gone to many other galleries and that the prices at Fingerhut were high, he said he was confident that Fingerhut had the kind of art that he wanted--and if they did not, that they would know how he could get it.

"My wife and I both have tried to buy a wide variety of good quality art that we both will like," Lunde says. "We've tried to pick out the more unique imagery in each artist's work."

Unique, apparently, being yet another attribute that is in the eye of the beholder.

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