Cathie Anderson

Whimsical trove of art emerges from pastime of a lifetime

Public relations maven Estelle Saltzman stands in her office with art by David Post and Japanese woodblock pieces from her collection at Runyon Saltzman & Einhorn . Saltzman started buying art pieces when she was a cub newspaper reporter .
Public relations maven Estelle Saltzman stands in her office with art by David Post and Japanese woodblock pieces from her collection at Runyon Saltzman & Einhorn . Saltzman started buying art pieces when she was a cub newspaper reporter . pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Even though public relations guru Estelle Saltzman owns more than 375 pieces of art, she still doesn’t consider herself a collector.

“There’s a distinction between collecting and what (Crocker Art Museum CEO) Lial Jones describes about herself as acquiring,” Saltzman said. “A collector says, ‘OK, to round out this group of art, I need a Thiebaud in it, or I need these particular artists.’ It’s all planned.

“I’m a drive-by person. I see something, and I like it. Sometimes, I buy multiple pieces by the same artist. Sometimes, I find some oddball thing. It’s all fun for me.”

Her pastime has proven to be almost as entertaining for business associates, clients, staff and passers-by, who regularly ask whether they can pop in at Runyon Saltzman & Einhorn’s offices to admire the artwork, many of which come from Saltzman’s personal store.

Her art has long decorated the walls and aisles of the firm, but it was less accessible when RS-E was based across the freeway and up an elevator at One Capitol Mall. The firm’s move to the heart of midtown Sacramento, 2020 L St., in summer 2014 greatly increased the visibility of Saltzman’s artwork. Her art purchases all tend to share a whimsical nature that makes people stop and, well, ogle the firm’s lobby.

I’m a drive-by person. I see something, and I like it. Sometimes, I buy multiple pieces by the same artist. Sometimes, I find some oddball thing. It’s all fun for me.

Estelle Saltzman

Receptionist Phil Milton sees it firsthand: “People are blown away. They start smiling. They’re in awe. … It’s beautiful just sitting here and getting to see people’s reactions.”

Milton said he gets all excited, like a little kid at Christmastime, when he learns that Saltzman and her buying buddy, RS-E information systems director Harriet Saks, have been out shopping and found a new piece. Milton invites relatives to the office to view the art, he said, and sometimes, when a piece is unwrapped, he immediately starts snapping pictures.

He did just that last September when the two women installed a ceramic-glass sculpture by Sacramento-based artist Tony Natsoulas in the lobby. In the piece, a glamorous woman who looks a lot like the late actress Ann Sothern displays plenty of moxie as she putt-putts along in her convertible, plumes of smoke trailing behind her.

The more art Saltzman has purchased, the harder it has become for her to pick a favorite. She loved art even as a child, she told me, a passion she shared with her mother, Bernice Goodman. But the young Saltzman didn’t expect to acquire nearly so much art when she started her professional career as a cub reporter at The Humboldt Times.

As a student at Eureka High School, Saltzman had reported on student news for the paper, she said, and after earning a degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, she returned home and went to work full time at the paper.

“My boss was a wonderful, wonderful guy whose name was Elmer Hodgkinson,” she said, “and somewhere between the time I left to go to college and when I returned, he had gotten the art bug. He used to call me ‘Boy,’ and so he’d say, ‘Boy, I’m going to teach you about art.’ ”

He introduced Saltzman to a range of artists who had taken positions as professors at Humboldt State and were gaining national attention for their talent and scholarship. She didn’t start buying at the time, but the experience whet her appetite. A few years later, after she had married, she was visiting a friend back home and fell in love with an oil painting of Trinidad Head by the driven and prolific artist Curtis Otto.

The painting sold for $100 at the time, in the late 1960s, Saltzman said, and she was nervous about spending so much on it. She called her husband, Mort Saltzman, who would later become a senior editor of The Sacramento Bee, and asked him if he thought it would be OK.

He told his wife, “Sure, whatever you want,” she said, but still, she had a bit of anxiety over the purchase. In the mid-1980s, the Saltzmans divorced, but Otto’s painting of Trinidad Head remains with Estelle Saltzman and hangs in one of the offices at Runyon Saltzman & Einhorn. It is one of many works by Humboldt County artists that she now owns.

Saltzman’s art buying accelerated when she went to work for Jean Runyon, a former actress and entertainer who founded the Runyon Agency and hired Saltzman to help out with publicizing the California State Fair in 1972. The two women proved to be such a dynamic combination that Saltzman never left the firm despite vowing to return to work as a journalist.

Runyon was absolutely mad about art and had 15 years on Saltzman when it came to collecting. The two of them would go to art shows together, Saltzman said, and end up encouraging one another to buy something new. If they weren’t buying together, they were buying art as gifts for each other.

Runyon hung pieces from her extensive collection at work, Saltzman said, and it only seemed natural for her to do the same. When Runyon died in 2009, her artwork went to her daughter, so Saltzman and Saks brought more of their work from home to put in the office. Besides Natsoulas and Otto, Saltzman’s trove of art now includes pieces from Mark Bowles, Dale Chihuly, Mimi LaPlant, Calvin Ma, Jack Ogden, Alejandro Rubio, Merle Axelrad Serlin, Kim Squaglia and Rimas VisGirda.

“People used to kid me and Jean about some of the art. Some of it’s edgy, and they would say, ‘So, why is this art?’  ” the 73-year-old Saltzman recalled. “I thought, ‘Well, this is good because it’s encouraging conversation about art.’ I didn’t ever object to it. They’d make fun of us or tease us, and I’d tease them back. Then I said, ‘You know, you may make fun of this art, but just think how you would feel if we took all the art off the walls and you were just in this space.”

Then, Saltzman said, the day came when they did have to take all of the art down to repaint the walls, and several members of the staff came to her and told her that it was like someone had come and sucked all the life out of the place.

“Whether you like a particular piece of art or not, it adds to the quality of your life,” Saltzman said. “My art is a reflection of my own growth. I was a reporter, and I transitioned to this and then this and then this. ... The art helps me to relive my whole journey. Every one of the pieces I have has a story or memory to it for me.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

Read this before you buy that

If you plan to start acquiring art, take some advice from art consultant and appraiser Alan Bamberger, the founder of artbusiness.com:

Gain some perspective. Before you buy, look at as much art as possible. People think they know what they like, but their preferences may change as they look at a wider body of art. Estelle Saltzman, who now owns more than 375 pieces of art, spent several years visiting galleries and museums before she made her first purchase.

Educate yourself. When it occurred to Bamberger that he actually liked art, he started hanging around established art dealers and artists who welcomed questions from a 20-something novice. Saltzman regularly meets up with a group of art aficionados from her days as a Crocker Art Museum board member. Known as the Gwathmey Gang, for architect Charles Gwathmey who designed the new wing of the museum, they invite art experts to speak. Look for a group of like-minded friends who might want to form such a group, and consult a gallery owner to see whether there’s interest in providing space for meetings. Also, check the schedules of local galleries and museums to see whether they’re offering tours or talks.

Don’t get caught up in the latest fad. What’s hot today can be cold tomorrow. And what’s cold today can be hot tomorrow. It’s a really bad way to go about acquiring art.

Get the facts. Once you determine what you like, go online to research artists who work in that medium or area. Find the galleries or websites best known for selling each artists’ work. Also, study each artist to determine an affordable price. “Just because I like a Ford Pinto doesn’t mean I’m going to pay $87,000 for it,” Bamberger said.

Buy what you like. Hopefully, your appreciation for your purchases will grow, even if their market value does not.

Document your purchases. Keep copies of canceled checks or other records of purchases. If an artist gets to be well-known, questionable works will hit the market at some point, and the records can help prove authenticity.

Make it personal. Get photos of the artist with the work and with you. Ask the artist to talk about the work, and take notes or record it. Save this documentation in a place where it will be accessible to your heirs or future buyers. If two like works go up for sale by the same artist, the piece with the best documentation often has greater value.

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