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Thomas Kinkade Gallery in Placerville will go lights out

The original Thomas Kinkade Gallery in Placerville, shown in 2006, helped launch the extraordinary career of the late popular artist, but it is now set to close. The store’s operators announced the closure in a letter to customers. The owner of the store, George Carpenter, plans to retire.
The original Thomas Kinkade Gallery in Placerville, shown in 2006, helped launch the extraordinary career of the late popular artist, but it is now set to close. The store’s operators announced the closure in a letter to customers. The owner of the store, George Carpenter, plans to retire. Sacramento Bee file

The Placerville art gallery that helped launch the stunningly successful career of Sacramento-born “painter of light” Thomas Kinkade is going dark.

The Thomas Kinkade Gallery in downtown Placerville will shut its doors following a going-out-of-business sale that will begin Thursday. Owner George Carpenter and gallery manager Nathan Ross announced the decision in a letter to customers on the gallery’s mailing list and on a giant banner in the store’s window.

Ross said the decision was prompted by Carpenter’s upcoming retirement. Rather than carry on with the business, Ross said he has decided instead to pour his energy into expanding a toy store he runs.

“It’s been OK,” Ross said, referring to business at the Kinkade gallery. “It’s not what it was. ... My future in the business is moving in a different direction; it’s not with Thomas Kinkade.”

He said the toy business, known as Kiddlywinks, is growing more quickly, and he plans to diversify into home and garden goods.

The announcement means Placerville’s historic Main Street will lose one of its signature businesses, a destination that draws tourists.

“We do have people who walk in the visitors center looking for it,” said Jody Franklin, director of tourism for the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce. The impact won’t be huge, but “that name has such recognition, it’s going to be a loss,” she added.

With the gallery’s closure, Placerville loses another connection to the late artist, who was raised in Placerville and was often inspired by images of the town’s past. “Thomas Kinkade was kind of like the hometown hero around here,” said Jim Powers, owner of a Main Street photography gallery that bears his name.

Although he was born in Sacramento, Kinkade grew up in Placerville and got his start in the mid-1980s, when he was commissioned to create a work of art for the Placerville Library. He painted an image of downtown on a rainy day, as he thought it would have looked in 1916.

For a while, he sold prints of his paintings from a card table at a Placerville shopping center. Then in 1990 he walked into the downtown gift shop owned by Carpenter.

“He comes in with a few pieces under his arm – some framed and some without frames – and we set them around the store and lo and behold one sold, then two, and pretty soon three or four sold,” Carpenter recalled in the book “Thomas Kinkade: Twenty-Five Years of Light,” published six years ago. “And I said, ‘Thom, we might have something here!’”

Carpenter soon renamed his store Thomas Kinkade Gallery, and an empire was born. Millions of Kinkade prints and and paintings have been sold, and scores of galleries have sprung up around the country. Kinkade set up a publishing company based in Morgan Hill, conducted a public stock offering, and then teamed up with investors in 2004 to buy the business back from shareholders.

Kinkade’s works were largely a mix of pastoral scenes, designed to evoke nostalgia, but he also depicted big cities and such landmarks as Yankee Stadium and Graceland. He was almost universally scorned by art critics, but he said he couldn’t have cared less.

“My art represents a yearning for a comfortable place of warmth and security, one of serenity in the chaos of our day,” he said in a Sacramento Bee interview in 2008.

His last few years were anything but serene. Several former gallery owners sued the Kinkade company, saying Kinkade had exploited his Christian faith to persuade them into opening galleries, and then undermined them by marketing discounted artwork through other vendors. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2006 that the FBI began investigating the Kinkade company.

The company, known as Pacific Metro, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in San Francisco in 2010. Kinkade was arrested on a drunk-driving charge in Carmel a few days later.

In April 2012, Kinkade died at the age of 54 at his home in Monte Sereno. The Santa Clara County medical examiner ruled the death an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescription tranquilizers.

Kinkade remains popular more than two years after his death.

“Our Kinkade business has been going very strong the last couple of years,” said Ginessa Stark of American Visions Art Gallery in Folsom. “It’s still our No. 1 seller.”

In Placerville, Ross said gallery sales improved significantly right after Kinkade’s death but then “leveled off to normal.”

The Placerville Kinkade gallery has been temporarily closed until Thursday, when a special going-out-of-business sale for invited customers will begin. The sale for the public will begin Oct. 30.

Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.

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