Lee Youngman is the kind of person who, if someone tells her she can’t do something, it makes her want to do it even more.
That’s what happened more than 30 years ago when she opened her namesake art gallery, and someone dropped a comment that she’d never make it.
“I said to myself, ‘I’ll show them’.”
And she certainly has.
Youngman has one of the longest standing businesses in downtown Calistoga. It was during the 1990s, she said, when she really got established as a curator of the finest Western and landscape paintings.
Over the years her customers have included the likes of Mohamed Ali, who commissioned a large painting from her husband, artist Paul Youngman, an artist featured in the galleries.
“His wife, Lonnie, said he just stared at it for hours,” Lee Youngman said of the painting of a canyon and a river running through it.
During her 33 years running her gallery on Lincoln Avenue, Youngman has seen a lot of stores come and go.
She herself was subject to a move two years ago. After 31 years in the same space at 1316 Lincoln Ave., she was forced to move and landed in a much smaller space.
About that time, the City of Calistoga planned retrofits for approximately seven downtown buildings, and Youngman got caught in the midst.
“Don Meyer, the owner of our old spaces, decided to sell the (main) building to the Calistoga Bikeshop. We had 28 days to move out of 3,500 square feet. At the time, we had over 30 artists, sculptures, and pedestals,” said Youngman.
Initially daunted by the task, Youngman began by donating 30 pedestals and a number of easels to the Arts Council Napa Valley and the Healdsburg Arts Council.
In May 2017, Lee Youngman Galleries moved into what was once The Weekly Calistogan office a few doors down at 1360 Lincoln Ave.
Youngman’s husband hand-built a special cart and transported all of the artwork up the street.
In the smaller space, Youngman ended up dropping about 15 artists from the galleries. She also decided to accept fewer pieces for show from the remaining artists.
The Galleries now features a core group of 15 artists, most of whom live California.
Youngman said the thing that she misses most about the old space was the large front window in the main building.
“We now have about one-fourth of the window space we used to have. I notice a difference in how much we can feature,” said Youngman.
However, she said, “The space is now smaller, more manageable, and I can control the inventory better.”
Traces of the newspaper business also still remain in the new galleries.
“We left the old wallpaper in the bathroom, which features newspapers dating back to the 1920s. We also left a big 1920s or 1930s map of the United States on the wall, although we put a really big painting over it,” said Youngman.
Building the business
Youngman started learning business in high school. Later, she worked as an executive secretary for the Hughes Aircraft Company, a major aerospace company founded by Howard Hughes in 1932.
She learned a great deal about art from her father, who was also a minister.
“I absorbed the way he painted. He had art books all around. He was a minister at the Assembly of God in Riverside, but we moved around a lot, from Yucaipa to Fillmore to Lake Elsinore,” said Youngman.
Youngman said the majority of buyers for artwork now live in California, “60 percent in state and 40 percent out of state, which is a reversal from prior years.”
Wineries typically do not buy traditional art. Youngman said instead, they opt for “photographs or something more modern.”
Prices at Youngman Galleries range from $500 for small tabletop sculptures to up to $8,000 for very large paintings, except for Ralph Love’s work, which is more expensive, fetching up to $24,000.
Choosing great work
Youngman, who has owned the galleries since she founded it in 1985, said one of her standout artists is her father, Ralph Love.
Love, who lived from 1907 to 1992, was a self-taught Western artist renowned for painting the Grand Canyon and Southwest desert scenes. His work hangs in the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Northern Arizona Museum in Flagstaff, and many other galleries east to Oklahoma. Youngman said Love’s work “is in a different category” than that of her other artists, who are contemporary sculptors and painters.
“Almost all of my other artists are within driving distance, from Truckee to the peninsula. The farthest is in Southern California. The closest is my husband, Paul Youngman, who lives here in Calistoga,” she said.
Youngman also said the majority of the painters are landscape artists.
“One specializes in San Francisco cityscapes and another paints interiors of restaurants, including pictures of the Culinary Institute of America campus in St. Helena. Paul (Youngman) mostly paints landscapes of California wine country. His work has been in movies, including “Wine Country” (2018, starring Tina Fey) and “Bottle Shock” (2008, starring Chris Pine),” she said.
Youngman also features sculptures at her gallery include bronze butterflies and cats, humorous wood carvings from Texas, and wood and alabaster vessels with intricate patterns. She picks artists by attending art shows, including the Sonoma Plein Air Art Festival and the Carmel Art Festival.
“When I meet the artist, I talk to them and get a sense of whether they will work in my gallery. I also get between two to three resumes a month of people who want to be in the gallery,” she said.
Changing business strategies
Youngman said running a gallery can be unpredictable.
“You don’t have a regular salary and you never know what’s going to come in. If I don’t sell, there’s no money to run the gallery,” she said.
Yet she enjoys the social aspect of the business.
“I love meeting people and so many nice people who come in. Often I see collectors who visited the galleries 20 years ago,” said Youngman.
Youngman said she uses different strategies to market art than she did 20 years ago.
“We use our website and do a lot of marketing online. We still do some advertising in print magazines, but not as much anymore. I also run two to three ads a year in American Art Review (a prominent art magazine),” she said.
Despite all of the changes she has made in recent years, Youngman remains proud of showcasing fine art in Napa Valley.
“If something gives you joy, you do it,” Youngman said.
Cynthia Sweeney contributed to this story.