When the Caldwell Snyder Gallery moved into the old Star building 10 years ago, it seemed like there were three strikes against it: a skeptical public wary of art galleries, a venue that everyone associated with a local institution, and a construction project with a price tag that ran into the millions.
Ten years later, the gallery is still going strong. So much for three strikes, you’re out.
Oliver Caldwell has been in the art business since 1978, when he and Susan Snyder established the first Caldwell Snyder Gallery in San Francisco in 1983. After he married his wife Karen in 1995, they bought a local barn and vineyard and started making wine. They moved to St. Helena in 2002, drawn to the small-town community and good public schools.
Soon after that, the St. Helena Star building, constructed in 1900, came on the market, but potential buyers were turned off by the cost of a mandatory seismic retrofit.
“It didn’t pencil out for a guy who wanted to buy it for speculation and investment,” Caldwell said. “It had to be some irrational person who wanted to buy it out of pride of ownership.”
That person turned out to be Caldwell himself, prodded along by his wife. He envisioned an art gallery, even though St. Helena was seen as “hostile to art.”
Caldwell remembers some locals looking at him askance and seeming to think he’d somehow pushed the newspaper out of the building, even though the Star had moved to the Galleron Building voluntarily. Caldwell said Carol Poole, who was planning director at the time, was an important early supporter who believed he would do justice to the historic building.
Four years and millions of dollars later – Caldwell has never gotten specific about the cost – St. Helenans saw the results when the Caldwell Snyder Gallery opened in 2007. At the time Caldwell described the earthquake-proofed building as “a historic skin around a modern steel box.”
Caldwell has built and visited many galleries, and the design of the St. Helena gallery reflects what he believes makes people feel “comfortable and inspired.” To him, the decline in museum attendance is proof that galleries have to be about more than just the art on the walls.
“You have to make the space interesting and provide the right context for the art. Some of the elements here are borrowed from some of the modern museums,” he said, indicating the slatwork on the ceiling.
In choosing art, Caldwell likes to meet the artists, visit their studios, and figure out what makes them and their work special.
“You hear the old adage about how artists are difficult, but it’s amazing how wonderful our artists are,” he said. “They’re really cool people and I like hanging out with them.”
That said, Caldwell said “there’s no formula” for what will or won’t sell, so he relies on intuition developed through decades in the art business, international art fairs, what’s happening in the art world, and a strong following among collectors both local – and by “local” he means the Bay Area – and international.
That stable client base – some of them willing to buy art from a show catalog, sight unseen — has helped him stay in business even when downtown St. Helena struggles.
“Main Street took a hit” during the recession, Caldwell said. “It was a double whammy because the secret forces of the Internet were moving at the same time.”
However, the art business and others that don’t rely on mass-produced merchandise have one advantage the Internet can’t touch, Caldwell said.
“We’re the last bastions of handmade inventory, so that insulates us from the forces of the Internet,” he said. “Otherwise, if this were all machine-made, I’d be done.”
As a newspaper office for almost 100 years, “this building was always about stories,” Caldwell said. “That made an indelible impression on me. You can almost see it as a de facto community center. That’s why I love it when charities use it at night.
“In some ways, this building is still about stories – about the artists, about different genres of art. So it’s still the same rewarding of information and thought.”