Commercial art gallery

The Christopher Hill Gallery celebrates its 20th anniversary in Saint Helena

ST. HELENA — Avant-garde? Realistic? Capricious? It is difficult to define the artistic identity of the Christopher Hill Gallery.

Hill says eclecticism is one of the secrets to the success of the gallery, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in downtown St Helena.

Having left the corporate art world, Hill was working for a gallery in Yountville in 2002 when he decided to “take the plunge” and open his own gallery at the age of 31. He chose an upstairs space in downtown Saint Helena that had previously housed two other galleries.

Opening an art gallery and then running one successfully are two separate feats, and at the time a few skeptical associates gave it six months. Looking back, Hill says he “didn’t realize how much I didn’t know” about starting a gallery, but he knew the most important thing.

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“Good art will attract anyone,” he said. “The approach of not being purposely commercial, not having trending art without content, has been a recipe for success.”

The upstairs space reminded Hill of one of his favorite galleries in San Francisco, Denenberg Fine Arts on Grant Street, where guests ascended two flights of stairs and “immersed themselves in the gallery” before reaching the Mountain peak.

This Napan ran an auto salvage business. Now he makes art using old car parts.

Hill adapted this approach at the Christopher Hill Gallery. Requiring guests to put in the effort “screens out those who are really into the art versus those who kick tires and want ice cream,” Hill said.

Hill launched the gallery with the support of California-based artist Norman Foster, who Hill says became “the grandfather I never had”. Foster, who died a few years later, candidly told Hill that he was “too nice” to a developing artist whose work did not live up to the standards set by the rest of the gallery.

Hill said the gallery was also honored to exhibit the work of David Schneuer, a Jewish Dachau survivor whose German Expressionist paintings captured the bustling bars and brothels of pre-war Europe.

Between Mario Garcia Miro’s juxtapositions of pop art interiors with realistic landscapes and Michael Snodgrass’ wry commentary on wine and food, it’s hard to sum up the gallery’s aesthetic. Hill said it was intentional.

“So often you walk into a gallery and there’s a common feeling,” he said. “My goal was to represent as many 20th century art schools as possible.”

The gallery’s opening coincided with the recession that followed the dot-com bust of the late 1990s. Hill recalls being unfazed. He figured if he could survive a recession, he would do well in a strong economy.

Over the years, Hill has weathered the ups and downs of economic downturns, wildfires, the 2014 Napa earthquake and the COVID-19 pandemic. He experimented with a second gallery in Healdsburg but closed it so he could devote more time to being a single father with his daughter, Alexandra. He also worried that the art he presented would become too “corporate” and “formular”.

Through it all, Galerie Sainte-Hélène has survived, even though the business of selling art has changed. Online sales have become more common, while artists have used social media platforms like Instagram to bypass the gallery system and connect directly with potential buyers.

Hill said many artists are naturally gratified by the likes and praise they receive on social media, but they also gain a greater appreciation for the role galleries play in “translating the artist’s message to the collector. ” and the transmission of sensory and texture. qualities of art that cannot be found online.

“Artists who went off on their own to pursue their careers through Instagram are now coming back to the gallery,” Hill said.

Napa Valley’s economy, however, appears to have changed for good. The economic boundaries that once defined the valley — restaurants in Yountville, shopping in St. Helena, rustic spa experiences in Calistoga — have crumbled, Hill said, with wineries turning into event hubs and the Upvalley is now competing with a resurgent post-earthquake Napa. .

In the increasingly crowded art gallery space, Hill plans to continue doing what has worked so far: selling an eclectic range of artwork that has some sense of content and purpose. , other than a pretty way to fill a gap on the wall.

“Art has to have some sort of edge, whether it’s subject matter or technique,” ​​Hill said. “It must be something you’re not going to find on the street.”

Napan John Azevedo owned Pacific Auto Salvage in American Canyon. Today, he makes art out of old car parts. Take a look at some of his work here.

You can reach Jesse Duarte at 707-967-6803 or [email protected]