Popular Christian painter Thomas Kinkade, who sold $130 million worth of art last year, told Christianity Today two years ago that "the critics may not endorse me, but I own the hearts of the people."

But now critical voices are gaining volume, sales are slumping, and some claim that Kinkade's popularity is waning due to over saturation of the market.

"It is one of those skyrockets we see from time to time," Calvin Goodman, a Los Angeles art-marketing consultant, told San Francisco Chronicle business columnist David Lazarus in January. "There's a big splash for a while and then people start saying, 'I wonder what happened to him.'"

In recent months, Lazarus has regularly covered Kinkade's Media Arts Group, which in November reported a net loss of $3.5 million for the quarter ending September 30, its third consecutive losing quarter. According to Lazarus, the company cut 100 jobs (one quarter of its staff) in February. Insiders expect more layoffs.

USA Todayreported last month that 15 of 360 independently owned Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries have closed. Others, like two owned by David Tehrani in California, are deep in debt. "The market has really cooled off," Tehrani told The San Francisco Chronicle. "We're really in a bind."

Gallery owners are also nervous because they speculate that Kinkade is maneuvering to take Media Arts private. The company first began trading publicly in 1994. In 1998 company stock traded for as high as $23. This week it is valued at under $3. Owners of galleries nationwide fear they could lose any control of the operation if it returns to private ownership.

As of January, Kinkade owned 35 percent of the company and has purchased 1,126,625 shares in the last year. According to Lazarus, a previous attempt by Kinkade to take Media Arts private was blocked by its board. With board changes over the last year, the resistance may no longer be there.

Critical mass
According to press reports, Media Arts is no longer publicly commenting on its fiscal shape. Media Arts' chief financial officer Herb Montgomery told The San Francisco Chronicle in January that "the current economic cycle has affected us like it's affected everyone else."

However, Lazarus and art dealers that he has spoken with say that the problems go deeper. They say that sluggish sales can be attributed to saturation of the market. One gallery owner in San Francisco said, "This is one of the most recession-proof streets in the city, and [a Kinkade gallery] was the first to go."

Lazarus writes that Kinkade's assembly-line process of producing art has made it into "art as a Happy Meal."

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Kinkade produces 12 new paintings a year that are sealed in a vault after being reproduced in large numbers as lithographs. Media Arts staff members add highlights of paint in varying degrees to the reproductions, which sell for $3,000 to $15,000. Media Arts says that a Kinkade work hangs in one of every 20 homes in the nation.

"Like Beanie Babies, you reach a point where your captive market has achieved critical mass, where pretty much anyone who ever wanted the product already has it," Lazarus writes. "Kinkade may have finally hit that wall."

The Kinkade name, and his trademark as "The Painter of Light," has broadened beyond paintings. In fact, one can buy just about anything with the Kinkade name on it, from mousepads and coffee mugs to furniture and figurines.

In Vallejo, California, Kinkade and partner Taylor Woodrow Homes have recently opened The Village, a housing development based on Kinkade's paintings. Home prices start at $365,000. As of January, only 19 (of a planned 101) had been bought and just five occupied.

San Francisco Chronicle writer Laurel Wellman says the development resembles any other Californian subdivision except that each home is loaded with Kinkade paintings and products.

Kinkade has also recently released a novel (with two more to follow) cowritten by Katherine Spencer. Cape Light imagines the lives that take place inside the artist's dreamy landscapes. Booklist magazine says that Kinkade moves smoothly from painting to writing but warns that the book may still disappoint fans. Publishers Weekly called Cape Light a "sugarcoated modern fairy tale."

Salon.com reviewer Laura Miller said the book reads as a blatant product made to increase the Kinkade line of offerings. Wrote Miller, "It's hard to imagine a more shamelessly money-grubbing bait-and-switch than Cape Light … to which Kinkade certainly contributed no more than his name, the 600-odd words of introduction, and the preposterous cover painting."

In Metro Santa Cruz magazine, writer Christina Waters looks at how the confident, handsome craftsmanship of Kinkade's early works has been replaced by the "paint-by-number" and "garish" style of today. "To understand, we need to examine the transformation of a painter named Thomas Kinkade into a brand name: the Painter of Light™," Waters writes. The article portrays Kinkade as an arrogant, hypocritical, cliché-spouting artist who paints "according to corporate strategy."

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Despite the critical backlash and economic struggles, Kinkade artworks still command a devoted following and the artist says he focuses on a goal beyond satisfying critics.

"My fans name babies after me," Kinkade told USA Today last month. "People are moved by what I do. If the critics want to attack, let them attack. I must, as Christ himself said, be about my Father's work."

Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

Other related articles include:

Soldiers get 'The Light of Freedom'Cleveland Daily Banner (April 11, 2002)
Kinkade, king of kitsch, coming to a home near youThe London Independent (May 5, 2001)
Sell-out ArtworkThe Scotsman (April 9, 2002)

Amazon.com has an online excerpt of Cape Light.

Related Christianity Today articles include:

The Kinkade Crusade | "America's most collected artist" is a Christian who seeks to sabotage Modernism by painting beauty, sentiment, and the memory of Eden. (Dec. 8, 2000)
The Artist as Prophet | What is Christian art, and what does it look like? (Dec. 8, 2000)