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Sitting Down With Kathan Brown and Valerie Wade of Crown Point Press

I was first introduced to Crown Point Press in the fall of 1989, not too long after the Loma Prieta Earthquake, when I met both Kathan Brown and Valerie Wade. I was relatively new to San Francisco and hoping to land my first job in the Bay Area art world. There was a much smaller community of galleries at that time. Even then, Crown Point Press was among the most established, and was widely admired. Luckily, Kathan and Valerie hired me, and I served as gallery assistant from 1990-1993. My time there has had lasting importance for me and significantly influenced how I work with my artists and run my business.

Crown Point Press Howard Street Building
Crown Point Press

Flash forward to 2012: this year marks the 50th anniversary of Crown Point Press. The Press is happily ensconced in a beautifully renovated building South of Market, around the corner from SFMOMA, and just across the street from the future location of the museum’s Fisher wing. Kathan Brown’s intrepid leadership and vision have guided the Press though all five decades. Valerie Wade has been at her side for the past 25 years. Together they have seen a lot of changes during this remarkable span of time, not only in the print world, but also in the larger art community.

I had the great pleasure of sitting down with both Kathan and Valerie in December of 2011.

Katrina Traywick: My 15th anniversary project is to chat with folks who have been influential, not only in my career but also in the Bay Area art world and beyond, to reflect on some of the developments that we’ve seen take place over the last 15+ years. Much bigger is the 50th anniversary of Crown Point Press—many congratulations on that.

Kathan Brown: [Laughs.] I don’t know, I haven’t gotten used to it yet—we’ve been talking about it though.

Valerie Wade: I think we’re kind of resisting it at this point.

Brown: We’re a little bit behind on our plans.

Traywick: Crown Point has worked with an the incredible range of artists. Can you talk about the process of choosing those artists and how you ended up working with them?

Brown: It seems like the artists have selected us more than we selected them. I mean, it isn’t really up to us. I think that we got something going and one artist will tell another and they really appreciate what we did with somebody else and then the person says, “Oh well, I think so and so would like to come.” It’s kind of a snowball thing.

John Cage and Larry Hamlin
Larry Hamlin and John Cage

Wade: How you found John Cage is interesting.

Traywick: He had never made etchings before.

Brown: He never made any art hardly, just those plastic panels that were displayed on a stand.

Traywick: I thought it was interesting that you invited him even though he didn’t know anything about etching—he didn’t know what you could or could not do, like when he would light fires on the press.

Brown: Well, he didn’t do that to be crazy. John did it because he had decided that he was going to work with earth, air, fire, and water. It was a big concept and he made a few prints with all those things in it. Then he decided they weren’t really so good. They were too big and too complicated—too many ideas. So then he narrowed in on the fire. That’s how he ended up doing a number of prints that captured fire on the page. He just opened all these doors and kept going through them.

Traywick: That’s what I love about Cage’s work in particular, that each print edition looks very different but it was still reflective of him and his ideas. He was really exploring how you could work with print-making outside of proscribed ways. He was one of those artists—also including Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn—about which I feel very aware of how special it was to have gotten to know him and see a little bit about how he worked in this medium.

Wayne Thiebaud
Wayne Thiebaud

Brown: Well, they’re giants. All of them were very long-lasting, very high level. Also the scope of how much work we did with each of them, it’s very large, so that’s another reason. There may be other people who are really wonderful artists and are important but we didn’t do as much with them. So Cage, Diebenkorn, and Theibaud were very intertwined with us—very long-term relationships.

Traywick: Diebenkorn and Thiebaud were the first two projects that you published and I always remember the story about when you offered those two portfolios to SFMOMA back in the ’60s and they turned them down. Now they have become highly sought after and important prints.

Brown: I think we sold individual prints then for $100 a piece. I think there were seventeen prints of Thiebaud’s in that portfolio (Delights), and I think the portfolio was priced at $600, and they didn’t want it. [Laughs.] But a lot of other museums did. The Achenbach bought everything from those days and Oakland did as well. Actually, the SFMOMA curator did want them—she was a supporter and she did buy a few prints but there was a collector on the committee at that time who was just very adamant that prints were not real and that they were not done by the artist, and unless the artist printed them they weren’t valuable. That’s why [the curator] couldn’t get them.

Traywick: You and Crown Point Press have done more than almost anyone in making people understand the fine art of making prints—not only through the work you’ve published but also through the workshops and other educational opportunities you offer here. You all have really changed how everyone perceives and interacts with prints.

Brown: I think we have done a lot. It’s not only the work, but also because we’ve written about it and have done interviews with the artists that we’ve had for a long time. So anybody can see that the artist really made the prints. They think of it as their work, they don’t think the prints are some kind of reproduction.

Crown Point Press Gallery

Wade: That is the philosophy of Crown Point, which I think is pretty distinct, and was set up by Kathan from the very beginning. It is about education and making prints available to folks. Even in developing our marketing plan over the years, it always came back to education. That was really important even for the type of artists that we chose—those that we didn't know would be stars. It’s a very different way of approaching publishing, especially given the number of presses that are out in the world right now.

Brown: In etching, I think we really did pioneer it. [When Crown Point Press started] there were a lot of lithographers. Tamarind [Institute] had been around for a little bit. They were really turning out lithographers and were quite successful in getting them the tools they needed so they could start their own presses, and a lot of them did. It was very active and there was a kind of a model.

Traywick: Crown Point is like a university for etching, and a professional incubator of sorts: Lothar Osterburg in New York, Mark Callen in Seattle, Doris Simmelink, Larry Hamlin, and Paulson Bott Press—there are a lot of people that you have inspired to go on and continue to have careers in the art world. It’s impressive.

Kathan Brown
Kathan Brown

Brown: Well, it was part of the idea to try to spread the word of etching, actually, so I’m glad that they did. I think of the printers in particular, not only because they had superior technical skills, but because they had some sense that you could make a business out of this.

Wade: You’re one of our proud graduates.

Traywick: Well, I feel like a proud graduate. Kathan showed all of us that it was a business, but also how to run it in a thoughtful way. I really learned how to talk about the work, and also that you first need to truly understand how the art is made and how artists related to that work.

Wade: I think what was interesting for me when I started to run the projects was that the personality of the artist gets revealed to you in new ways. You have access to this private interaction that you wouldn’t normally—most artists work in their studio privately. The creative process is a very tender situation. When I started being around artists while they were working and finding out about their personalities, it took a whole other level of interacting with them and trying to be sensitive, while also trying to be helpful, and firm, and strong so they felt they have something to bounce against or what not.

Brown: I guess because we try not to expect too much. I mean, if you have strong expectations, you may push [artists] in a direction they may not want to go. So we try to be kind of blank ourselves. We tell the printers that, too.

Wade: When to step forward and when to pull back, that’s something you learn but I also think it’s also some intuition.

Brown: It’s important for every printer that you hire to have that sense of how best to work with an artist The printers need to be a certain quiet, or not too present, personality. Every printer needs to not just have the skills, but also not be too pushy or boisterous or anything.

Traywick: There’s the process of making the work and then there’s the process of getting the work out in the world.

Wade: My own beginnings here were with the big Wayne Thiebaud project at the height of the market in late ‘80s or early ‘90s and people were so manic for these prints. Some people would fax me a copy of an image and they would buy it from a fax. Unfortunately, it fell into the wrong attitude of collecting and all those people did fall away. They were buying with their ears instead of their eyes. and people would tell them this is what they need to do. It was like the California gold rush. You had no idea who [the buyers] were and there was no time to cultivate them and make them lasting [as collectors]. Some you could, most you couldn’t. That was so astounding to me and it was very, very difficult not to irritate or anger people.

Brown: Yes, because you didn’t have enough for everybody back in those days. It’s surprising to talk about that now because it’s harder to sell things. We usually don’t run out very quickly.

Traywick: I remember that whenever a Diebenkorn edition came out, we were all sort of bracing ourselves.

Julie Mehrtu
Julie Mehrtu

Wade: We’d hide under our desk, waiting for the hoards of people. It is hard to imagine that now, but that was then. The next time I experienced that was with the Julie Mehrtu edition. So many people getting angry because they couldn’t have something.

Traywick: It is hard to imagine now, given the economic times. We’ve all seen the ups and downs—over the last 15 years in particular—and Crown Point Press is a major operation. How have you kept it going through thick and thin?

Brown: We have been lucky. It was with the goodwill of the community, really. Phyllis Wattis came in and told the [San Francisco Fine Arts] Museum they should get our archive and gave them some money for it and they raised more. They were very keen to do it.

Traywick: That was a big turning point to have a permanent home for the Crown Point Press archive.

Brown: Yes, and that is the only way I could have bought this building. I had to sell everything to the Museum. But it was a good place for it and it did give me enough to have the down payment. I never could have done it otherwise. I also couldn’t have managed without good people to manage the sales—first Karen McCready and now Valerie—because that’s all a mystery to me.

Valerie Wade
Valerie Wade

Wade: The way we cultivate clients—starting with educating them as best as we can—helps them become more long-term clients than “flash in the pan” investor-oriented collectors. It’s very important to get your message out so that in the slow times, those people are still around and remember you and come to you. Through all the ups and downs you can’t lose your head. I have to credit Kathan for remaining calm and just putting one foot in front of the other. The artists that Kathan has been closest to are the ones that have a philosophy that is sustainable and that has sustained Kathan. She was always listening to them and thinking about their spirit.

Traywick: I very much try to be as thoughtful about my artists and business as I feel like you have always been about yours. Hopefully you’ll have another 50 and I’ll have another 15. [Laughter.]

Brown: I think the Press can—I hope the press will go on forever.