Kinkade Art Colored by lawsuits

On the flip side of the dreamlike cottages and warm lighthouses in Thomas Kinkade’s paintings is a business world of aggressive marketing, brand names and a string of lawsuits from franchise owners who accuse the popular artist of saturating the market.

Artist Kinkade, who is visiting Tucson today as part of a national tour to meet fans, made his art and collectibles widely popular by mass distribution through gallery-style stores and marketing deals with firms such as Avon, Hallmark, Sam’s Club and QVC, a cable-television shopping network.

Kinkade, who has compared his brand potential to Disney and Martha Stewart, has more than 100 galleries that deal exclusively in his art.

Fans cherish his work as uplifting, family-oriented, Christian art, said Val Blask, owner of the Thomas Kinkade Tucson Gallery, at Tucson Mall, 4500 N. Oracle Road, and two other Kinkade galleries in Chandler and Mesa.

Not all Kinkade franchises are so successful. This past year, at least 25 franchisees across the nation were in arbitration with the company, alleging fraud and violations of antitrust laws.

The owners who are suing also claim the company floods the market with too much artwork, which lowers the value of the products, and saturates the market with too many galleries.

Norman Yatooma, a Michigan attorney, is representing the franchisees, all of whom are suing with the same claims. Some of the 25 clients already have received $2.4 million in damages per store, Yatooma said.

Kinkade galleries are franchised though the artist’s operating company, Media Arts Group.

The clients claim Media Arts inflated business projections and required franchisees to use financing companies that contracted with Media Arts. Later they were asked to open more stores and compelled to buy more inventory to reach a profit figure that was unattainable, Yatooma said.

What’s made matters worse for franchisees is that Kinkade collectors can get his products more cheaply through mass-retail markets such as Sam’s Club. The franchisees represented by Yatooma, however, say they weren’t allowed to discount any prices, which is a violation of antitrust laws, the attorney said.

“The stock and the art diminished in value, and dealers are near bankrupt because they flooded the market with underpriced product in competition with their own dealers,” Yatooma said.

Media Arts spokeswoman Megan Toeniskoetter said the company is not commenting on the pending legal matters.

Local Kinkade gallery owner Blask said the economy likely had more to do with the franchisees’ failure. One of the gallery owners who is suing Kinkade’s gallery operation company also is suing the developers of a plaza where his store was located because the plaza was never popular.

Blask said owning a franchise is self-rewarding because the art makes people happy.

“So often when they look at this work it does draw tears,” said Blask, who has owned the galleries for 10 years.

Blask, who has been in the art business for 40 years and the Kinkade business for 10 years, said many of the franchisees were gift-shop owners who found themselves ill-prepared.

“If you don’t know the business of art, it’s tough,” said Blask, who learned the business through trial and error.

Yatooma said all of his clients had previous successful business experiences.

Robin Jones, who owns the Sedona and Prescott Kinkade galleries, started collecting Kinkade art in Southern California before opening the galleries five years ago.

“It’s probably the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had,” Jones said.

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