For Aspen’s Mia Valley, art is a blend of business, passion

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesMia Valley, owner of Valley Fine Art in Aspen, hosts Small Miracles, a benefit art exhibition and sale, Friday.

ASPEN – When Mia Valley made her first major stride into the art world, it was not the prettiest of pictures. In her late 20s at the time, Valley was asked to open the Cardozo Gallery, a business not owned by her, that dealt exclusively in photographs by Edward S. Curtis. The images – photos of native Americans, made in the first decades of the 20th century, that have become icons of the American West – captivated her, but the business did not. At the time, there were battles between Aspen’s Curtis dealers, and she had no heart for the accusations and hardball tactics.

“It was a shame. Ick. Eww,” said Valley, who had gotten her first exposure to Curtis while working, beginning in her teens, for the Aspen shop Footloose and Fancy Things. “It was this fierce competition because the work was just exploding, the marketplace for Curtis.”

“It’s a man’s world,” Valley continued, speaking about the gallery business. “You have to have thick skin.”

Valley, now 44, hasn’t grown that thick exterior. She shies away from boasting and one-upmanship. But in her Valley Fine Art gallery in Aspen, she has built the world’s biggest Curtis collection, and she has done it in a way that emphasizes qualities and resources that would be described as more feminine: patience, emotion, relationships, modesty. Simply saying the phrase, “largest Curtis collection in the world,” is difficult for her, too full of the competitive spirit she witnessed early in her career. When she finally utters the words, she follows with, “But you know, who cares?”

Valley believes she has an innate talent for business, passed on from both her parents. Her father, a pioneer in modular homes, had sold the family’s Wisconsin-based business to move, in 1971, to Aspen, where he did real estate and sold cars. In Aspen, her mother made headbands with feathers that were popular with Aspen skiers (it was the ’70s) and had an antique business she ran using newspaper ads and storage units at the Aspen Business Center. “So creative,” Valley said.

“Business is easy for me,” continued Valley, who earned a degree in marketing from Colorado State, then skipped on her original idea of moving to New York to enter the corporate world, preferring to stay in Aspen. “It comes naturally to me. I just get it.”

The killer instinct, however, hasn’t come at all. After three and a half years of running the Cardozo Gallery, and learning much about the Curtis industry and the Western art world in general, Valley felt it was time to put her entrepreneurial genes to work. But instead of entering the gallery fray, she sidestepped it by opening a private art dealership, with a specialty in procuring all of the art for an entire home.

After several years, Valley decided she needed to get out of Aspen, where she had lived from the age of 5. The very first day she woke up in her new home, in Santa Barbara, was Sept. 11 of 2001, and she realized she’d be turning right around and heading back home.

“I knew I wasn’t moving. The world had just blown up,” she said. Figuring that the art business was going to dive-bomb as well, Valley didn’t restart her business, but made plans to fulfill a long-held dream to see India, and took a five-week trip by herself.

“The interesting thing about life is, if whatever we’re doing is what we’re meant to do, it’s going to unfold. So two days before this trip, I made a huge sale. It was like the universe just said, ‘Yes.’ When we have all this stuff that we’re rocked by, you just have to have faith that something is going to work out. Because it always does,” she said. That outlook was reinforced by what happened a few months after her return to Aspen: the Cardozo Gallery closed, leaving a gap in the local Curtis trade. “I realized it was my time to open a gallery,” Valley said.

Valley Fine Art opened modestly, in 2002. The space, on the Hopkins Avenue mall, was small; Valley’s first lease ran just six months. To gain an understanding of how to be successful in business, she contacted various local people she considered successful and wise, and asked for some time with them. (Valley was, technically, in competition with Footloose and Fancy Things, which still handled Curtis photographs. But she said her gallery had a different clientele, a different way of displaying the work, and the two shops often worked with each other. If it was competition, it was an amicable variety.)

In 2005, Valley moved to her current location, a space in the Wheeler Opera House that is some three times the size of her original gallery. The business has expanded to include 10 living artists whom she represents, plus work by notable 19th century artists including Frederic Remington and Charles Russell.

Valley says what first attracted her to Western art, and to Curtis in particular, was the impression it made on viewers and buyers.

“I was so young when I first got introduced to Curtis, and it seemed like these very expensive Indian photographs that I didn’t know much about. It was intimidating. It was art,” said Valley, who still seeks out national experts in the art world for guidance. “But what got me was how people connected to it from the heart. It was emotional, a real connection. I started really paying attention to that. As a woman, I can relate to emotion, to passion.”

Valley also likes the workings of the Western-art world. “I like the people dealing in Western works. They’re following a passion, rather than an opportunity,” she said. “Our clients tend to be well-educated and historically inclined. It’s about the art more than decorating their homes.”

Two weeks after she opened Valley Fine Art, Valley’s brother, Doug, died at the age of 45. Doug had been a skiing instructor for more than 20 years, and a skiing daredevil, a past winner of the old Gelandesprung competition that had skiers launch 120 feet in the air. In high school, he had been a football MVP and prom king.

Doug was also an alcoholic, and his sister watched him go through rehab three times, only to fall back to drinking and drugs. He died of liver disease, related to his drinking.

“At that point I asked, What have I gotten into? How would I run a gallery with all this extraordinary sadness and grief?” Valley said. She instituted a practice to deal with her anxiety over the business: Whenever she worried about money, she’s write a $100 check to a local nonprofit. “And something always happened – a big sale, or I’d be able to buy something great,” she said.

When Valley heard about the creation of The Right Door, a local facility that assists people as they leave rehab, she was eager to help.

“The Right Door is a missing link for people like my brother,” Valley, a member of the organization’s board, said. “They give assistance to people coming out of rehab, like a bridge, so they’re not alone and don’t go back to what he did. Because that’s what he did, every time.”

Founded in 2003 by Brad Osborn, The Right Door provides a variety of services related to substance abuse; its services are utilized by the city of Aspen, the Pitkin County jail, and Aspen Valley Hospital. In 2009, The Right Door assisted nearly 1,000 people.

In 2004, Valley Fine Art hosted its first Small Miracles show, a benefit art event that focused on small-scale works. “It symbolizes that every small thing we can do, can help,” Valley said. The inaugural event raised $160,000 for The Right Door; a second one, in 2006, raised $130,000.

This year’s Small Miracles is set for Friday at 5 p.m., at Valley Fine Art. In addition to the 55 works of art – including pieces by Remington, Thomas Moran and O.E. Berninghaus – there will be talks by Joe DiSalvo, a candidate for Pitkin County sheriff, and by one of Right Door’s successful clients. There will also be a table of photos and writings, commemorating people who have died from substance abuse.

“I had so much grief, and I wanted to channel it for a more positive vein other than being sad,” Valley said of the Small Miracles events. “Grief is tough. I had to do something with it.”