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NAMTA Show 2005: A Report

And a history of one of the industry's most influential products, Liquitex.

by Various (May 2, 2005)

The "bladder standard."

The National Art Materials Trade Association filled the exhibition Hall at Navy Pier in Chicago with education sessions on April 13 and the show the 14th through the 16th. The weather was perfect with the rain on Tuesday giving way to a stiff wind but clear skies on Wednesday and every day through the weekend.

Transportation from the show hotel, the Intercontinental on Michigan Avenue, was handled very smoothly, and there was also a free shuttle trolley provided by the city. I have been to shows where the attitude of customers and exhibitors is subdued, but the tone from the attendees on the first day was as if we were all headed to a great party.

The art material industry is fairly rarified and I liken it to classical music. Unfortunately, how many people are really interested in oil painting anyway? The first program to be trimmed at any school is the art department, and in the past this may have contributed to the sense that we were under siege by crafters and scrapbookers. I have noticed that there were quite a few of the NAMTA manufacturers exhibiting at the CHA show in February and this, combined with new leadership, may account for the upbeat mood. If they are showing at CHA they must also be learning how to broaden the art materials market so it doesn’t intimidate crafters.

At the packed annual breakfast meeting on Friday, the sense communicated through the reports by the outgoing President, Steve Aufhauser (Continental Art Supplies) and the VP/Finance, Tim Hopper (Holbein) was of the next generation taking over and putting the house in order. From the numbers the organization itself seems to be on the right course with adjustments made to ensure future financial viability.

NAMTA has also become a value-added organization with its recently completed CD, "Art Materials Essential Reference Guide" that is essentially a comprehensive reference on art materials and a retail employee training guide, complete with Q&A and technical data. This was created by Zora Pinney (Zora’s) and Claudia Myers (Spokane Art Supply). Zora and Claudia are storeowners who collectively have more than 100 years experience in the trade. (It is hard enough to keep our businesses thriving, and stunning when individuals come forward to create a comprehensive lodestone of information and then make it available to the industry.)

At the breakfast meeting Claudia was honored with NAMTA’s Hall of Fame award. Claudia was the organizations first female president in 1999. Her acceptance speech also seemed to echo the theme of a new organizational order taking exhibiting strong, positive leadership. The new President of NAMTA is Sam Seelig, owner of SLS Arts in New Orleans.

Another indication that the organization seems to be on the right track were the meetings held Saturday morning. The retailer breakfast was packed, and the Exhibitor meeting with the Executive Director Katherine Coffey was sparsely attended. Out of 200 exhibiting companies there were perhaps a dozen at the meeting. My sense is that the show went so smoothly on an organizational level, and everyone was generally happy with sales, that there was nothing to show up and complain about.

I finally judge a show by the amount of traffic in our booth, and the first time I glance at my watch when I notice that there are no customers waiting to talk to me. Most shows have had lunch lags where it is clear that the retailers are taking a break. During this year’s NAMTA I had to excuse myself at 3 p.m. even with customers in the booth. I will not name competitors, but I did see other booths with new colorful and creative displays and it was clear that the other exhibitors were enjoying the show as well. I wouldn’t propose a show "bladder standard," but for NAMTA it was one of the most positive, well attended shows in years, and it also reminded me of the years before September 11 when work was fun and not an uphill struggle. – Midsize manufacturer

Evidence of a bright future.

I did attend the NAMTA show and I must say upfront that I am a bit biased because I am on the NAMTA board, but I will just report what I heard. All the board members went down all the aisles and asked the exhibitors their opinion of the show, and by and large the majority indicated that it was a strong order-writing show; some reported that the order taking was better than CHA.

The attendance was up from last year from both the retailers/distributors and exhibitors. Navy Pier, though a challenge to get to and from sometimes, has a terrific hall and amenities for a show of NAMTA's size. As an exhibitor, our booth had a constant flow of retailers, but never became overwhelming. It was apparent that the retailers came to purchase.

From several sales managers: "The crafts category might be growing faster, but art supplies are still the core of our business." ... "I feel very comfortable with the other exhibitors – like we’re in this together." ... "This show is more manageable than CHA, Atlanta. Our products don’t get lost in the masses of 'other stuff'."

From a couple of dealers: "I can see everything in a compacted period of time, go back to the hotel & make decisions tonight." ... "I have time to spend in each booth when I need to. I don’t feel the rush like CHA."

In addition to the size of the show, I think the work NAMTA has done as an organization is obvious. It’s become evident that the organization is thriving due to the diligence and foresight of several board members. – NAMTA Board Member

The Liquitex anniversary.

One of the highlights of the show was the ColArt celebration for the 50th anniversary of Liquitex paint. At a huge party complete with a Chicago blues band, ColArt honored Louise Levinson, daughter of Liquitex founder Henry Levinson, and Bill Powell's Art Store in Cincinnati, the first retail store to carry the product.

(Note: Liquitex has been sold at least twice since it Levinson invented it. ColArt supplied CLN with the following history.)

Fifty years ago, there was no such thing as water-based acrylic colors. No such thing as acrylic gesso. Or gel medium. Or texture gels. None of a hundred other products that painters have come to take for granted; materials that – when invented by Liquitex beginning in 1955 – fueled radically new expressive opportunities for the pivotal artists and crafters of the 20th century and beyond.

The birth of acrylics.

By the late 1940’s, two world wars had left the globe fundamentally altered and the art community was scrambling to find ways to visually express the shifting psychic and cultural landscape. The work was visceral and dramatic in completely surprising and sometimes confusing ways. And, no surprise, artists were experimenting with new materials to make their conceptual points.

A few artists (like Morris Louis and Barnett Newman) were looking for colors that could be made highly fluid and that didn’t have all the working constraints of oils. There was some experimentation with new polymer compounds that were early versions of acrylic colors. But the paint was still mineral spirit- or solvent-based and required appreciable care when used. What was really needed was a versatile color that could go from thick to thin and everywhere in between, that would adhere to anything – from canvas to paper to metal to wood to plastic – and that would dry quickly for easy re-working, layering, and masking. And most important, it needed to be thinned and cleaned up with water.

In 1955, a company in Cincinnati named Permanent Pigments that had been milling oil colors since 1933 (and run by a man named Henry Levison, who lived, drank, slept, and breathed artist’s colors) launched a new product. This new artists’ color was formulated with an acrylic polymer resin that was emulsified with water, and it met all of the targets. Levison tried to come up with a name that captured the essence of the medium and the fact that it could go from fluid liquidity to heavy texture and everyplace else in between. The color was called liquid texture. Or Liquitex.

Levison was able to encourage a number of artists to try the product, but acceptance was slow. There are colorful stories, like the one about the first traveling salesman for Liquitex, driving across the upper Midwest in February, looking for art materials stores and artists to try the new medium, only to find that all of his samples had frozen solid in his trunk. (The modern range now includes additives to minimize freezing. Even so, just to be sure, it goes through as many as 20 separate freeze-thaw cycles to ensure that the color will be stable even if the worst happens).

Levison advertised and provided samples to artists all over the country. But acrylics didn’t gain full acceptance in the artist community until Levison figured out a principle that is still in place today: great information is as important as great materials. Based upon that foundation, Levison launched a lecture demonstration program in which artists offered workshops and lectures on the use of acrylics to college students and professors. Within a few years, acrylics were being used consistently in colleges and universities across the country. And it wasn’t long before Liquitex was being used by some of the most important artists of the late 20th century: David Hockney, Helen Frankenthaler, Andy Warhol, and others.

Because of its durability and versatility, Liquitex also became the medium of choice for large scale public murals by artists such as Garo Antreasian and Thomas Hart Benton. By the 1970’s acrylics had been widely accepted by crafters, and the ease of clean up and absence of solvents fueled the dramatic growth of decorative painting that continued through the 20th century. It’s fair to say that without Liquitex and the working properties of water-based acrylics, 20th century art and craft would have been completely different.

By the 1980’s, acrylics had become the most popular and widely used of all painting mediums, surpassing watercolor and oil, both by a wide margin. The reason? The infinite variety of applications of acrylics coupled with the spirit of innovation first shown by Liquitex.

The firsts.

The complete list of innovative firsts from Liquitex is too long to name here. But a few – dating from 1955 up to 2004 – are worth highlighting:

The first water-based acrylic paint for artists ... The first water-based acrylic gesso ... The first acrylic mediums (gloss medium & varnish, and matt medium) ... The first college lecture ... demonstration program ... The first "glaminate tube." These tubes (laminated layers of plastic, metal and paper) replace metal tubes ... The first machine to test for lightfastness and long-term permanence of artists’ colors ... The first cadmium replacement (hue) colors ... The first retarding medium for slowing the drying of acrylics ... The first iridescent colors ... The first paint to be labeled for ASTM standards, for toxicity, quality and lightfastness ... The first Super Heavy Body acrylic color, suitable for sculptural as well as painting applications.

In addition, Liquitex has been a leader in promoting arts education and in developing programs in support of the arts community.

(Note: To read previous columns, click on the titles in the right-hand column.)



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