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‘Here I am, 25 years later, still doing what I love’: Valley Fine Art owner Mia Valley reflects as the gallery transitions to a new format

People gather in Valley Fine Art for a 25th anniversary après-ski celebration on March 21, 2024. Gallery owner Mia Valley (center right) is known for her collection of art focused on the American West, including vintage Edward Curtis photographs and works by contemporary artists.
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
People gather in Valley Fine Art for a 25th anniversary après-ski celebration on March 21, 2024. Gallery owner Mia Valley (center right) is known for her collection of art focused on the American West, including vintage Edward Curtis photographs and works by contemporary artists.

Local gallerist Mia Valley is best known for her collection of Edward Curtis works: Sepia-toned photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that document Native Americans and life in the American West.

Her gallery, Valley Fine Art, has also featured works by Andy Warhol, as well as contemporary, living artists like sculptor Siri Hollander and photographer Barbara Van Cleve.

Over the course of 25 years — 18 of them in the same location at the Wheeler Opera House — Valley Fine Art became a fixture in downtown Aspen, where it has long occupied a city-owned retail space with below-market rent. Now, as another tenant moves into the space, Valley is moving the gallery to an online and by-appointment operation.

When her lease was up last year, Aspen’s city council sought multiple proposals for the space. A selection committee reviewed four applications based on criteria like creative vision, community engagement, environmental stewardship and sound business practices. They ultimately recommended a different tenant, local gallerist D.J. Watkins; council approved his lease last fall, and Watkins will open the first exhibition for the "Aspen Collective" at the roughly 500-square-foot storefront this week.

Valley said she has looked for other brick-and-mortar locations in Aspen, but some of the rents were almost 10 times what she’s paid at the Wheeler. She’s determined to continue selling art by meeting with clients one-on-one and maintaining an online presence.

Reporter Kaya Williams spoke with Valley this spring about her passion for art and her history in Aspen. This interview has been edited and condensed.

I'm so grateful to have been here. I have loved this space. And I've loved my business and doing what I love.
Mia Valley, owner of Valley Fine Art

Kaya Williams: We’ll start with the origins of Valley Fine Art. You're celebrating 25 years. How did you get into this business?

Mia Valley: That's a great question, and this question also plays into how I came about specializing in the work of Edward Curtis,

Edward Curtis documented the Native Americans from 1896 to 1927. And I was first introduced to the photography about 36 years ago, when I worked at a store called “Footloose and Fancy Things.” It was there that I fell in love with the Edward Curtis (work). How people experienced the work was very emotional and heartfelt.

I was with Steve DeGouveia for nine years, a long time. I then opened a gallery for Christopher Cardozo dealing just in Edward Curtis, and I was with him for about three and a half years.

And then I opened Valley Fine Art 25 years ago, and I've been specializing in the vintage work of Edward Curtis ever since.

Williams: Did you have another location in those very early years (before the Wheeler Space)?

Valley: On the (Hyman Avenue pedestrian) mall, I negotiated a temporary lease. It was one year at a time for four years, if you can imagine, at my discretion. And I opened my doors and immediately had clientele and buyers. That lease ran out, and my lease was going to be twice what it was. So (it’s the) same story, what's going on here.

I ventured out and found the Wheeler Opera House space. And I've been here 18 years. And I just have to say I'm so grateful to the city of Aspen. I'm so grateful to have been here. I have loved this space. And I've loved my business and doing what I love.

So here we are, and it just is what it is.

Williams: Now, you mentioned that you got into this through Edward Curtis's work. But you also represent other artists, some of whom are more contemporary, still living. How do you find that balance between art history, especially western history, and more modern pieces?

Valley: Well, in the beginning, when I opened my gallery, I had Edward Curtis and then 19th and early 20th century American paintings — so, dead artists in gold frames essentially. At any given day, I would have a Thomas Moran or an Albert Bierstadt or a Charles Marion Russell, a Remington.

And then as time went by, they became far more difficult to find, and a little out of my price range to buy them outright. But I decided to start going contemporary because I could see that trend. And I was very at the forefront of that Western contemporary vibe.

I have about 17 American living artists that I represent now, (including) Ted Waddell, Andrew Bolam, Christopher Burkett — a photographer who does cibachromes, (photographic prints) — Barbara Van Cleave, who does Western photographs.

I find artists that kind of fall in line with a western feel, and then I just balance artists organically. And then I bring in Andy Warhols. So occasionally, you might come in and see a Joseph Henry Sharpe on the wall, which is one of the Taos (artists’ colony) founders, and a Warhol of Sitting Bull.

Williams: A lot of people feel very fondly towards the Western aesthetic. (It) generates some nostalgia. What draws you to this genre of work?

Valley: I grew up in Aspen, I've been here since I was 5 years old. And I came when it was very different. It was a very laid-back western town. You know, the horses used to be tied up outside of the various bars and (you’d see) characters with their chaps. And I had a horse myself when I was younger. So the whole genre was just deep in my heart to begin with.

Williams: Now, you mentioned a moment ago that even back in the origins of Valley Fine Art, it was tricky to find a space, you know, one year leases, tricky rents. Would you say that the landscape for a local gallerist now has changed from when you started? Or is this dynamic now just kind of the way it's been for a really long time?

Valley: The rents have progressively gone up and up. And when I signed a 10 year lease (to renew in the Wheeler Space), which ended up being 12 years because of the scaffolding on the wall on the outside of the building, I kind of figured this could happen and I needed to be prepared.

I've been looking for commercial real estate space, but all I'm finding is spaces that are $20,000 to $40,000 a month. I have been pounding the pavement actually. But I won't close the gallery. I will go online, so I’ll deal art privately from my home.

Williams: Have there been any big lessons learned over the course of your career, or even advice you would give to yourself just getting started as a gallerist?

Valley: Oh, I don't know about that. Because I took the space when I had this idea to open my gallery all those years ago, and I said, “Oh, well, if it doesn't work out, I'll just claim bankruptcy.” I had no money. It was just kind of a (feeling that) I can't climb the corporate ladder in Aspen.

So I had to figure out what I wanted to do. I just thought to myself, “I want to do what I love.” And here I am, 25 years later, still doing what I love. It's been very gratifying.

Williams: What is it that you love most about your work?

Valley: I love seeing my friends and my clients. People come in all the time when they're in town, to just say hi, tell me about their families and what they're doing.

And then the whole romancing of the artwork: I only pick artists that I love. I only choose artists that I like working with. Life's too short.

Williams: Any big surprises over the years?

Valley: Oh, Lord, there are too many to go into. But, for example, the pandemic — like, who saw that coming? Even when I lost my first lease, and (when I faced) the financial crisis in 2008, I've weathered all of that. And here I am.

Williams: I’m gathering from what you're saying that, you know, you can't succeed, or you can't do what you love, if you don't try.

Valley: Oh, exactly. It's like, “just do it.” You know, we have so many opportunities in our lives. And I have so many wonderful people who have supported me through my journey. And I've always asked for help.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.