"The first thing [Valenty] asked me on the telephone was 'Is your daughter beautiful?'" says the mother of a former Valenty client, who asked not to be identified. "He said if she wasn't, the media won't like her, and I can't help her."
Valenty says he's "never really thought about" the physical attractiveness of his clients, though he acknowledges that all of them "have been reasonably cute."
Regardless, once he's found a suitable charge, he kicks the marketing into high gear. Web sites are an integral part of his method, allowing him to create the ideal art prodigy online while remaining in complete control of his or her image. Amanda Dunbar's Web site is a prime example of the Valenty style--pumping up the artist's image with hype, celebrity endorsements and good works.
Viewers who want to "Meet Amanda" click on a link and are bombarded with a page full of smiling celebs photographed alongside the young artist. Amanda with Sting. Amanda with Bono. Amanda embracing a horde of small black children. The photos are carefully chosen to portray the perfect balance between safe celebrity endorsements and down-home charity goodness. Bono is edgy yet humanitarian, and VH1 mascot Sting is known for his nonprofit work. And anyone who hugs little black children can't be all bad, right?
"That's about people thinking that celebrities are somehow more knowledgeable than the rest of us. Somehow she's more legitimate because she's in touch with stars," says Charissa Terranova, a visiting assistant professor of art history at SMU and Observer art critic, after perusing the Dunbar site.
To read the site's text, one would leave with the impression that Dunbar falls just short of divinity. As one of the "greatest artists of all time" who can "capture not only her subjects, but their souls," she produces "one beautifully executed painting after another." But heavily hyped words of praise are to be expected when one is attempting to maintain art prodigy status. And it worked. The buyers, investors and charities came calling, not just with Amanda, but with all of Valenty's artist clients. Still, critics questioned whether there was any substance to the prodigy phenomenon.
"Child painter's gift draws skepticism over genius tag," reads a 1996 London Times headline. The article about Alexandra Nechita features a couple of scathing quotes from a British art critic, who said, "Most 10-year-olds can copy. If you dump them in front of a Picasso, they will make a Picasso, of sorts. If you put them in front of something difficult such as a Leonardo, they will find themselves stymied." Art critics, for the most part, left the prodigy business to human-interest feature writers clamoring for an inspirational story. Critics view the paintings as primarily profit-driven, if they view them at all.
"This is basically a capitalist kind of idea of art: something that should be bought and sold at will," Terranova says. She sees Valenty's clients as skilled in the craft of painting, but without originality. "This domesticates the wild, inventive idea of art," she says.
The mother of Valenty's former client supports Terranova's view. Her child, less prolific than Olivia and Alexandra, just couldn't paint fast enough for Valenty. She claims that the child was encouraged to hire "assistants" who would help her produce more than her usual supply of one or two works a month. She says Valenty told her that all the artists were doing it--popular artists such as Thomas Kinkade, as well as Alexandra Nechita.
"I almost vomited for three days after he told me that."
As long as the kids are churning out work, celebrities are commissioning art and the papers have another charitable donation to write about, the opinions of educated critics have little impact, when they speak on the subject at all.
Does Olivia get any criticism?
"Not really. I haven't had anyone really critique it," she says. Valenty's smoke-and-mirrors method deflects critical interest by distracting the public with the heart-warming (or heart-breaking) backstories for each of his artists.
"There's nothing wrong with selling their artwork; what's wrong is this whole metaphysical part of it as being propped up by angels," says Terranova, frustrated by the shameless marketing.
Valenty couldn't care less. "We don't exploit anybody. We've launched some incredible careers," he says. "I bet any artists selling paintings for $25 would be more than happy to be exploited in such a way."
All the legal battles, the stressful hours at her gallery and the press appearances have created a 14-year-old as used to playing grown-up as she is to painting flowers.