In the rural town of New Berlin, located southeast of Syracuse, you see what you would expect: pastures, picturesque vistas, trees and cows. Lots of cows. What you might not expect to see is a road sign for a world-renowned company that manufactures high-quality paint for artists. Golden Artist Colors has been producing acrylic paints since Sam Golden and his wife Adele Golden founded it in 1980.
While the paint might be manufactured in Chenango County, a good deal of the artists who use the acrylics likely live and work in funky New York City apartments. The contrast is fascinating, as is the story of how Golden came into existence. Sam Golden bought the property, 188 Bell Road, in 1968 with the original intent of making it into a retirement home.
He began making paint in 1936 at Bocour Artist Colors in New York City, which was owned by his uncle, Leonard Bocour. They produced hand-ground oil colors for artists, a practice Golden continued at his own company. Golden spent more than 35 years as a paintmaker at Bocour, and is credited with creating the first acrylic paint for artists. The list of 20th-century artists who used Sam Golden’s paint reads like a who’s who of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
“He loved making paint for artists,” says Mark Golden, Sam’s son and the current CEO of Golden Artist Colors. While Sam tried retirement for seven years, artists he knew from working at Bocour Artist Colors kept asking him to make paint for them.
“He was driving my mother crazy,” says Mark. “He was retired and he was a horrible retiree.” In 1980, at the age of 67, Sam came out of retirement and founded Golden Artist Colors with Adele, and asked Mark and his wife, Barbara Golden, to join them. They converted a barn on the property into a paint-making facility, bought the necessary tools, and invited relatives to help fill and label tubes and jars.
“It was day one, when the first paint came off the mill. Sam was a young guy again, and that was fantastic,” says Mark. “All of a sudden, this old guy at 67 became this young guy at 67. Unfortunately, our first customer cancelled his order. It was pretty scary.”
The company struggled at first, partially because stores did not want to carry another type of paint. As an alternative, Mark traveled to individual artists to sell the product, offering custom paint made to each artist’s specifications. “We will make you whatever you want,” he told them.
From the beginning, the products carried a label with a swatch of
dried paint on the outside. According to Jodi O’Dell, Golden’s corporate
communications specialist, this was originally done because the company
couldn’t afford full-color printing for the paint jars. “We still do
all that hand painting today,” O’Dell says. The hand painted swatch is
important to the artist, who is able to see what the paint looks like
when dry instead of trying to guess based on a printed label, or worse,
at it appears on a computer monitor.
Eight staff members hand paint all the labels. The company also produces complimentary hand painted color charts for the artist community. “It’s a lot of hard work, but the value to the artist is tremendous,” says O’Dell. “It’s a lot of resources, but it’s important to us, so that’s what we continue to do.”
Sam Golden had a passion for not only art, but also artists, ultimately developing a deep connection with the art world. Mark can recall going to the Bocour shop when he was young and helping to put tubes into sets for sale, or stuff letters and envelopes for his Uncle Leonard. After work, his dad would take him to MOMA and point to various works: “He’d say, ‘See that? That’s my paint,’” says Mark.
In fact, the Bocour shop on 15th Street in Manhattan became a hangout for artists from the 1930s through the early 1950s. Artists such as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler and Jack Levine would go to the shop to visit with Leonard, talk to Sam and get paint.
“He loved the kind of vicarious thrill you get when you are able to work with some of the most talented artists in the world,” explains Mark. “I think he loved being a part of that connection with these people. Not making paintings, but making paint for the people making the paintings.”
Golden has grown from a company of four employees to one with 155 full-time workers, and the business is now employee-owned. Many of the employees at Golden are from Chenango County, and are trained on the job. Today Golden produces more than 3,000 products, including acrylic paints, mediums—essentially colorless paints primarily used to reduce gloss, extend colors and increase transparency in acrylic paint—additives, varnishes and more. Golden also began manufacturing oil paints after the company purchased Williamsburg Handmade Oils two years ago.
All Golden paint makers are trained on the job and each color and formulation has its own way of being manufactured. Golden produces 168 colors and seven different lines of colors. Each “line of color” defines the type of paint used, such as Fluid, Heavy Body, Gel Mediums, Airbrush and more. Each type of paint must be created a little differently, and each pigment or color used also carries different properties. Because of this, there are hundreds of different formulations that paint makers must be trained to recognize.
According to O’Dell, one of the most important things that Golden does is keep an ongoing dialogue with artists, like Sam used to. Since the company began, Golden has used their Custom Lab to create specific colors or change materials to fit an artist’s needs. When new, experimental products are developed, they are often launched to get feedback from artists, and are then re-worked before becoming part of the official product line.
“We have a lot of products that started out as custom requests from artists and are now some of the most popular of the product line,” says O’Dell. “It’s about paying attention to artists and learning what’s important to them.”
In their in-facility store, Golden has set up a Paint Bar, developed so artists could come in and experiment with materials or techniques they have not used before, discuss issues or challenges they are facing, or just talk. In addition to answering between 8,000 and 10,000 questions annually from artists via phone or email, Golden’s technical support staff often works in the Paint Bar to help artists who may stop by. Sometimes small groups of visitors also come to learn what types of products are available.
Golden also supports arts-related charitable causes. This month, Americans for the Arts, a national organization that supports the arts in America through advocacy, research and professional development, will recognize Golden Artist Colors as a 2012 BCA: Best Companies Supporting the Arts in America honoree. “As much as possible, we try to support it,” O’Dell says of the organization. The award will be presented in New York City on Oct. 4.
Likewise, the Sam and Adele Golden Foundation for the Arts, which began in 1997 after Sam died, awarded grants and fellowships to professional artists and art organizations for the first 10 years of its existence. For the last four years, however, the foundation has provided support to four other artist residencies around the country as well as developing their own residency program. To date, Golden Artist Colors has donated $720,000 to artist programs, institutions and organizations.
Each employee at Golden is paid for 40 hours of community service on top of vacation and personal time to use whichever way they like, says Barbara Schindler, the company’s president. If an employee is an emergency medical technician or a firefighter, they receive 80 hours. Also, through Golden’s Seconds Program, the company donates paint that does not meet its standards to artists or non-profit organizations for the price of shipping.
Seconds paint doesn’t meet Golden standards for a various reasons, but it’s still a usable product. This could be paint that’s at the end of the run on the mills, paint that tests in the research and development labs produced where jars have several colors in it, partial jars from hand painting labels and color charts, damaged containers, or containers with incorrect labels. Last year, 9,000 pounds of seconds were donated, according to O’Dell.
Mark Golden adds that the company accepts old latex house paint during Chenango and Otsego counties’ hazardous waste collection events. If the paint is usable, employees will recycle it by adding more color and binder before donating it to area non-profits.
O’Dell says that Golden also donates paint sets or paint for arts-related events. In fact, Golden donated, as a prize, a Principal Fluid acrylic paint set, which contains 10 one-ounce cylinders of paint, and a hand-painted color chart T-shirt to the Newspaper Box Painting Contest during the Syracuse New Times Street Painting Festival, held Sunday, July 29.
For Artists’ Sake
Golden also has created programs to teach people about their products. Their Working Artist Program allows Golden to subcontract with professional artists all over the world to teach people how to use Golden products. The artists, approximately 45, go through intensive training for the materials, and then teach at retail locations, colleges and universities; they also lecture and lead workshops at artist organizations.
Every three or so years, all production at the facility is shut down for “Paint Day,” says Schindler, during which working artists are brought in to teach the staff. Thirteen different workshops are offered on Paint Day and all of the staff is allowed to choose four workshops and spend the day painting. Schindler says it’s important for the staff to meet the artists that use their products and talk to them about their craft. Favorite works produced by staff are hung in the cafeteria area for a week afterwards. “To appreciate the respect the artist has for the materials, as they are teaching the group how to use it, how to apply it. It’s just a whole other perspective,” explains Schindler.
Even customers are impressed with the time Golden staff is given to
use the product it creates, Schindler adds. Staff members often take
turns staffing the phone lines on Paint Day. She says she’s had to
explain to people calling in that they are technically shut down and
why. Schindler worries that customers will be upset if they cannot get
to tech support right away.
“Every time I am manning the phone, I say, ‘Well, we have this thing called Paint Day, and we’re technically shut down.’ And they say: ‘Really? Everyone gets to paint? Well, that’s fantastic. My question can wait,’” Schindler says.
This year, the Golden Foundation will open the doors to its new Artist Residency Program, which will be housed in a renovated barn several hundred yards from the main facility. “The board members decided to pursue a dream that we’ve had for 30 years, which was to create a painting space for artists on the property,” says Barbara Golden, executive director of the foundation. “We thought we could do that through the foundation.”
The residency program has welcomed nine artists this summer, three at a time for four weeks at a time. Artists applied online, and submitted eight works, background information, as well as a statement of what their work is about. An independent committee of judges selects the attendees based on the quality of their work.
Next year, Barbara Golden plans to hold additional residency sessions. Visiting artists also may be invited to work on their art in between residency sessions. These artists will provide lectures and sessions on their work to Golden staff and the public. Workshops are being scheduled for the residency space.
“Many people think: Oh, the arts? New York City. But there is a lot
of art going on in upstate New York,” says Barbara. She says this region
has a lot to offer in terms of not only artist residencies, but museums
and galleries as well. “If you’re a lover of the arts,” she says,
“there’s a lot to see and be proud of.”