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Lahaina Galleries leaves its namesake town after 44 years

Other galleries in Wailea, Big Isle, California to remain

Jim and Nancy Killett mimic bronze dancing sheep sculptures by Giuseppe Palumbo on Thursday morning while posing in the entry of their soon-to-close Lahaina Galleries location on Front Street. While the Lahaina location is closing, the Lahaina Galleries in the Shops at Wailea, Hawaii island and Newport Beach, Calif., will remain open. Jim Killett is wearing a shirt featuring a Guy Buffet painting. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

After 44 years in Lahaina town, the flagship store of a longtime art gallery is leaving the place where it all began.

“Our name is Lahaina Galleries, but we are not in Lahaina now,” chuckled owner Jim Killett, who goes down to the gallery every day from his home in Lahaina one mile away.

The store is closing Saturday because the landlords are taking back the space. However, Lahaina Galleries still will be open at the Shops at Wailea along with locations on Hawaii island and Newport Beach, Calif.

The Lahaina store, which has moved to four different locations in town over the years, plans to hold a celebration from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Friday. The gallery is currently offering specials on artwork.

Killett and his wife, Nancy, moved to Maui more than 40 years ago.

Jim and Nancy Killett chat with Lahaina Galleries fine art consultant Margaux Nelson in Lahaina on Thursday. Nelson is the daughter of Robert Lyn Nelson, a longtime Lahaina Galleries artist who has work prominently featured in the gallery.

Jim Killett worked as a civilian physical education teacher at American military bases for many years. While teaching in West Germany, he often watched “Hawaii Five-O,” and eventually the show and his previous visit to Honolulu as a pilot in the Marine Corps helped spawn the couple’s move to Maui, which was less crowded than Oahu.

Jim, who’s from Arkansas, and Nancy, a native of Tennessee, took their retirement money and came to Lahaina, where they hoped to buy a business. An ice cream parlor and an art gallery were for sale. After plans to buy the ice cream parlor fell through, they bought the gallery in 1976 along Lahainaluna Road where Lahaina Grill now sits.

Longtime existing businesses that began around the time of the gallery, include Kimo’s Maui and Dolphin Galleries.

Lahaina Galleries sold artwork for several hundred dollars, as well as puka shell necklaces. But over the years, without any art experience, the couple brought the gallery to a new level, catering especially to local artists.

Then came Robert Lyn Nelson.

The story goes that Jim suggested to Nelson that he paint New England whaling scenes because of Lahaina’s whaling history.

Nelson’s artwork took off as people bought his underwater and above-water portraits of whales. His work is still “very strong right now because of his skill and variety of work,” Killett said.

Also popular is French-American artist Guy Buffet. He depicts in color, sometimes humorously, chefs and waiters working.

And, local folks may remember Hisahi Otsuka paintings depicting Asian subjects, such as women in kimono and samurai.

Nelson still goes to the Lahaina gallery on Fridays for art night. Jim was one of the organizers for “Friday Night is Art Night in Lahaina,” which began about 30 years ago. He also credits Connie Sutherland, Fran Pearl and Joan McKelvey.

The store’s heyday around the late ’80s was “fueled by pushing the increase value of prints,” Killett said.

He explained that marketing by galleries at that time consisted of projecting to customers that the cost and value of prints would increase the following year.

So, if a customer bought a print today for $1,000, that same print could cost double next year.

“That type of marketing got out of hand,” Killett said. “We did as much as $14 million with eight galleries at one point.”

Things have changed now, with folks able to check prices and also able to buy art on the internet, Killett said.

He added the people are “mostly buying to fill a spot” in their home or business and not so much trying to collect prints by a particular artist anymore.

“We try to sell love affairs for people to enjoy for a lifetime,” he said.

The gallery still holds art events to bring in customers and meet the community. The events were part of the gallery’s marketing decades ago and have included bringing in artists from around the world.

Over the years, the Killetts were able to use their profits to benefit Lahaina town. They were instrumental in getting a fence built around Kamehameha III Elementary School. Nelson and Lahaina Galleries also donated $25,000 to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

But Jim said that the “biggest contribution” to the community is his wife’s 35-plus years of being the youth director at Lahaina Baptist Church.

“She’s helped a lot of kids and parents over the years, putting in a lot of hours,” he said.

The couple has two adult sons — Lee, who lives in Lahaina, and Beau, who lives in Oregon.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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