Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 25, 2011

Outstanding Business: University Art

Downtown shop has been supporting local art for decades

by Karla Kane

Since 1948, University Art, this year's honoree in the outstanding-business category, has been a mainstay in the local business world. Providing all manner of art supplies and framing services to the area, it opened first in Palo Alto then expanded to locations in five other cities. But it's more than just a place to pick up paintbrushes; the family-owned shop has also taken an active role in the Palo Alto art scene.

Cornelia Pendleton, University Art's current CFO, has grown up with the business. Her mother, grandfather and aunt started University Art after World War II, deciding they wanted to run a store together.

"My grandfather enjoyed painting, and he wanted to do something with his daughters that he could participate in," she said. "They didn't know a lot about the business, but they learned by talking to people; they had a lot to learn about the art industry."

The store was originally located on University Avenue, as the name implies, but moved to its present location on Hamilton Avenue in 1964.

"We all had to participate as kids, working in the warehouse, doing inventory, working the cash register," Pendleton said of her siblings and cousins. She is now the only relative still actively working for the business (her mother and aunt, Laurie Cappiello and Ginny Biondi, are now retired). But her co-managers, Charlie Affrunti and Todd Ayers, have worked with her for decades and are now like family, she said, along with the rest of University Art's close-knit staff.

"I started at age 16. I've done everything from delivery to management, and I'm still here," said Affrunti, whose kids have also worked in the business. "It's always enjoyable."

University Art is beloved not only for its fine merchandise and customer service but for its support for local arts.

"A comfortable space in the core downtown, it is well-known for its generosity and genuine interest in our entire community," Tall Tree nominator Barbara Gross wrote of the retailer. University Art has donated prizes to local art contests, including the Weekly's Photo Contest and shows at the Palo Alto Art League, and supplies for the art projects made in Downtown Palo Alto's annual street festivals. University Art also holds its own children's art contest and a juried competition for adults.

"We have a really good relationship with the art organizations in our area," Pendleton said. Ayers served on the board of the Pacific Art League, while Pendleton served three terms on the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation Board. There she raised funds for the Art Center's renovation, as well as supporting such Art Center programs as Project Look! and Cultural Kaleidoscope, both of which provide art education to children.

"We've always felt being a part of the community is important. We've been fortunate and we want to pass that on," Affrunti said.

Though not immune to the recent economic downturn, University Art is hanging in there.

"It's been a rough three years, but we've been through enough ups and downs to know what we need to do," Pendleton said, adding that they cut back to around 65 employees from their prior 70 to 75.

"To be recognized for what we bring to the community is a terrific feeling. So many people have grown up with our store. They come in to visit, to get ideas. It's more than a place to just pick up some supplies," she said.

"It's an honor to be recognized for the successes that we've had. We're still in business because of the people we've met and the friends we've made along the way."

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