By Andrea Serna, Arts and Culture Writer
Two high profile galleries in the San Pedro Arts District have been evicted by their landlords, a stinging reversal to a cultural blueprint that the creative community had toiled for years to realize.
TransVagrant@Warschaw Gallery, operated by Ron Linden, and Ben and Peggy Zask’s South Bay Contemporary Gallery received eviction notices for their gallery spaces after some recent events raised concern from the landlords.
A brazen theft precipitated the request to vacate the Warschaw Gallery. Neil Nagy’s Escondido, a 3 by 6-foot mixed media abstract piece worth $10,000, was taken off the wall on July 7 during the First Thursday Art Walk. Following more than 10 years of providing free gallery space to Linden, owner Morris Warschaw decided that the space is needed to generate income for his building on the corner of 6th St., and Pacific Ave.
That same month a goth-punk art show at the South Bay Contemporary at the Lofts made the owners of the Loft Gallery uneasy enough to eventually evict the gallery owners Ben and Peggy Zask.
San Pedro has earned its reputation as a haven for gifted artists. On occasion, art reviewers have noted the substantial presence of the gallery scene at the edge of Los Angeles.
Linden’s TransVagrant@WarschawGallery has been called the crowning achievement in the San Pedro art scene. His gallery has set the bar for exhibitions in San Pedro. Highly acclaimed artists from the greater Los Angeles area have exhibited their works at Warschaw while he’s curated the gallery.
“One Southern California art veteran, Ron Linden, is also curating in the South Bay,” stated Los Angeles art critic Mat Gleason in a statement for the online blog DiversionsLA. “His TransVagrant @ Warschaw Gallery in San Pedro has hosted exhibitions for almost a decade now, specializing in rigorous, almost scholarly shows, primarily of painting.”
Linden is grateful to his landlord, Morris Warschaw, who allowed him to exhibit art in the breezeway of the building.
“Thanks to Morris Warschaw for his foresight, imagination and willingness to convert an innocuous foyer into an eccentric, and often stunning, exhibition space serving San Pedro for more than a decade,” Linden wrote in an email announcement of the closure.
Happily, with the combined assistance of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Art Theft Department, KTLA and CBS news, and Facebook, and this newspaper’s coverage, the missing painting by Neil Nagy was returned.
Linden will go on curating under the banner of TransVagrant. He will continue to produce exhibitions and performances at various venues, including the Harbor College Fine Arts Gallery. Look for Jay McCafferty, On Being Blue, coming in September.
The final closing exhibition of Warschaw Gallery honors the painter of the infamous stolen art, Neil Nagy. The closing celebration of Neil Nagy: An Introspective, takes place on Aug. 27, from 4 to 7 p.m. at Gallery 478, 478 W. 7th St., and at TransVagrant@Warschaw Gallery. Nagy’s abstract figurative paintings, drawings and sculptures have been exhibited internationally. His work is highly prized by galleries, museums and even uneducated art thieves.
Linden’s space, as well as experimental gems like Cornelius Project, show the range of galleries in San Pedro — from the adventurous to the punk, Gleason wrote.
Ironically, it was this same experimental punk spirit that brought misfortune to South Bay Contemporary Gallery. South Bay Contemporary announced a final exhibit to open Sept. 1 in the Loft Space after attendees of the exhibit, Surf/Goth and Punk, the July show, left liquor bottles and footprints on the walls, impressions leftover from a spontaneous mosh pit.
The Loft Building’s owner, Jeff Crouthamel, has proven his commitment to the arts throughout the years by providing low-cost studios for highly regarded San Pedro artists. The tenants include nationally recognized neon artist Candice Gawne, and San Pedro treasure Muriel Olguin, but the show went beyond the limits of Crouthamel’s generosity. The gallery was asked to leave when the damage was discovered the next morning. Crouthamel decided to give them time to find a new gallery space and to have one final exhibit.
It will be hard to replace such an active gallery, which is known for its group shows, frequently showing 20 or 30 artists each month. The Sept. 1 art walk will mark the gallery’s final exhibit in the Loft, Post Waste. The art in the show is predominantly, if not solely, made from post-consumer waste. Gallery owners Peggy and Ben Zask hold on to plans to continue with the South Bay Contemporary project. The couple is seeking a new gallery space, preferably in San Pedro.
Which Direction for Downtown San Pedro?
Each month the popular First Thursday Art Walk brings 3,000 to 4,000 people into downtown San Pedro. But the question remains as to how to brand the district and how to keep artists working within the geographic area. Since the demise of the Community Redevelopment Agency, there has been little financial assistance available to galleries from either the Property Owners Business Improvement District or the Port of Los Angeles.
With many empty buildings, primarily on 6th Street, downtown has a deserted appearance during the 353 days of the year, when there isn’t an art walk. Artists have complained of tariffs added to rents by some property owners, which make it difficult to maintain studio space downtown.
A recent study published by Michael Gatanz analyzed occupancy in downtown San Pedro. His study concludes that 31 percent of the downtown frontage is empty. The study also states that 6th Street has five years of currently vacant inventory—a real estate measurement that loosely means that many units have gone unrented for a long time. Many of these spaces could be utilized by the arts, which have a proven track record of revitalizing depressed urban areas.
But landlords consistently ask for higher rents than the market will bear and often fail to negotiate rents even during recessionary times.
The San Pedro PBID seems to have a separate agenda for downtown, apart from creating an arts district. While its website proclaims the First Thursday Art Walk in a headline banner, no one truly claims ownership of the event, since the demise of the CRA sponsored Arts, Culture and Entertainment district ran out of funding and was converted into a nonprofit 501c (3) organization.
Nevertheless, on Thursday, Sept. 1, the organizers of L.A. Fleet Week, headed up by Arley Baker of the Port of Los Angeles and Jonathan Williams of the USS Iowa, plan to use the art walk to welcome the Navy in its inaugural L.A. Fleet Week that they predict will attract some 250,000 visitors to the waterfront.
In a meeting called by Yolanda Regalado of Sirens Coffee and Tea, and Michael Stearns of Studio 347, business owners and artists met with Lorena Parker, the executive director of PBID, to discuss a plan to create a fitting welcome for the Navy.
PBID has plans to close off sections of 6th and 7th streets from Mesa to Centre streets to automobile traffic, as well as provide ‘parklets’ to extend the sidewalk seating that evening. It will also allow artists to display their work outside galleries, which will help to remind visitors that, “Hey, there’s art here,” not just food trucks. Yet the inclusion of the artists in the district only happened after much of the Fleet Week events were already planned.
Meeting attendees raised concerns about the integrity of the arts district and the Art Walk. Residents and businesses are increasingly concerned about events such as Hot Import Nights, which promotes street racing, and advertises the event as a DJ party with ‘hot import babes.’ In 2015, noise from the event, placed in the middle of the arts district, shut down businesses such as the performance of Joan of Arc at Theatricum Elysium.
The Arts Culture and Entertainment District, recently renamed Waterfront Arts District, has chosen to finance and exhibit art on the streets, rather than studio art, through their project, Unexpected Pedro. In order to further this goal, a $30,000 mural grant was obtained from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and earmarked for a mural in the Lilyan Fiermin Walkway off of 6th St. An announcement is pending to name the winner, chosen from 46 submissions. The Waterfront District recently completed their first fundraising event and plan to continue funding artists to paint utility boxes along the streets of the downtown area, marking the perimeters of the district.
An arts district requires benefactors, and a few have stepped forward. The Marylyn and Chuck Klaus Arts Center, a gift to Marymount University opened last year on 6th Street in downtown San Pedro. A pop-up exhibition space on 6th St., has been provided for Angels Gate Cultural Center by Eric Eisenberg of The Renaissance Group, so they can participate in the monthly art walk. Property owner and art curator Robin Hinchliffe has committed to renting to only working artists in her studios on 5th and 7th streets. Her stable rents have allowed studio artists to thrive in those buildings.
Until recently, Hinchliffe curated Angel’s Ink Gallery in her building on 7th St., where she exhibited works on paper.
“It is the joy of bringing ideas to people visually. I could be seeing something that makes you feel wonderful or joyful, and you can’t even figure out why,” said Hinchliffe. “When that works it is wonderful.”
Hinchliffe regrettably closed her gem of a gallery, but it was quickly replaced by a gallery specializing in Latin American art, Menduiña Schneider Art Gallery.
All these changes take place within the context of the proposed $100 million Ports O’ Call revitalization project, as well as the recent request for proposals to operate the Warner Grand Theatre.
Unless you have a sponsor or a high-dollar grant to pay the bills, living in Los Angeles can be an economic roller coaster for a self-employed artist. A strong downtown San Pedro can be established by efforts to keep galleries and artists living and working in this eclectic urban center at the edge of Los Angeles.