SAN DIEGO — From the outside, the space at 447 5th Ave. looks like an ordinary storefront barely touched by rehabilitation efforts in the area.
Despite the anonymity of its shopworn appearance, the site is one of the most important contemporary art exhibition spaces in San Diego. It is Installation Gallery, which, at the time of its founding a little over five years ago, was envisioned as a place that would give public exposure to art not seen elsewhere.
It has shown works by artists which by their nature could have been exhibited in traditional spaces but were not; for example, sculptures by Michael Johnson, paintings and drawings by Robert Smith and photographs by Robert Moxley--all San Diegans. But its specialty is the art form known as "installation," a three-dimensional, space-filling work that visitors enter and interact with as they would an environment. The space can remain sparely neutral or become elaborately filled. Mario Lara of San Diego constructed a row of ladderlike seats against one wall from floor to ceiling; Kharlene Boxenbaum of Los Angeles re-created a scene of urban demolition.
Hugh Davies, director of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, has said, "Installation Gallery plays an indispensable role in ensuring the growth and vitality of art in Southern California and particularly in San Diego. The excellent series of exhibitions and programs mounted by it during the past five years has served as a catalyst uniting artists and audience to explore new ideas in art. We are indeed fortunate to have such a successful alternative space to complete the art matrix of commercial galleries and art museums in San Diego."
Founded as an "alternative space," it was an alternative to the established visual arts institutions in town, which favored artists whose work had already been validated by the professional art system, including museums, dealers, critics and collectors.
Other cities throughout the United States already had such "alternative spaces" for the exhibition of works of art too difficult to show in traditional spaces because of the nature of their fabrication--too messy--or controversiality of their content--male nudity, for example. Financing of alternative spaces, whether public or private, was very modest. The reward for the artist was not sales but exposure and, especially, attention from the art critical press.
New York had led the way, but artist communities in other cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles on the West Coast, had quickly followed. San Diego was very slow. The superciliousness, if not hostility, of established institutions and the indifference of the press--conditions that had pertained in other communities as well--retarded the creation of alternative spaces in San Diego. The effort, as elsewhere, originated with artists themselves, assisted by informed and interested elements in the established art community. Lynn Schuette led the way in late 1980 with the creation of Sushi, a space for "performance art," a kind of multimedia art work.
1980 was a year of artistic ferment in San Diego. The La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art had just reopened after a period of substantial rebuilding and renovation, but it was far distant physically and spiritually from the community of artists that had coalesced in downtown San Diego. There, Jay Johnson and Patty Aande opened a gallery on 5th Avenue in what had been a pawn shop. A group of artists opened Gallery 552, named for its address on 5th Avenue. It was this short-lived cooperative gallery that was the immediate antecedent for Installation.
Artist Gary Ghirardi, who had helped create Gallery 552, and his wife, Carol Roskos, founded Installation "out of naive idealism," as he has said. It developed as he became a self-taught curator and director.
The first public event at 447 5th Ave., where the couple lived, was a wake in June, 1980, for senior street bard David Banks, a veteran beatnik from San Francisco and elsewhere, who Ghirardi acknowledges as Installation's spiritual father.
Ghirardi prepared the front two-thirds of what had been a store as an exhibition space and opened it to artists in the community. It was accessible to visitors sufficiently intrepid to venture into the developing, but still shabby and threatening, Gaslamp Quarter.
Installation opened with a group show in January, 1981. Ghirardi and Roskos financed it out-of- pocket for two years. In July, 1981, Dan Wasil, who had studied professional gallery design and management under gallery director Dennis Komac at San Diego State University, became a co-curator, alternating with Ghirardi in the selection of shows.
Wasil recollects the monthly crisis to pay the rent of $180. "We were definitely nonprofit, but not legally," he has commented of that early period.