As Susan Spiritus leans over her chi chi desk top of molded glass, she makes easy references to her love of photography, her dabbling in real estate, her husband the doctor and her daughter the actress. With so many attributes of culture and wealth, she hardly evokes the image of hardship normally associated with a pioneer.
Yet the word "pioneer" applies.
On Nov. 27, when she opened her Susan Spiritus Gallery for fine art photography in the Crystal Court annex of South Coast Plaza after moving from Newport Beach, she defied attitudinal barriers that often keep highbrow art galleries out of shopping malls. Spiritus, 43, said her grand plan is to eventually have photography galleries in five malls around the country.
"What she's doing isn't a trend, but I think it will be," said Martin Bressler, counsel to the Visual Artists and Galleries Assn., a New York-based group that gives legal advice to about 400 artists, photographers and gallery owners around the country. It is one of several gallery-related trade groups. "Some people think that galleries are there only for people who will go way out of their way to go to the art and they pigeonhole the suburban shopping mall as being a place for the bourgeoisie, the nouveau riche. It doesn't have to be that way."
The Laguna Art Museum, though not aiming at the art buyer, has also found mall tenancy a good way to attract a wider audience with its satellite gallery in South Coast Plaza, which opened in 1984 to see the main museum through a major expansion. Even with the main museum back in full swing, the South Coast Plaza satellite remains open.
"The suburbs are becoming cultural entities," Bressler said. "The people don't want to go downtown as much as they did, not even the rich," Bressler added. "Malls are the new cities. You've got to go where the people are."
That's what Susan Spiritus thinks. "I wanted to come to this mall because it is upscale," Spiritus said. "I think there are a lot of potential buyers out there--doctors and lawyers and other professionals who really like photography and people who can be educated--who will become our clients."
She plans to have about 100 photographs on display--with one wall devoted to exhibitions of the work by an individual photographer (currently Jeff Becom) and the rest of the space going to pieces by Ansel Adams, Yousuf Karsh, George Tice and others who are less well known.
Spiritus previously had two other galleries in Newport Beach, starting in 1976.
The new 1,200-square-foot gallery is on the third floor of the richly appointed Crystal Court, a virtual gold card shopper's Versailles.
One question facing Spiritus is whether mall customers stalking the perfect $600 pocketbook or the ideal pair of $300 loafers will be in the mood to buy an Ansel Adams photograph. She knows they'll come by to look. But will they buy ?
Although she would not discuss many economic details of her business, she said she needed to sell $500 worth of photography a day to make a profit. Last Thursday, she said she had sold six photographs, ranging from $250 to $500, in the six days since opening. The prices are typical of her inventory, although some pieces go for as much as $10,000. The total take was $2,700. "That may not sound like a lot," Spiritus said. "But the important thing to remember is that not one of those people had bought a photograph from me before."
Thursday afternoon, from 1:15 p.m. to 2:15 p.m., 20 people stopped by. A few bought some of the arty postcards and photography books she also sells, but none bought a framed photograph off the wall. Still, some browsers' enthusiasm showed there may well be a clientele out there for Spiritus.
Nanci Brounley, 48, the wife of a Laguna Niguel physician, wandered through the gallery, looking at length at picture after picture. She made small expressions of delight when she saw a piece she particularly liked.
"My husband will go crazy when he sees this gallery," she declared. She said her husband, David Brounley, is an increasingly obsessed photography buff.
Whispered Spiritus, as Brounley wandered around the gallery: "She fits my ideal profile of who I'm looking for exactly." Brounley said she would be back soon and would bring her husband.
Catherine Chamberlin, 33, a graphics designer from Irvine, also fit the profile. Chamberlin said she knew of the Spiritus Gallery's previous locations in Newport Beach, but had never managed to get to them because they were out of her way--but the mall was convenient.
Another browser was David Varon, 37, an architect from Redondo Beach who was shopping during a day off. He said he and his wife, Sheryl, started collecting art and photography recently, partly as an investment, partly for pleasure. He said they spent $4,000 at a benefit auction on an oil painting and several photographs.
"We're just starting on art," Varon said. "My wife collected antique dolls for a while and sold the collection for a considerable (profit). . . . I've been a serious student of art before, and I know quite a bit about it, so this interests me. I'll be back."
After Varon left, Spiritus was beaming. "You see, it can be done," she said.
"This is an experiment that can work."