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Finding Direction in Different Art Courses

Commentary: One parlor leaves Santa Ana, but two others stay on Main as city ponders enhanced district. Maybe artists should decide.


It was the best of sites, it was the worst of sites--depending on what kind of art you were purveying and what kind of expectations you had. The following is a brief tale of three alternative arts emporiums on Santa Ana's sleepy North Main Street, an area city planners and dreamers envision as part of an enhanced arts district.

In May, after weathering two years in an atmospheric black-walled shop, Dark's Art Parlor joined the ranks of Orange County galleries that gave up trying to find loyal local patrons. But the gallery devoted to grotesque and fantastic art didn't give up entirely. It just moved to a more spacious storefront at 5249 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood.

Dark's departure has left the Caged Chameleon Gallery and Koo's Arts Cafe as the only vestiges of an independent arts scene. Yet they nonetheless continue to celebrate their location for its freedom and funky possibilities.


Eric Smissen, co-owner of the Caged Chameleon, which specializes in the work of fledgling local artists, says he and partner Richard Espinachio are happy to stay put in the gracious 1930s building they first spotted on the way to Dark's' opening show.

"The building and space are really conducive to what we want to do," he says. "We've never really relied on walk-in traffic--we've built up a pretty good foundation of people who know where we are."

Their patrons, he says, range from middle-age pillars of the community to "15- and 16-year-olds looking for a scene."


Meanwhile, Dark's owners, Gomez Flores and his wife, Rochelle Phister (both use only their first names professionally), are happy to have left the street where nobody paid them much attention.

The number of drop-ins fell off dramatically after the first six months or so, Gomez says. Dark's most likely local fans--the youthful tattooed and pierced contingent--had "a Disneyland mentality," Gomez says. "Every time they came in, they wanted something more shocking than the last time."

Now smack in the center of the NoHo arts district and open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Dark's is at last drawing foot traffic. There's a used-book store next door, and next to that is a popular sushi restaurant.

"It's like starting over again," Gomez says. "The location is so much better. More people come in, and they have a better reception to the work. . . . There's always people on the street, and they feel safe," in contrast to pervasive fears of being on a Santa Ana thoroughfare at night.


Of course, the whole point of an arts district is to create the lure of a welcoming place to hang out. But it takes a major concentration of arts and other leisure activities--and a strong public awareness of their presence--to make the magic happen.

Though no arts center in Southern California could possibly compete with the glamour, power, fame and universal appeal of Hollywood's dream factory, it needs to have alluring ingredients that can't be found in quite the same mixture anywhere else.

It is this sort of inclusive vision that makes a recent plan for Santa Ana's 2nd Street arts district seem so plausible.

John R. Sheehan of Studio E Architects in San Diego has proposed a blend of artists' live-work spaces, a contemporary art museum, art galleries, movie and legitimate theaters, public spaces, cafes and related businesses--all concentrated in a distinctive downtown environment with a deeply rooted Latino culture. (It's unclear how existing local businesses--such as a neighborhood pool hall--would fit into the mix.)

Santa Ana's Community Development Agency takes a much larger view of the proposed arts district as an area stretching from 2nd Street to the Bowers Museum a mile away at Main and 20th streets.

Koo's--which later this month celebrates its second anniversary in the former site of a Chinese restaurant, Koo's Chop Suey--is open only at night, for music ranging from indie bands to jazz, as well as for poetry, films and concurrent art shows.

It's a shoestring operation, so pinched that it relies on an all-volunteer staff, doesn't distribute event flyers (normally a club's chief promotional tool) and sometimes can't even pay the electricity bill (a kindhearted fortuneteller next door twice allowed the cafe to use her power).

Co-founder Dennis Lluvy relies on volunteer staffing and has a wide-open booking and exhibiting policy. ("When we do our booking, it's not based on 'Are they good enough?' but 'Are they doing it for the right reasons?' ")

Lluvy, who contends that about 90% of Koo's patrons come from outside Santa Ana, says the staff revels in being "off by ourselves . . . with no one to set guidelines."

At first, the Caged Chameleon's Smissen was eager to be part of the arts-district project. But then he began worrying about what he calls "issues of control." He and Espinachio--who both work 40-hour-a-week jobs to support the gallery--didn't want anyone proposing what they should or shouldn't show. The slow workings of bureaucracy also turned them off.

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