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Storefront Galleries

In some low-rent neighborhoods, art is a home-grown highlight.


In the spring of 1998, Jesus Sanchez decided that his neighborhood needed a permanent place for artists to exhibit their work. "How hard could it be?" he asked himself and opened the doors of Ojala Fine Arts & Crafts on Echo Park Avenue, a few blocks north of Sunset Boulevard. A few months later and a few miles to the southeast, some artists began renovating a space in Chinatown on a pedestrian-only alley called Chung King Road. Soon after, new galleries opened in both locations.

Now, 31/2 years later, the Chinatown galleries have become L.A.'s most talked-about art destination, the cluster of galleries in Echo Park is a less-publicized but burgeoning scene of its own, expanding the boundaries for contemporary art fans well beyond the Westside.

Economics is one thing that all these galleries have in common. Like artists, who are often drawn to locales with cheap rent, gallery owners pay attention to the price of real estate. Low overheads and minimal start-up costs allow adventuresome (and inexperienced) entrepreneurs to run entry-level operations on shoestring budgets.

But what really distinguishes this crop of galleries is how they're run. Although several are set up to operate in a manner similar to their more established counterparts in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, most have been started by artists and owners who also have day jobs. Less focused on turning a profit than on creating a lifestyle in which art plays an important role, nearly all of them negotiate innovative relationships between art and commerce. An atmosphere of freewheeling experimentation is often created. Part artist's studio, part social hangout and part retail outlet, many have the unpolished charm of ongoing projects and the laissez faire attitude of do-it-yourself ventures.

The art they exhibit includes all media, from intimate pencil drawings to complicated installations and one-night-only performances. In general, works are less expensive than those in established galleries, and this usually has less to do with their quality than with the fact that the artists are first-time exhibitors. Price is a function of previous sales.

Sometimes, however, shows are organized as favors to friends, and the quality of the work is less important than the social occasion. For viewers, much of the excitement resides in making discoveries, in seeing pieces by up-and-coming artists before they make it.

What follows is a selective survey of the most interesting venues. They can be visited in an afternoon, but be prepared: Not all of them keep regular hours.

Echo Park Avenue

Impressed by the vibe of the annual Echo Park Arts Festival and inspired by immigrant store owners, Sanchez opened Ojala Fine Arts & Crafts in May 1998. A commercial real estate reporter for the Los Angeles Times, he found a row of empty storefronts on Echo Park Avenue. As a volunteer at the festival, he met local artists and invited them to be in his first show, a crowded group exhibition. Since then, he has focused on monthly solo shows, including paintings by Richard Bruland, photographs by Karen Wolf and an installation by Donna Whitehead. All the works he shows are by artists who live or work in Echo Park, Silver Lake or Highland Park.

After 35 exhibitions, Sanchez's enthusiasm has not diminished. "It's exciting," he says, "but the glamour quotient is not high. My gallery is a shoebox. Once, when I put a red dot on the price list [indicating a work had sold] people applauded. I don't move in a stream of dealers. I want to make visitors as comfortable as possible."

Sanchez describes Ojala as "a weekend hobby." Its hours are Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons. He shares shifts with the exhibiting artist and a part-time assistant. "It may not make absolute financial sense," he says, "but I have two goals: to be a stepping stone for artists and to break even."

Next door, in September 1998, Robin Blackman and her husband, Merrick Morton, opened Fototeka, a photography gallery that features the work of emerging artists and prints from historical archives.

"We started on a whim," Blackman says. "I have a background in design, so I know when images look good. Merrick does still photography for the movie industry, so he knows the ins and outs of the medium." He is also a specialist reserve officer in the Los Angeles Police Department, a volunteer position that puts him behind the shutter at departmental ceremonies and in helicopters high above city streets, photographing locations where search warrants are served.

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