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Despite Its Unlikely Location, Gallery Has Made an Impression

Valley Institute of Visual Art has thrived for four years in a Northridge strip mall. Now, it is moving to a more upscale site.

January 14, 2003|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

The white walls of Northridge's VIVA Gallery, inauspiciously located in a mini-mall near a Burger King, sparkle with paintings of Tuscan hill towns, Big Sur and other landscapes by artist Gerald Brommer.

VIVA -- the Valley Institute of Visual Art -- is celebrating its fourth anniversary with an overview of the work of the noted Studio City artist and teacher.

And, to some observers, the very fact of VIVA's survival constitutes a miracle on Reseda Boulevard.

"I don't think anybody thought we would last a year," said Betty Beam, a founder and VIVA's president.

The odds were against it. Founded by a coalition of five art organizations based in the San Fernando Valley, the gallery was started by volunteers on a modest budget -- $15,000 from the city's Cultural Affairs Department, matched by donations.

Four years later, the gallery not only survives, it is about to take the next step in its evolution -- moving to a more prestigious address on Ventura Boulevard, where it hopes to attract more patrons and attention.

The present site at 8516 Reseda Blvd. once housed a yogurt shop and a dollar store.

But the rent was reasonable, thanks to Valley arts patron Elizabeth Waldo, who with her family owns the mall.

And the local artists behind the project had the imagination to see what the space could become.

They laid carpet, created an intriguing interior maze with movable walls, and painted everything white to enhance the art.

Local artists were desperate for a place to show their work, the founders said.

The Burbank Creative Arts Center, Glendale's Brand Library and the handful of other respected venues nearby were routinely overbooked.

As a result, said Brommer, who often judges competitions: "I used to jury shows in bank foyers, restaurants and church basements. It was awful."

In 2000, independent consultants reported to the nonprofit James Irvine Foundation that Angeleno cultural organizations typically find it harder to raise money to run facilities than to build them.

VIVA's founders say they have kept the doors open by operating in a businesslike manner, despite the group's nonprofit status.

Organizations that hold shows at VIVA donate $2,400 a month, enough to cover the rent.

The Valley Watercolor Society, Collage Artists of America and other founding organizations contribute when they have shows.

VIVA also receives 20% from the sale of art it displays (50% is typical at commercial galleries).

And it collects $200 from each of 30 local artists whose work has been selected for what the gallery calls its salon.

"We guarantee them so many months on the wall, and they're featured on our Web site," Beam said.

The Brommer show, which continues through Jan. 31, is a major coup for the gallery, both in terms of its prestige and the money it will generate, VIVA's directors said.

Brommer, who celebrated his 76th birthday Wednesday, is lauded for his landscapes: "My background is in geography," said Brommer, who has bachelor's and master's degrees in the field.

He said he is happiest when he is outside observing and sketching the world and then painting it, often enriching the texture of his work with rice paper and other materials.

He switched from oils to watercolors in the early 1960s: "I saw a painting [a watercolor by Donald Teague, of men on a sailing ship] in a window in a gallery in Carmel. I stood outside in the rain for 15 minutes looking at it and getting soaked, and it changed my life ... I can still see that painting in my mind."

Brommer pooh-poohs the notion that watercolor is painting's most demanding medium but says that he and other watercolorists are happy to keep the flattering misconception alive: "We perpetuate the myth by not denying it."

According to Susan Kuss, an artist, writer and VIVA vice president, the organization knew from the outset that the current building eventually would be sold or demolished and began looking for a new location.

VIVA is now negotiating for 2,400 square feet on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana.

That's 600 feet less than it now has, and the rent will almost double, but there's also an upside, Kuss said.

The high-ceilinged new space, which VIVA hopes to renovate and move into by the spring, will be close to upscale restaurants, a movie complex and the well-regarded Orlando Gallery.

Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana isn't New York's SoHo or Tribeca or even Santa Monica's Bergamot Station, but VIVA's directors hope it will be a place where culturally curious people stroll while waiting for a movie or a table -- people who can't resist checking out what an art gallery has to offer.

"We expect more people to come through the door," VIVA officer Beverly Grossman said of the new location.

"It's an exciting area," Kuss said. "Now people will discover us."

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