The “New Art City” label affixed to Ventura’s cultural sector a few years back promised a renaissance of artistic character once reserved only for bigger metropolises.
So far, growth has been apparent in that regard, with a spate of new galleries popping up, an enhanced walking art tour and a proposed artists’ housing development project more fully realized than ever before.
But since the recent closure of two contemporary art vendors in the region, the term “New Art City” suddenly becomes as ambiguous as the media offered at both galleries, whose proprietors claim is too inaccessible for a Ventura County public with preferences still leaning toward the mainstream art world.
The casualties, the Upfront Gallery in Ventura and the Nathan Larramendy Gallery in Ojai, were five-year-plus staples of the local modern art community — an almost nonexistent one, by and large, because the lack of contemporary art tastes was a prevailing factor in both galleries’ respective demises, according to their owners.
“Contemporary art is really a hard sell, especially for a small community like this,” says Carolyn Friend. “You do better in a larger place like L.A. or San Francisco.”
Friend, along with business partner Paul Benavidez, ran Upfront on Ventura’s South Laurel Street for over five years before jointly announcing on Aug. 30 the gallery’s abrupt closure, a week from the scheduled end of the studio’s latest exhibit, Ahokusai 1.2.3., a solo exhibition by Japanese artist Ichiro Irie.
According to Friend, she and Benavidez decided to travel down two divergent artistic paths — Friend as a filmmaker, Benavidez with varied art pursuits — regardless of any other concerns. But the underlying lack of a major audience could not be ignored by the pair. Representations of the visually familiar for local art enthusiasts, coastal seascapes and landscapes, dominate.
“Contemporary art is a difficult sell in many places,” she says. “Obviously, if you’re in New York, San Francisco or other places, you will get people who are more aesthetes, people who really appreciate contemporary art.
“Sometimes, conceptual art is difficult for people,” Friend continues. “It’s easier for them to look at a pretty picture than something more thought provoking, and think [about] what it is and what it means. That really is what is the difference.”
Larramendy echoed those sentiments when reflecting on the closure of his eponymous gallery on Signal Street in Ojai.
“One of the things lacking for me was regular clients coming in,” Larramendy says. “The more contemporary collector is not visiting Ojai.”
Those visitors, members of the tourist trade to the Ojai Valley, were the key audience the artist tried to attract.
“It’s important for collectors to get behind your exhibition,” he says, “but they’re really buying work that, to me, is not very interesting.”
The economy also comes into play when considering whether that oil-on-canvas, contemporarily styled or not, is worth the four-figure price tag to hang in one’s living room.
“The arts field or arena is not safe from economic downturns. It’s a major investment,” says Elena Brokaw, Ventura’s community services director, who was formerly manager of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department that heralded programs like ArtWalk for the Downtown events roster.
“Contemporary art challenges the viewer in many situations,” she says. “It’s wonderful, thought provoking, but it takes a very specific type of collector.”
“The economy is really bad right now, and I think there’s no hiding that,” says Sylvia White, a 30-year career art consultant and owner of the Sylvia White Gallery on Main Street in Ventura.
But it goes deeper than just pure economics. Generally speaking, starting up a gallery, or any commercial venture for that matter, proves successful when the client base is already there.
“Galleries go into business for a variety of reasons,” White says. “I think people open galleries with unrealistic expectations of what a gallery really is. A lot of times a business will open expecting the audience to find them, rather than doing the work to find their audience.”
But how does one find that audience in a region where the contemporary/modern arts demographic is simply not there?
To borrow from a famous baseball movie: If you teach them, the audience will come.
“Every good art dealer starts out as a good educator,” White says. “I don’t think you can open a gallery and expect to sell art without having educated an audience.”
The audience for a contemporary arts medium is there, according to White. It’s just a matter of finding them and teaching them that, all comparisons to big cities aside, Ventura is a good modern art outlet.
“The audience is there; you just have to get them out of the woodwork,” she says. “They just never thought they could find something like this in their backyard.”
“It’s not sales that make a gallery successful,” she adds. “It’s relationships.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean surviving as an art dealer is an easy thing.
“One of the things I had hoped to achieve locally was educating the audience here,” Larramendy says. “There’s definitely a supportive audience; there’s not a significant collector base. It was never part of my business plan to develop a collector base. But I expected it to be more.”
Will the collector base grow larger in the years to come? According to all artists in this story, as the population of Ventura County grows, coupled with a rising awareness of new art forms, then the answer is yes. How long it will take to get there is anyone’s guess.
“Maybe 20 years down the road, Ventura will be ready for contemporary art. They’re still finding their way, too, the whole art thing,” Friend says.
“In 10 years or five years, when the reputation of Ventura as a cultural destination improves, perhaps a gallery such as mine would be able to stay open,” Larramendy says. “I think they’re headed in the right direction for sure.”