Situated at the corner of Ventura’s Main and California streets, the midpoint of Junipero Serra’s vista from City Hall down to the sea, the historic Erle Stanley Gardner building has never failed to impress. The storied edifice is a tangible reminder of another age, even as the community that sprung up around it, with Main Street as its most visible facet, meets its promising future.

It’s thus pleasing on many levels that the building’s lofty ground floor has been re-imagined as the Ventura gallery for Cal State University, Channel Islands’ art program. In an expression of the sort of alchemy that only occurs in the collision of such entirely disparate elements as yesterday and tomorrow, the gallery is a place where the very modern ethic of contemporary art meets the legacy of Ventura’s grand past, to stunning effect.

The inspired juxtaposition was the result of a meeting — both circumstantial and of the minds — between Jack Reilly, chair of CSUCI’s art program and Ventura’s Mark Hartley, owner of the landmark building. Demonstrating once again that necessity mothers invention, Reilly’s expression of the university’s desire for a Ventura gallery proved an able match for Hartley’s intention that the singular edifice host a special purpose. “I’m really particular about who goes into that space,” Hartley notes. “It’s the prime spot in Ventura, and it has to host a purpose that serves the community.”

It’s an intention that’s well-realized in this alliance — the high-profile real estate provides another deeply resonant beat in the promotion of Ventura’s admirable “new art city” moniker, extending the reach of the city’s public art ethic into the unique appeal of Main Street’s everyday promenade. “We love the visibility of the space,” notes Reilly. “People come downtown for dinner, or to see a movie, and afterwards they find us – we’re free, and interesting, and people can see something new.”

That exposure has provided an all too rare bridge for young artists, helping them to cross from the relatively closed environs of academia to the wide-open ethos of not only the public gallery, but the market as well. Reilly is excited to note that early sales figures for the new venture have been robust, a dynamic that has energized the works of some students beyond the dictates of a given assignment. “Learning it’s possible to sell a piece, it’s a new reality for them,” he said “for their work to be interacting with people and with the market.”

To help run the day-to-day and to lend a friendly face to the effort, Reilly tapped alums Rachel Luciana and Jacqui Goglia. “We try and make this a very friendly, accessible environment,” he notes, “so people feel free to not only visit us, but also to return — and it’s working; we have regulars who come back frequently.”

In a local art scene that in another age might have been defined by seascapes and two trees-style devotionals, the presence of a new contemporary gallery, especially such a visible, accessible one, has been hailed as most welcome. “So far, the pieces we’ve sold have been well out of the mainstream,” Reilly offers.  “People are demonstrating an interest in the edgy, challenging work.”

“For the everyday person,” Luciana adds, “If you wanted to see edgy, contemporary art, the choices until now have been very limited. So the idea that they can find this work just in strolling along Main Street is very exciting.” Goglia agrees: “The nice thing is that we’ll have a family come in, and everybody goes to a different piece — the mother might go to a figurative painting while the father goes to an abstract, and the kids find something else; it’s exciting that in one building, one location, there is something for everyone.”

“It’s a win/win for everybody, all the way around,” Hartley concludes, offering undeniable truth — from the artists to the public to the community to the university, this is one match that proves far greater than the sum of its parts.    Currently on exhibit at the CSUCI Ventura Gallery is “Summertime Blues,” a group show featuring nearly 100 pieces (painting, sculpture, photography and design) by CSUCI art students, alumni and faculty artists. Gallery hours: Tuesday through Thursday, noon-5 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon-9 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m. 21 California St., Ventura. 437-8570, www.art.csuci.edu/galleryventura.

jimscolari@yahoo.com