Era Ending for Laguna’s Oldest Gallery

Gallerist Charlie Ferrazzi will close Esther Wells Collection at month's end.

The Esther Wells Collection, Laguna Beach’s oldest commercial gallery, will close on April 30. Financial issues are at the root of a closure that saddens longtime owner Charlie Ferrazzi, her cadre of 27 artists and art collectors who have come to regard the gallery as a vital part of Laguna Beach art history.

Ferrazzi announced the closure last Friday, a consequence of an impending 38 percent rent increase by her landlord Richard Challis, who requires more cash flow due to the expense of in-home care.

Challis, 90, who opened the town’s first commercial gallery in 1950, recently suffered a stroke. “Asking for higher rent under the circumstances is fair but, in this economy, I could not commit myself to such an increase,” said Ferrazzi, who has operated the gallery on her own since 2000. “Richard has not only been a very good landlord but a mentor.”

In 1950, with a loan from artist Al Dupont, Challis bought the property at Mountain and Coast Highway, and established the town’s first commercial art gallery, Laguna Studio Gallery, renamed Challis Galleries in 1966. His first show featured recently deceased Laguna artist Leonard Kaplan, an abstract expressionist. He developed it into a venue where one could view works by Ralph Tarzian (winner of last year’s Art Star award), the late Roger Kuntz and others who, forging successful careers, remained with the gallery for as long as 40 years.

“This is bad news,” lamented painter Brommer, 84, of Studio City. “I feel like a homeless person now.”

“It’s sad that one of the best galleries in Laguna Beach has to close,” said Tarzian, 78.  “We don’t have that many old time galleries left and Richard (and later Charlie) and I go back a while,” he said. “I have to get another gallery I can trust, and I am not looking forward to hauling sculpture around again.”

Brommer described the Esther Wells Collection as unique in its capacity to devote time, space, and attention to its artists.

When Challis retired in 1984, the gallery was run and renamed after Esther Wells, who also owned and operated Peppertree Western Art in Calabasas. She passed her own 20 years of experience to Ferrazzi, who had helped out at the gallery beginning in 1988. “I did whatever needed to be done, from mailing out checks to selling paintings,” she said.

When Wells died in 2000, Ferrazzi took over the gallery. “It was a natural segue since I already had on the job training,” she said.

Now Ferrazzi has her eyes on the future, planning to sell art on the Web. “Our website will stay up and I am keeping the same telephone number. Over time, a new way of doing business is going to evolve,” she said. “It is still an un-evolved concept but by moving on I am leaving the door open for new opportunities,” she said.

Cynthia Britain’s plein aire canvases were displayed at the gallery for the last five years, a relative newcomer. “I have a great relationship with Charlie and would work with her in any capacity. She took a lot of time to listen to artists and collectors and she is very honest,” she said.

Jacobus Baas, 65, will now show his paintings at the Pacific Edge Gallery. “Charlie’s closing was terrible news and another indication of the unfortunate economic downturn,” he said. Baas first signed on with Wells but remained with Ferrazzi while also showing his paintings at the Festival of Arts. He remains skeptical of the web as a sales tool for art. “I have a website but it never did much for me; people still prefer the personal touch,” he said.

Meanwhile Challis, who lives above the 2,600 square feet gallery, said the commercial space has not generated the $4,000 per month rent he seeks. Ferrazzi’s current contract calls for rental payments of 10 percent of gallery receipts as well as electricity costs, he said. “Charlie has been wonderful but she realized that she could no longer make it,” he said. “I was keeping her on when she made $100 one month and $10,000 another.”

The building lacks designated parking.

Ferrazzi, whose business style is hands-on and low-key, said “We have quality artists in many styles and mediums. I realize that art hits people in different ways and we never use high pressure to sell,” she said. “If people are comfortable, they’ll buy.”

The upcoming April 7 Art Walk and April 9 juried exhibition and sale by the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association are billed as the gallery’s “last hurrah.”

As to the immediate future, Ferrazzi expects she’ll get her laundry done in a timely manner, plans to take the same days off as her husband Paul and enjoy Laguna from the vantage point of a tourist.

“I will stay connected with the arts community as I have been since 1888,” she promised. “It will be interesting to see what happens next,” she said.





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  1. Michelle Smith

    My mom loved running this gallery and enjoyed the relationships she’s built with the artists, clients, and vendors. She has made a lot of friends out of many of them. The closing of the gallery is bitter sweet for me as well I believe for my sister. The Esther Wells Collection has been almost like another sister to us in a sense. We’ve been jealous at times of all the attention she’s gotten from mom over the years. She’s pretty much keep her open 7 days a week with very few breaks which means there has been family events she’s unfortunately missed. She has also been something that brings us together and has given my mom something to be proud of that she has worked very hard for. There have been many great artists in the gallery. People in the art community respect her. She’s been on the Art Walk board many times and they still call upon her for help and advice.

    The gallery has given my sister and I a lot as well, the ability to do a little growing ourselves by selling jewelry that we have made, inspiration to try new mediums and explore more creative sides. We have had the wonderful opportunity to get to know a sweet man named Richard over the years. It’s always been great to get the chance to talk to him. He makes you laugh. My daughter who is now 20 years old used to go down during the summers to help her grandma when she was a little kid also got to know this man and cherishes him just the same if not more. I remember sitting on the front lawn watching the sun go down with Esther’s family when she passed. Helping my mom with the shows and running the food and wine tables. Seeing all the new art that would come in and picking my favorites. Seeing Jerry and Georgia Brommer, they are such sweet and genuine people, joking with Baas and some of the other artists.

    I knew this day would come just not so soon. My mom truly does have a great attitude about this and is very optimistic. I am going to miss the gallery and am thankful for all the smiles she’s put on my mom’s face but to be honest I am excited to be able to spend more time with my mom…..

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