Art Galleries Adapt to Economy’s Pinch

John and Rebecca Barber intend to close Studio Arts Gallery next month.

After five years in what has become one of the city’s most vibrant commercial sections outside of downtown, the Studio Arts Gallery will close its doors on Sept. 30, a victim of a poor economy.

Owned and operated by one of Laguna’s best known artists, John Barber, and his wife Rebecca, the gallery, housed in the former Pottery Shack complex, focuses on art glass and multi-media works.

“The Barbers are wonderful tenants on the strength of their vision, which fits well into what we wanted to do with the Pottery Place,” said landlord Joe Hanauer, who redeveloped the historic corner but retained some of its defining character such as a rooftop menagerie.

“They are leaders and active participants in the community and before the economy dropped their vision was verified,” said Hanauer, who offered the Barbers what was described as favorable lease renewal terms. Even so, Rebecca Barber said the couple decided to give up the space due to diminished sales.

And while a stagnant economy also contributed to the April 30 closure of the town’s oldest gallery, the Esther Wells Collection owned by Charlie Ferrazzi, gallerists continue to have faith in Laguna’s allure for collectors by opening new outposts. Next month, for instance, Art Cube opens a second storefront in North Laguna’s gallery row.

In 2006, the Barbers’ initial vision for a gallery also fit what Hanauer envisioned for his first tenants. They wanted a gallery that focused on local artists with a special niche for blown glass works by John and others. It also included a patio glass blowing booth, a nod to the potter’s wheels that used to spin in the old Pottery Shack. But the demos stopped when they became little more than costly distractions, said Rebecca Barber.

Instead, the gallery sponsored patio concerts. During First Thursday’s Art Walk, gallery crawlers could count on being entertained by top local talent. Their “Inside Studio Art” artist lecture series earned a nomination as best new art program in 2009. And Rebecca Barber stepped up her involvement with First Thursday’s 40 member galleries, serving as its president for the last three years.

“It’s the economy that keeps people from buying,” said Rebecca Barber, whose inventory ranged from under $50 glass jewelry to translucent glass urns costing $1,200 and more. Throughout summer, John Barber continuously fires up his hot shop to resume glass blowing, restocking the gallery and a Sawdust Festival booth with richly hued tumblers, beer steins, and vases.

“John has been a top-selling artist and still we don’t have the money to continue operating without endangering our future retirement,” his wife said. Both are in their early 60s.

Although the couple had envisioned a gallery totally supportive of local artists, some who benefited from that showcase did not always reciprocate. “I’ve had artists here who, when they had a show in Palm Springs and did not have enough material, they would pull work from under us,” Rebecca Barber said.

Still, the gallery represented mostly locals, including photographer and Arts Commissioner Suzi Chauvel, who praised the Barbers’ enthusiasm, passion and empathy with artists. “Being part of that Studio Art family is a special part of my life. They know that artists create from a place of love and joy. For all of us, it’s not a business but a passion,” Chauvel said.

Part-time employee Diane DeBilzan supports the Barbers’ wish to reduce overhead by scaling back operations exclusively to their home studio and gallery. “The economy has been the biggest strike against them, but they will stay connected to the community,” she said.

Rebecca Barber expects to close shop by Sept. 30. The upcoming Art Walk on Sept. 1 will be Studio Art Gallery’s last. “People can stop into our studio and gallery in the canyon whenever the sign says open,” she said.

Meanwhile, gallerist Sanja Simidzija next month intends to open a second home for Art Cube contemporary artists at 356 N. Coast Highway, the third gallery iteration in what was originally Rohrer Fine Art. In a modern twist on an old-fashioned notion, she will live over the store – renting the spacious upstairs rooms and managing the street-level gallery space in partnership with Allan Simon, owner of the property built as an artist live-work studio.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to expand without having to invest cash and yet also gaining a mentor,” said Simidzija.

Simon, owner of four other commercial properties in Laguna Beach as well as the Laguna Beach Independent, hoped to rent the entire building, but was skeptical about finding a suitable tenant. “When Sanja expressed interest it solved a problem and also opened new possibilities,” he added. “Instead of paying rent, she puts in blood, sweat and tears,” he said.

For gallerists like Ferrazzi and now the Barbers, blood, sweat, tears and years proved not enough.


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