Arts institutions have been growing like weeds -- or steroid-fueled bodybuilders. All over the country, the boards and directors of high-end nonprofits have been doing everything possible to expand the square footage of their facilities, often hiring superstar architects to build fabulously photogenic venues.
New York's Storefront for Art and Architecture has never had the budget for such headline-grabbing expansion. So last year, when Joseph Grima became the third director of the venerable little gallery since it opened in 1982, he knew he couldn't undertake an expensive renovation. He would have to raise his institution's profile more unconventionally.
Now one result of that awareness has popped up in L.A. It is called, appropriately enough, Pop-Up Storefront -- Los Angeles.
For five weeks, until May 17, Storefront for Art and Architecture will operate this satellite space in a backroom of Paperchase Printing, a print shop in Hollywood with some room to spare because its digital printers take up less space than the ones they replaced.
On display will be "CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed," an exhibition of French photographer Frédéric Chaubin's images of Eastern Bloc buildings that went up in the 1970s and '80s -- the last two decades of the Cold War and the final years of the Soviet Union.
"We're testing the water," says Grima, 31. "Just putting our toes in. Who knows what this will lead to? We'd love to stick around."
Pop-Up Storefront is also a prototype for experiments elsewhere. Versions are planned for a furniture fair in Milan, Italy, later this month, for London in June and for Yokohama, Japan, in September.
The idea is to expand the influence of what Grima calls "a unique space, one of the first where the concept of merging art and architecture was addressed and explored by means of radically experimental shows on a shoestring budget."
"Built into Storefront's genetic code is the drive to reach beyond New York," he adds. "We are watched from a distance. When we were looking for a way to expand, we gambled on people wanting to see us in close-up.
"So rather than shipping shows to other venues, we will be organizing events. I feel that 'CCCP' will resonate with Los Angeles, with its history -- with the free-spirit, freethinking possibilities of technology influencing architecture."
Art meets commerce
What you might call the Storefront ethos took shape in the early '80s, when artist Kyong Park decided that ideas flourished best not in the rarefied realm of the ivory tower but when they came into contact with big-city street life.
The long, skinny space that Storefront now occupies on Kenmare Street in SoHo -- not much deeper than a department store display window -- was set up as a showroom for artists and architects to publicly present their ongoing projects. Most of those projects have involved research into the ways that modern design and life interact.
Storefront's roots, however, go back to the 1960s, when Pop art celebrated the links between fine art and commerce.
"Storefront was set up," Grima says, "to take over a retail format and to re-propose it in a cultural sphere." Rather than producing accessible objects that could be bought and sold, the gallery traffics in abstract ideas: provocative concepts, left-field perspectives and outside-the-box propositions, all of which are free for the taking.
In 1992, architect Steven Holl and artist Vito Acconci designed Storefront's facade, creating revolving panels that, when opened, transform its interior into a street-side courtyard and, when closed, function as a wall. The plan was for artist-and-architect teams to redo the facade every year. But that proved too costly. Instead, Holl and Acconci's facade has become the symbol and signature of Storefront.
With no air conditioning or heating system, the place is hardly upscale. Stan Allen, an architect and dean of Princeton University's School of Architecture, says, "It's funky. The space is almost unworkable. But they make it work."
As an institution, Grima says, "Storefront is well connected internationally and within New York." Many of the projects it presents live on in journals, magazines, books and lectures -- and online.
Grima describes the atmosphere as intellectual but nonacademic. The goal is "to provide an extra dimension" to what is happening around it. Sometimes this involves presenting exhibitions that play off shows at major museums. At others, it consists of staging competitions, screening oddball documentaries or simply looking at history from unexpected perspectives. More often than not, loopiness leads to insights -- and surprising discoveries.
Among Storefront's notable serious offerings have been shows by artists Dan Graham, Yves Klein and the collaborative team of Komar and Melamid; others by architects Neil Denari and Jean Nouvel (winner of this year's Pritzker Prize); and such historical exhibitions as "Architecture and Revolution in Cuba, 1959-69."
But its trademark playfulness has come through in idiosyncratic favorites such as "Clip, Stamp, Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines, 196X-197X," which chronicled an age when architects were less corporate and more humorous, and "The New York Bike-Share Project," which brought European by-the-hour bicycle renting to Manhattan.
More recently, Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic of the New York Times (and formerly of the Los Angeles Times) credits Grima with breathing new life into Storefront and putting it on his must-visit list. Last year, he reviewed two exhibitions there, more than at many institutions with much bigger budgets.
"It's a different sort of space," Ouroussoff says, one that seems oddly appropriate to the Information Age. "It is not about being in the center. Even when you visit the space on Kenmare, you don't feel as if you're at the center. The institution is a satellite, a satellite of culture."
The space has a full-time staff of four, and each exhibition gets a budget of $15,000 to $20,000.
What Grima looks for in exhibitions, he says, is "the level of energy, the passion for the subject" displayed by the organizers. "It is never just a job. Of course, we all work very hard. It is more about sharing. We want to open discussion."
Quest for originality
The British-born Grima's commitment to discipline-mixing ingenuity matches his own career background. Trained as an architect at the Architectural Assn. in London, he became not a practitioner but a magazine editor. Then, after working for three years at Domus magazine in Milan, he landed at Storefront.
Similarly, Chaubin, 48, is neither an architect nor an architectural historian. As editor of the French lifestyle magazine Citizen K, he was smitten by Eastern Bloc architecture and astonished that it was invisible in standard accounts. So for five years, he traveled through Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, documenting overlooked apartment blocks, office towers and the like, and helping reshape public understanding of 20th century architecture.
When Grima saw Chaubin's pictures, he says, his first thought was, "Oh, my God! A whole new chapter of architectural history."