3 women try to change the face of art in Laguna Beach

Carla Arzente recently moved her Laguna Beach gallery, saltfineart, just 1.2 miles north, next to two established, well-respected galleries, Sue Greenwood Fine Art and JoAnne Artman Gallery.

Together, the three women have created a powerhouse row of contemporary art on the coast highway, and the mutual respect and friendship among the three is apparent.

Sue summed up the situation this way:

"I'm very good friends with Carla, and Carla called me one morning and she's like, 'I gotta have coffee with you. I've got to make a change.' And I'm like, 'OK, you need to be our neighbor.' And it has created a really good synergy with our block."

I sat down with them to discuss their new arrangement, their joys and the state of the art industry in general.

Weekend: So why Laguna?

JoAnne: People come to Laguna Beach from all over the world to see the art. Although we're known for the plein air and beach-type scenes, what sets our galleries apart a little bit is we're more contemporary, so I think it actually works in our favor.

Sue: The majority of my clients own multiple homes. An average client of mine probably owns three homes. I do have one client who has seven homes. And each home has different art collections.

JoAnne: I have clients where I ship to Beirut to London to all parts of Europe, Australia. So it's kind of crazy how people come from all over the world to this community.

Sue: The Montage [luxury hotel] brings in some pretty heavy hitters. You never know who it's going to be.

JoAnne: It is fun when you Google them and you're like, oh my God.

Sue: We're like an Aspen but by the beach. You get these people and you're like, "Are you on 'Game of Thrones'?"

Carla: I consider them Lucky Strike extras. Like I'm really happy for the fat cats that I manage to get in, but you've got to live off the regular folks.

Weekend: Laguna now has three powerhouse galleries right next to each, all owned by women. Talk about that.

JoAnne: It's really exciting to have all of us on the block together. We all work hard, and I think whether you're male or female, it's the relationships with your clients, your artists and your hard work.

Carla: I feel honored to be on the block. I feel there's a tremendous amount of energy — a sort of kinetic, moving energy that happens between us that did not happen where I used to be. People are finding it as a destination. I think JoAnne is right. Nothing surpasses hard work. It's a labor of love. Anyone who thinks from the movies that this is a glamorous business has it all wrong.

Weekend: Is there any difference in this industry between galleries owned by women versus men?

Carla: I think women are really good at multitasking. I think that that is a gift we have — often from being mothers or something that is just genetically in us — that gives us the ability to juggle 10 different balls. And I think very often I find men like to do one thing and focus on that.

Sue: I think women are more relationship-driven. I think we're more nurturing. As far as curating, I feel like we're more expressive. I think sometimes men can be a little more calculating about what they're putting out there. I would say we're all very genuine.

Carla: That's an interesting point because I always feel like we're curating from the heart and not from the pocketbook. And that's sometimes a detriment, but it is what it is. Each place definitely has an essence of who lives inside of us.

JoAnne: I feel like, yes, we're all women, but really the core is how we value the artists and the work. We all want to succeed. So if all of us are succeeding, it makes everyone better.

Weekend: Is Laguna's long art history, particularly plein air, sometimes more of a hindrance, given that all of you favor contemporary art?

Sue: If you look at the museum, it's founded on plein air, but it's really interesting. In the L.A. Times recently … one of the top 10 exhibitions was at the Laguna Art Museum, and it was a minimalism show. So the whole thing is the museum is aggressively curating some pretty progressive shows.

JoAnne: I guess for me, it's about showcasing art that you're passionate about. That's what will garner the attention. You have to connect with the work. It's good to know what's going on around you and what's happening, but for me, I showcase art and artists that I personally have a connection with, that I'm passionate about.

Carla: I'll be honest. To survive this long is like keeping a marriage sexy. It's almost ... impossible. You can't go out and change who you are. You have to be that known element, but you've got to somehow keep it interesting — fresh at dinner, fresh in bed, fresh on a vacation. It's the same challenge. People want it to be amazing.

Weekend: I want to understand your target market a little more. Explain how you prioritize your marketing dollars or advertising budget.

JoAnne: I don't do any print advertising anymore. When I first opened, I spent a fortune on print advertising, and sad to say, I don't feel like that's the right format for me. We do a lot of social media and we do art fairs. I think social media has become more and more important with any business that you have. So people want to see your Instagram, your Twitter, your Facebook. They want to see that you're doing things, that you're making things happen. It creates an excitement and interest in the work and the gallery.

Sue: I do printing, but since I've been in business for 15 years, I do have clients who are say 55 to 75, so I have an older collector base.

Carla: We have lived off the door for seven years. I can genuinely tell you that that's what we've done. And for that I'm grateful, for the support in the community and the people who have come by. But I want to see what we can do past our door without actually having to pony up the $20,000 to do an art fair. I'm interested in seeing how playing with these different platforms might open us up to a broader audience. What intersections are there with other worlds that might bring things in?

Weekend: JoAnne, you recently opened a second location in New York. How do the markets compare?

JoAnne: When I was looking to try and open a second location, I was thinking of maybe L.A. or Palm Springs or La Jolla. But I love New York, and most of our collectors are from the East Coast, so I thought I'd throw it out to the universe. It's been exciting and scary and mind-boggling. It's also a community where people come from all over the world. So there are a lot of similarities to Laguna. But I will say that people on the East Coast or over in Europe, they've grown up with art. Art is a way of life with them. Art has been handed down for generations. It's just a different mindset. That's not to say California collectors don't feel the same, but it's a little bit different.

Weekend: I've always wondered how much the discriminating collector relies on you for advice.

Sue: They definitely rely on you — the whole nine yards: getting the painting to the house, getting it hung properly, getting it lit properly. They definitely put a lot of trust in you. And it turns into a long-term relationship.

JoAnne: I always tell my clients, buy what you love. That's the most important thing, something that speaks to you. Because you'll have your art for the rest of your life. You'll change couches, you'll change drapes, you'll change interiors. Your art is going to be a part of your life forever.

Carla: You would be shocked at how personal this business is. I feel that every sale is a very intense, personal collaboration. Selling art, I've always felt there is an element of falling in love. You cannot hurry it, you cannot push it. You can help them take the last step, but you can't create it. So it's very interesting to be in a business where you have fixed costs and bills and all this stuff to pay, and you're relying on magic.

Sue: It's very true. When someone comes into the gallery, it's like they're coming into your bedroom. Here, look what I have to show you. You get to work with them intimately and ask them questions about what they're looking for.

Weekend: Looking ahead to 2017, any significant changes or new trends on the horizon?

Sue: I have a lot of dealers that I'm friends with, and I have heard over and over that some collectors are feeling like there's almost too many art fairs out there. It's the same thing over and over.

JoAnne: To me, I don't really look to trends. Again, it's a gut feeling. To be successful, you have to go with your gut and what you're passionate about, because a trend may be something that you have no interest in.

Carla: Like JoAnne, I don't do trends at all. I am a dinosaur. I have an email and that's it. I don't know how to tweet, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, anything. But my gallery director is pretty savvy with this stuff. We did a lot of exploration of the art fairs, and they didn't work out for us. They have proliferated, and they're expensive. It's almost like a scam.

They say "you will get 25,000 people per day." But it's like the [Laguna] Art Walk. They came for the cheese and crackers and to walk around. To me what's interesting, we've been pulling a lot of emerging artists that we find scouring Instagram. What I'm interested in looking at this year is how do we help that movement. I think all of us want to look past our beautiful street. Sue sometimes does it with art fairs and a lot of collaborations with different nonprofits. JoAnne, of course, actually had the balls to open a place in New York, which is amazing.

JoAnne: Or I lost my mind.

Weekend: If you look across Orange County and Southern California, what excites you? Or has everything become a global market?

JoAnne: I think we're all looking to do the best art. It doesn't matter if it's in Southern California. And I hope Laguna is responsive and understands that these are some amazing artists that you may not be able to see anywhere else. I don't know that we're trying to be unique to Southern California.

Sue: When I think about the amount of clients that walk in from Chicago or Milwaukee, and when they come here, it puts them in a really good mood. The fact that we can do business year-round because of our weather is great.

Carla: I do agree with what Sue is saying, that people come here and it's beautiful, but for us it has been a challenge, because when we've gone to New York to different events, we've had a much easier time selling than to the local customer, to be honest. A lot of times they're more open-minded, or they're more interested in conceptual work. Sometimes we feel that we are doing an uphill battle because we're bringing artists that nobody knows here, but like JoAnne says, they're world-renowned. In terms of global art, Miami and New York, it's much easier to sell. It's not just Orange County. Literally these guys in Los Angeles, hardly anyone knows who they are.

Weekend: We've had some very good, progressive galleries close in Laguna. Do you think this market will ever embrace that type of art?

JoAnne: Part of it is to have the right location, the right connection and the passion.

Sue: You know up in Bergamot Station [in Santa Monica], it's pretty cool. You can pull in there and you can see everything. We're kind of starting to get that here because the museum is doing some really great curating.

Carla: I will say the mile-and-a-half move is like another universe, and I'm thrilled to be here, thrilled. But we used to do shows where we had a circus-themed show and … I had men on stilts during the opening. We did another show where we had a labyrinth, and we literally covered the entire gallery in cotton. I think I had fiber in my mouth for like two weeks and a weird metallic taste. And we sold one painting from that show. So you do have to moderate a bit. You aren't a museum, even though it's sometimes fun to curate like one. So you have to find something that's true to the voice you have within you. I do wish there was more support for the kind of edgier stuff.

JoAnne: That's why I have New York.

Carla: Other than New York, it's kind of a hard thing to find. Because most people who are open to conceptual, edgy kind of work don't want to pay anything for it.

Sue: Sometimes you have to feed that passion … but it may not have the sales potential.

JoAnne: You have to be cohesive and consistent, but at the same time you always have to be throwing something into the mix where people will have an element of discovery.

Weekend: Any advice for young artists?

Sue: I feel really honored to be involved with LCAD [Laguna College of Art and Design]. It's amazing what's happening down in our canyon. I got in an LCAD graduate and he has taken off like wildfire.

Carla: I think it's an exciting time for young artists because they have more tools available to them. They can show themselves on Instagram. They can partner up and take their work to the many different art fairs if they wanted to. But nothing is going to replace hard work. I think there's a lot that the galleries can still offer these artists in guidance and growing a body of work. This is a business that's still about people and relationships, and often they don't get that.

JoAnne: We do work with some young, new artists. They want to create and that's the most important thing, but I talk to them too about construction, materials, the business of art. There's so much more than the painting.

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DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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