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DOORS CLOSED AT TLK GALLERY

Times Staff Writer

The TLK Gallery in Costa Mesa, which for nearly three years has showcased new and sometimes controversial works by California artists, has closed its doors. Gallery owners Betty Turnbull, Phyllis Lutjeans and Victoria Kogan attribute the closing to high rent, advertising costs and insufficient sales to local residents. They also put much of the blame on Orange County residents who, they said, were “too unsophisticated” to support their enterprise.

Orange County residents “like to visit art, but they don’t want to leave their boats and things and buy art,” Turnbull said.

Though local residents might say they liked a piece at TLK, “then they will get on a plane and buy the same work in New York. It’s still an insecurity and a need for validation,” Turnbull added..

Lutjeans agreed: “So many people came through the door, and they would say, ‘Oh, how wonderful. Oh, I’m so glad you are there,’ and I would think, ‘Oh how wonderful, but buy something--buy a drawing even.’ ”.

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The way Kogan sees it, TLK folded because “we couldn’t afford to be in business and the overhead was too high. It’s a lot of business problems,” said Kogan, who handled TLK’s finances. " . . . Our vision was too large for our community.”

The gallery--named TLK after Turnbull, Lutjeans and Kogan--opened Sept. 1, 1982, in spacious quarters at South Coast Plaza Town Center, the office building complex next to the Noguchi Sculpture Garden. It shut its doors July 27. (The business is not bankrupt, Turnbull said, but the owners wished to avert additional losses.)

The partners--Turnbull and Lutjeans were formerly curators at the Newport Harbor Art Museum; Kogan has an art historian’s background--had hoped to build a successful gallery by eschewing easy-to-understand, popular art in favor of promoting works by emerging California artists.

“The premise of our gallery was to take those artists who were young, who we believed in and felt had a contribution to make and build support for the young southern California artist,” Lutjeans said. TLK showed the works of local artists such as painter Frank Dixon, Nick Vaugn who creates life-size figures wearing what Turnbull termed “malfunctional clothes,” and wood sculptor Barbara Spring.

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“Even in the gallery’s collection or ‘back room,’ our premise was not to show the (Frank) Stellas and the (David) Hockneys that all the galleries in L.A. have,” Turnbull said. “We were collecting vintage California work, early ‘40s and ‘50s to ‘70s, Bay Area painters like Diebenkorn, works now very much in demand but hard to find.”

If much of the art TLK showed was not easily accessible to the public, neither was the gallery. Foot traffic into the gallery was always “mediocre,” Turnbull said, and even those who wanted to find it often had to call for directions. The gallery was not visible from the street.

Another problem, the owners said, was the increasing rent. Although TLK paid significantly less rent than other South Coast Plaza tenants--Plaza owner Henry Segestrom is a friend of Turnbull and wanted an art gallery in the project--the rent was nevertheless pegged to go up each year and by July “seemed excessive,” according to Turnbull, who declined to give specifics.

South Coast Plaza property manager Stan Taeger, confirming the lower rental to TLK owners, said of the tenants: “They were, I guess, treated more favorably than anyone else in the project because we wanted the art.”

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The gallery did, however, have a small following. According to Turnbull, 10 people from Orange County who were new to collecting art bought from the gallery regularly, and some out of town art collectors frequently purchased TLK pieces. “One lady (an Orange County resident) would come with a very good eye and buy one piece out of every other show” at prices that ranged from $500 to $10,000 each,” Turnbull said.

But the sales were not enough to sustain the gallery, and at a meeting at Kogan’s house July 27, the partners decided to close. They were having difficulty drawing salaries from the gallery’s receipts, Turnbull said. (The partners declined to release specific figures on the gallery’s operating expenses.)

Since the closure, most artwork on hand has been returned to the artists, Turnbull said, and “just a few pieces, some etchings and sculptures remain. We’ll sell them,” she said.

Sadly, Turnbull added: “It’s just another casualty in the fight for survival of the arts in Orange County.”

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