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Orlando Gallery Carves Out Its Niche on the Boulevard

Robert Gino and Philip Orlando have carved a niche in the Los Angeles art scene from unlikely origins. Their Orlando Gallery grew out of a dance studio the two men started more than 30 years ago in Encino. Today the gallery, which has been in Sherman Oaks for the last 11 years, features California contemporary and African art and has attracted such artists as photographers Jo Ann Challis, Bob Heineken, Judy Fiskin and painter Peter Alexander.

Gino, 53, and Orlando, 55, met at an Encino dance school in 1953, then decided to join forces and open the Orlando Dance Studio at Libbit Avenue and Ventura Boulevard. There they taught and performed various types of dance in a large space with huge, barren walls, which they covered with canvases painted by friends. The next thing they knew, visitors were bidding on the art.

“We at first had no intention of selling them, but they were popular with our clientele so we informed the artists, who said ‘go ahead,’ ” Gino said. “We simply put prices on them, and that’s how it started.”

The partners became more than part-time dealers in 1965 when they staged a show by Mexican painter Jose Clemente Orozco.

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“It was quite a coup on our part. We got that show over La Cienega, and they didn’t like that because we were a baby gallery,” Orlando said. The exhibit moved to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

By 1970 their commitment to art had started to overshadow their interest in dancing. Gino and Orlando had secured the works of a stable of young artists and had begun their collection of African art at a time when it wasn’t fashionable.

“Back in the ‘60s, we couldn’t give the African art away,” Orlando said.

Today, one of the three rooms in the Orlando Gallery is completely devoted to African art--carvings, sculpture and bronzes--some pieces dating back 150 years, Gino said.

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“African art is our main specialty,” Gino said. “It’s the highest form of art because its creators are self-taught artists, not schooled.”

Gino and Orlando say they are proud of their Valley location--despite the fact that the Los Angeles art scene tends to revolve around clusters of galleries in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and the La Cienega and La Brea areas.

“We’ve always been the odd man out,” said Orlando, who shows his own paintings at the gallery. “Other good galleries have started here, but they didn’t have the guts to stick it out.”

“I can’t begin to tell you how many people have said to us we’re misplaced here,” Gino added. “We’ve been told so many times we’re wasting our talent, but we’re Valleyites.”

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If they anticipated renewed interest in African art, Gino and Orlando say, it’s only one of several trends they were the first to showcase.

Said Orlando, “We also did concept video in the early ‘70s, had an Art Deco show before it became popular, and in our early days we showed women photographers. That was a no-no then.”

A spokesman for the Art Dealers Assn. of Southern California agrees that the Orlando gallery has been a trend-setter.

The gallery was a pioneer in performance art, said Orlando, who added that Rachel Rosenthal’s first performance piece in a gallery was done at their Encino space in the mid-'70s. “I knew the boys from living in the Valley,” Rosenthal said. “They approached me and said, ‘Hey, do something at our gallery.’ It was the right time to do it. It was the first work I had identified as performance art.”

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“I like thinking artists, ones who make strong statements,” said Gino, who makes the decisions on which artists to represent. “I’m not so concerned with decorativeness.”

“Their talent is in matchmaking the collectors with the artists,” said Don Lagerberg, an artist represented by the gallery for the past 24 years. “Their collectors are off the beaten path. Some are eccentrics. They’re not your standard art collectors.”

Woody Keith, 35, has been visiting the Orlando Gallery for only a year and a half, but he’s already purchased more than 50 pieces, from African sculpture to paintings.

“I like art that speaks to a certain depth of experience, whether horrifying or spiritual, something that digs into you,” said Keith, a writer and producer who lives in Sherman Oaks. “When I put this art from the Orlando into my house, it just exploded with life.”

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“They take on art for the power of the work itself,” said Edie Danieli-Ellis, an artist who showed at the Orlando from 1967 to 1975. “It’s aggressive art, not corporate.”

Danieli-Ellis, 51, who has a show slated there for January, 1990, says she returned to the gallery because she receives the same support from them today that she got when they first displayed her work.

“After being in the art world all my life, I’m getting tired of the snobbish, self-conscious attitudes I find. But they’re not concerned with how art dealers are supposed to act,” she said.

“I think some people have a tendency to think they’re kind of funky. Some people don’t like the fact Phil shows at his own gallery, but they do what they want to do.”

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Part of that independence means staying in the Valley.

Gino and Orlando have no plans to move, partly because they feel they fill a cultural void.

“People in the Valley are still ignorant of fine art,” Gino said. “If I took a poll here you’d be surprised how many people probably haven’t even been to the L.A. County Museum. It’d be shocking. You’d be stunned.

“I’m sorry to be blunt about it, but after seeing the slow development here over the last 30 years, there’s no other way to put it.

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“There’s still a need for more culture in the Valley,” Gino continued. “We have a ways to go here.”


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