VALLEY WEEKEND : ART : Gallery Finds New Digs at Media City Center Mall : After more than a year at a temporary site, the exhibit space for local artists moves to another location.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dan Millman couldn't say no. The lease meant about $30,000 a month for the Media City Center mall. The ground-floor space--all 13,000 square feet of it--had been available for more than 18 months. It was Millman's job as the mall's general manager to find a tenant. He had to let the laser-tag company move in.

Even though it meant moving his art gallery out.

For almost a year Millman had run the City Center Gallery out of that space. He knew it was temporary. Eventually a business would want that enormous storefront with its blond-wood floors. All the same, he had let himself get used to having a noncommercial gallery--a "sanctuary," he once called it--at Media City Center.

A point of clarification: This was not a gallery for mall art . There were no watercolors to match your sofa, no badly framed posters, no iconographic Warhols. It was Millman's goal to bring work by contemporary local artists to the most popular of public spaces: the mall. But as the laser-tag deal closed, his sanctuary was fast becoming a war zone.

Within less than a month, Millman had figured out a way to build a new gallery. This time, he walked into the vice chairman's office and within 10 minutes was given the OK to spend $14,000 to construct the new art space on the first level.

Last week, the day before a show by Malibu painter Joseph Piasentin was to be installed, Millman strolled through the mall's hidden passages into the room that would be the gallery's second incarnation. The workers, running electricity to the new track lights, recognized their frequent guest.

There wasn't much to look at: empty white walls, an unpainted concrete floor, a drop-tile ceiling with no tiles. (It would've cost an additional $4,000 to lower the sprinklers below the tile.) But Millman could easily have been showing off the grand ballroom at Versailles. He's like that--contagiously enthusiastic--which helps explain why his boss gave him $14,000, how he got an artist friend to select the shows, and why Piasentin would hang his paintings in a mall.

The City Center Gallery has its roots at Topanga Plaza, where Millman got his first mall-management job in 1987. He hired Gerald Swigger, who teaches painting at Moorpark College, to design "shell barriers," the temporary walls that block off empty store space.

"This became an extension of that: Don't even put the barricade up. Clean up the space and display the art," Millman said.

The laser-tag space was perfect for that. A former Conran's Habitat furniture store, it had the clean, conservative ambience expected in a gallery. Millman contacted the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Autry Museum of Western Heritage to see if they wanted to use the space for retail and display while the mall sought a long-term lease. Neither accepted. "They saw the obstacles and not the opportunities," Millman said. "Hundreds of thousands of people walk by this space."

Starting in October 1994 he and Swigger organized shows by five groups of artists, including the Arroyo Arts Collective and MFA graduates from Cal State Long Beach. The response was big, if not always good. After the first show, a woman called Millman's office, very upset. She'd spent more than an hour in the gallery, she said, and nothing she saw qualified as art.

"What struck me is the time she spent, and that it evoked such a reaction. . . . That phone call was one of the greatest compliments I got on it--that she spent so much time in there," Millman said.

After the first gallery space was leased, Millman and Swigger scouted the mall looking for a comparable space. They found one 30 feet from the old gallery. It is one-fourth the size, but completely open to the mall on two sides.

Swigger said the loss of the larger space is double-edged: The shows will have to be smaller, but before they were limited to group art shows. "Individual artist would come in and throw up their hands. There was no way they could fill the space," he said.

Piasentin, who has taught drawing and painting at Pepperdine University for 17 years, will exhibit part of a series called "My Favorite and Foolish Things."

Though his work has been in galleries all over the city, most recently at Barnsdall Art Park, the artist was impressed with Millman's efforts to expose mall-goers--as opposed to museum-goers--to contemporary art.

His abstract paintings suit that goal; pieces such as "The Girl Next Door," "Midnight Rain," "Hometown" will challenge viewers. But, Piasentin said, they don't necessarily alienate them. "For people who might not know much about painting that is abstract, this maybe allows more accessibility," he said. "There are some references there that we can all share."

The economics student in Millman knows that he can't determine a cost-benefit analysis of the gallery. Does it bring in more customers? Maybe. Does it make customers come back? Could be. Does it differentiate his mall from the others that dot Los Angeles County? Perhaps. Certainly Millman wants to keep the gallery--but it may have to move again if another tenant wants that space near the escalator.

Millman is first and foremost the general manager of the mall, not the frustrated gallery owner, as Swigger suggested. "No," he said after laughing aloud. "I'm happy doing what I'm doing. . . . I've got it all right now. I've got them both."

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DETAILS

* WHAT: City Center Gallery.

* WHO: Exhibit by painter Joseph Piasentin.

* WHERE: First floor, Media City Center, 201 E. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank.

* WHEN: Open during all mall hours.

* HOW MUCH: Free.

* CALL: (818) 566-8617.

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