The same audacity that prompted Peter Blake to run for Laguna Beach City Council last year inspired him to open an art gallery 25 years ago — with no money, no credit and no experience in the art world.
“It’s a dose of naive and maybe an overdose of confidence,” he said. “A nasty combination.”
Though his gallery doors opened in 1993, Blake marks its official beginning in 1994, when he held his first solo show. This Sunday, Blake, 55, will celebrate the quarter-century anniversary of his namesake gallery with a party from noon to 2 p.m.
In recent months, Blake has made more headlines for fiery comments at the council dais than he has for his work in the art world. During meetings, he often raises his voice when discussing issues such as the community organization Village Laguna, which he claims controls the local government.
While his comments have angered many people in town, including some clients, Blake said his politics haven’t affected his business in any tangible way.
“Those hippies [in Village Laguna] never bought anything from me,” he said.
Still, his two worlds are undeniably intertwined. Every day, people stroll in with a complaint about the city’s Design Review Board — which Blake has railed against — or a question about the City Council. At another heated council meeting last week, Blake lit into lawyers defending the local advocacy group Friends of the Canyon for stalling an artist work/live project from local sculptor and developer Louis Longi.
“It’s not a situation that’s helping my business,” he said of his place on the council. “I’m not like the local restaurant owner; the politician that everybody loves: ‘Let’s go hang out with Peter.’ ”
Local artist G. Ray Kerciu said he was surprised last year to hear that Blake was jumping into politics. Blake ran on a platform promising to crack down on bureaucracy and be tough on crime and received 4,881 votes — the most of any candidate.
“I didn’t think that he would really go through with it or he had a chance or it would happen,” Kerciu said. “But, now that it has happened, it’s a different voice than what the town has had for a number of years and we need representation from all sides.”
Blake’s first years as a gallery owner were nearly as turbulent as his first months as a politician.
To make rent, Blake said he promised the gallery landlord he would sign over his $2,112 monthly paycheck from Romeo Cucina, the Italian restaurant in Laguna Beach where he worked as general manager.
For nearly 3½ years, Blake worked a double life. He ran the gallery during the day — painting the walls and mopping the floors between lining up artists and building a clientele. At 5 p.m., he locked the doors and booked it across town to work the dinner shift.
Jorg Dubin, an artist who was appointed to the Planning Commission in January, exhibited at the Peter Blake Gallery’s first show. He was skeptical of putting his work in the hands of an inexperienced owner, but Blake’s persistence persuaded him, and he continued to show with the gallery for nearly two decades.
“He has a lot of perseverance and is a very tenacious person,” Dubin said. “When he sets his mind to something, he doesn’t look back.”
After several years at a location closer to the Laguna Art Museum, Blake moved his gallery to its current spot at 435 Ocean Ave. in 2008.
Whether it was the move, the tumult of the Great Recession or just the natural progression of his career, Blake said he felt stirrings to steer his gallery more toward West Coast minimalism — an art expression characterized by light and space, clean lines and simple shapes.
“Most people’s perception of Laguna is that it’s kind of a traditional, art-making place with lots of landscapes and seascapes and that kind of stuff,” Dubin said. “For him to take the deep dive into something that most people, who are viewers of art, they don’t necessarily understand ... I think that was pretty brave of him.”
Just as Blake committed wholly to the niche, the recession hit. The industry tanked. For years, Blake said, he and his now-wife Stephanie Bachiero lived on an annual income of $27,000.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me again — that I had spent every penny I had and now I had no money and I had this huge overhead,” Blake said. “How am I going to make this work? It was like being in the beginning again.”
They cut staff and resorted to mopping the floors and delivering paintings themselves.
Around that time, a grad student named Grant Wahlquist walked in off the street and asked Blake for an internship. A graduate of the Orange County School of the Arts, Wahlquist had identified Blake’s as “the only serious gallery in Orange County.”
“A gallery in a place like Laguna, particularly a gallery that’s showing challenging, museum-level work like Peter does, it’s mind-blowing that he’s been able to make that work,” said Wahlquist, who two years ago opened his own namesake gallery in Portland, Maine.
By the time the recession subsided and the art world regained its footing, Blake had established his gallery as a host for the West Coast minimalist tradition.
As for the gallery itself, Blake bought the property two months ago for $2.2 million — “again in recession mode,” he said. Now, he will continue his focus, but without too much politics getting in the way.
“This gallery deals with no social issues,” he said with a chuckle.