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Art galleries facing a landscape in flux

The past year proved to be a catalyst for change among many Laguna galleries.

Openings, closings and relocations peppered the town’s art landscape. A South African artist joined Russian and Iranian natives and several well-known Lagunans in opening galleries, but one South Coast Highway area experienced a spate of closures.

The hard luck hasn’t affected Shane Townley. He opened Townley Fine Art at 1294 South Coast Highway, Suite D, late last year — and said business has been brisk.

“It’s surpassed by tenfold what I expected,” he said. “It’s kind of cool to be sitting in here on a Monday afternoon and then have two people from Holland come in.”

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Townley’s opening reception on Jan. 12 was a packed house, with an international crowd in attendance. He also received visits from many of his clients from Gallery 104 in San Clemente, his other space.

Guests listened to a musician and enjoyed wine and hors d’oeuvres in between engaging a fresh-faced Townley in conversation — when he wasn’t busy filling out sales slips.

“Ever since I started painting in high school, I always wanted to be in Laguna Beach. When I opened my gallery in San Clemente, I wanted to work in Laguna Beach,” said Townley, also a Sawdust artist.

He is part owner of Cove Gallery here in Laguna, and has also joined galleries in Nashville and New York City.

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Townley has taken on a space with quite a recent history — Suite D has had high turnover in the past year.

Townley took over his new digs from Dustin Otterbach, who held the gallery for a few months after closing his first location further up Coast Highway. The space was previously occupied by Artman Studios.

Townley said that Otterbach, a friend who was born on the same day in the same year as Townley, has moved north to Venice to open a gallery there.

He still shows Otterbach’s art in his space, along with other guest artists.

Townley receives submittals from artists throughout the region, but only selects one per month to show, with a new artist reception on the second Friday of every month and a preview during Art Walk.

This month’s artist is Charlotte Burgmans, whose work was displayed downstairs in the gallery beside Otterbach’s now-trendy Custom Cuffs collection. The paintings were interspersed with bronze sculptures by Marie Pierre Philippe.

The other major opening in the neighborhood was the Old Pottery Place, a primary component of which is John and Rebecca Barber’s new Studio Arts Gallery. The collective features works by artists in a variety of media in an upscale atmosphere.

But for many, the inland side of So. Coast Highway in the mid-town area was especially turbulent, with several turnovers and closures.

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“People sometimes open with unrealistic ideas,” said Marion Cuddyer, owner of Marion Meyer Contemporary Art and a key player in the city’s First Thursdays Art Walk. “They think Laguna is a big art community, but overhead is consistent, not sales. You can’t expect to start selling immediately.”

She added that prospective owners should brainstorm for types of art that aren’t already saturated in Laguna.

“People just need to have a niche,” Cuddyer said.

Some who are successful find that personal reasons, such as aging or divorce, require them to close their doors.

J Kamin Fine Art moved from the south side of the Coast Highway to the north side, but closes this month, Cuddyer said.

Win Henstock Gallery, formerly at 550 So. Coast Highway, closed mid-year when Henstock relocated back to her former home in the Toronto area. She opened a new gallery there in June.

The short-lived Mystic East Arts Gallery, 761 So. Coast Highway, has become a jewelry store.

But the situation isn’t dire, Cuddyer said.

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“Since Art Walk started nine years ago, there have been anywhere from 38 to 43 galleries involved,” she said. “Now we’re at 42, which means we’re at the high end from what we always were.”

Masters of the Pacific, at 688 So. Coast Highway, was replaced by Amin Gallery. Owner Ebrahim Amin hails from Iran, and lived in Germany before coming to the U.S.

Len Wood’s Indian Territory at 305-D N. Coast Highway, opened a second location at 1590 So. Coast Highway, near Bluebird Canyon. The new location features art as well as museum pieces, which are the staple of the original location.

Vladimir Kush, a native of Russia, opened Kush Fine Art at 357 S. Coast Highway.

Cuddyer says that Kush also has locations in Hawaii and Las Vegas, but enjoys being in Laguna.

In North Laguna, Rohrer Fine Art at 346 No. Coast Highway, opened a dazzling new Asian arts gallery in September, building a Craftsman-style bungalow structure with an outdoor fireplace to welcome visitors. The owner has a similar space in Palm Springs.

The Trey Fleming Experience, 303 Broadway, opened the same month. Fleming is known for his book illustrations; his wife, who worked at Hoag Hospital, took on the role of gallery manager.

Azali replaced Forest Ave. Fine Art at 220 Forest Ave., which had only been open for about a year, Cuddyer said. The South African owners brought their regional art to Laguna.

Endangered Planet, an environmentally oriented art gallery, had its official opening at the beginning of 2006.

“They have a mission statement beyond just selling art,” Cuddyer said. “And Laguna is a great place to make missions like that work. It’s a collaboration that works pretty well.”

She explained that Laguna’s large collection of public art creates an atmosphere in which gallery owners feel comfortable in expanding beyond the basics of running a business.


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