Laguna's oldest gallery to close

At the end of the month, Laguna Beach will say farewell to its oldest art gallery, the Esther Wells Collection.

Formerly the Laguna Studio Gallery, opened in 1950, director Charlie Ferrazi has announced that on April 30, she will close her doors for good.

She cites increased rent as the reason for the gallery's departure from 1390 S. Coast Hwy.

Ferrazi has been running the gallery since 2000, taking over for Esther Wells. Richard Challis, the founder of the Laguna Studio Gallery, later Challis Galleries, sold the gallery to Wells in 1984 upon his retirement.

Challis still owns the property; Ferrazi is his tenant.

Ferrazi has said that Challis increased the rent by 38% due to his medical condition. Challis, 90, recently had a stroke and needs to tend to increased medical expenses.

"We're still friends. It's a matter of the situation," she said. "He needs income to help with the in-home care. This is a source of income for him."

Challis agreed that his costs have risen, but the rent he said, has not. It's a matter of enforcement, the former gallery owner said.

"It's not an increase at all. I allowed Ferrazi to stay in the gallery by paying 10% of sales," he said. "I was doing her an enormous favor."

Some months Ferrazi paid $100 for the 2,600-square-foot space, Challis said, which he values at about $4,000 a month on the open market.

"It was utterly impossible to continue with the arrangement. Charlie realizes that," he said. "Unfortunately it didn't have enough sales and support from the area."

Challis is sympathetic and said the predicament speaks volumes for the city, which has a number of galleries that he believes are in a similar situation.

"I don't think many galleries in town are making a profit at all," he said. "There are always people who have money who can afford the prices, but they are few and far between. They are not the average person that comes to Laguna to visit the art shows."

Having to say goodbye to the historical space will not be easy for him either, he said.

"It's very bittersweet. I think it's bittersweet for the whole world," he said.

As for Ferrazi, she's looking forward to the future.

"I'm focusing on the positive," she said. "I've been on the Art Walk all these years, but I've never gone on an Art Walk. It would be nice to see it from the other side."

Ferrazi does think the gallery will be missed.

"Every time a gallery closes — each has its own personality — that little piece is gone," she said.

On Thursday, the Esther Wells Collection participated in its last Art Walk. On Saturday, it will begin its "Best of Plein Air" show, which will run through April 28, two days before their closure.

Although the storefront will be gone, the website and phone number will still be working, Ferrazi said. She doesn't know what the future is for Esther Wells Collection, she said, but she's hopeful.

For more information, visit or call (949) 494-2497.

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