Saturday night was our first official art opening since Labor Day weekend. 125 days, wow. So much has changed since then. It was a good, consistent crowd all night and everyone got to see a great show. Thanks to Loren Philip for organizing a sweet selection of painters.
One thing on all of our minds since September was what would happen to the galleries in Chinatown after Greg Escalante. There have been "art world art" galleries on Chung King Road since China Art Objects opened their doors on January 14, 1999 - nineteen years now. Some have lasted for only a month or two, others have stayed a decade or more. It always seems tenuous - some people blithely squawk about some other era being a mythical high point and others cheer us on for keeping something (what exactly?) alive.
Greg's gallery was open almost exactly two years. His opening show was Labor Day Weekend 2015 and the gallery's final exhibit opened two years later. He died a week later. Giovanni Intra, one of the founders of China Art Objects, the first "art world art" gallery on Chung King Road, died of an accidental heroin overdose in December of 2002, a month shy of the gallery's three-year anniversary. So these things can come and go in what feels like an instant after seeming to be a permanent fixture. When they come, they have a momentum all their own. When they go, the impact differs - sometimes others shut their doors too, sometimes the next dealer is ready to push their way in and get up an exhibit.
The people who invest months and years of their lives into showing art, working at a gallery, they become fixtures in the neighborhood and then, poof, they are gone. Maybe it is a recession that wipes them off the map, or burnout, bad timing, some other misfortune, or in the case of more than a few of the galleries, even something better coming along and a move to a bigger space in a neighborhood closer to a wealthier clientele. These folks are central to the cultural life of the community and then... life goes on.
When I opened my gallery almost six years ago there was an old Chinese man who I would see watering a small planter every day. every single day. The succulents and greenery thrived. We never spoke until one day he was walking by a Tim Youd exhibit in the gallery and just lit up at the sight of an old typewriter, something from his world. His name was Gary and we chatted about typewriters in all their glory and the bygone days of typed letters in the mail. Gary's been dead about four years now. The planter is empty.
But a cataclysmic loss inevitably brings pause... "Is this it? Is Chinatown over?"... so many people said to me during my first few gallery openings "You're bringing Chinatown back to life!" that it started to sound like dancing on the graves of the places that had been there, each of them aspiring in their own vision, some dreaming of being the next Gagosian, others bandwagoning onto the scene, still others looking to make a buck and host a classy party or two in the process. All of these were of course caked onto over half a century of the Chinese American experience, starting with the need to for Chinatowns in the first place where the opportunities of the American Dream could only come when Chinese Americans separated themselves from most Americans. Their success and eventual transformation within the macrocosm led to the rental of some of the dumpier storefronts to Whitey McArtster, which led to a reliable enclave where fine art could thrive in an atmosphere free of tuition.
And so the rollercoaster - that grind of paying rent, funding projects, painting the walls, getting sick of Kung Pao chicken, sending out press releases and keeping some shred of commitment to a space in uninitiated conjunction with just a few others enough to appear, at times, as a community, a joint venture when all is running well and a gaggle of activity when left to our own devices - that rollercoaster dips and soars, on and on. The old theory was that all you needed for a gallery was a "Clean Well-Lit Space" but when you add in other galleries nearby, it can add to not only the quick acceptance of and interest in your exhibition space, but increase the reach and longevity of your curatorial program.
So Greg's tragic exit was just one more sad dive on the rollercoaster that is daily life in sustaining an "art world art" gallery neighborhood, this weird hybrid of retail mall, small museum, time capsule, and ego massage parlor. But Chinatown didn't end then. Tonight began the twentieth year of art world art in L.A.'s Chinatown. A great show, a great crowd, a great vibe. We all went out for Chinese food afterwards. Driving home I thought about the good times with Greg, almost four months gone. I turned on the radio. Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" was playing. Wish you were here, Greg, the next chapter in Chinatown looks great... wish you were here.