By John A. Barry
This overview of the Danville gallery scene over the years is not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustively researched. Rather, it is based primarily on my recollections and personal experience, supplemented with information and images from Bill Carmel.
Gallery: mid-15th century: alley or covered passage, narrow and partly open passage along a wall. From Old French gallery, “a long portico” (14th century.), from medieval Latin gallery, of unknown origin. Maybe a modification of galilee, “church porch”, which probably comes from Latin Galileo, “Galilee”, the northernmost region of Palestine. Church porches were sometimes so called, perhaps because they were at the end of the church. The meaning of “to build to house art” was first recorded in the 1590s.
According to the definition of the word, there are currently two art galleries in Danville… at least according to my interpretation. But many more have come and gone over the years.
Back to the 1980s and 1990s.
I moved from San Carlos to Danville in 1999. For several years before that, I started doing art projects with my young son. I then moved on to creating assemblies. Just a bubbler, I had fun. When I arrived in Danville, I decided to go from amateur to dilettante.
Prior to my arrival in the area, artist Vicky Richardson and others founded the first collective art gallery, the Danville Fine Art Gallery, in the Tri Valley area at the Blackhawk Mall. There have been several ownership changes over the years, and the affordable space has changed location with those changes. The original commercial Blackhawk Art Gallery co-existed with the Danville Fine Art Gallery until the late 1990s when a new owner terminated the lease.
After being in Danville for a while, I heard about the Danville-Alamo Cultural Alliance (DACA – too bad it’s not the Danville-Alamo Design Alliance), a cooperative of members with exhibition space at above the Village Theatre. (The theater currently has a small gallery in the lobby of the building.) In 2006, I paid the nominal membership fee to join DACA. For several years, I had been creating assemblages representing visual puns. Visions of my “visual verbiage” hanging on the walls danced in my head.
About a week after I arrived, the dance ended. DACA folded, in part because the town of Danville, which had donated the exhibition space to the group, evicted them. (I was hoping DACA’s demise had nothing to do with me joining the organization). Danville gave as the primary reason for DACA’s expulsion his failure to comply with American with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates. The only way to access the exhibition space was to climb a steep staircase.
Formerly staircase to DACA.
But some of the former DACA members and I thought another reason was the city’s desire to put offices on the second floor. However, the city allowed ex-DACans to use the old exhibition space for several weeks for informal meetings. A former member organized a poetry reading, for example. I frequented these “salons” and met local artists, some of whom belonged to the ADAS (Alamo-Danville Artists Society), a group that had existed for decades and still persists today.
I thought about joining ADAS but succeeded after attending a meeting, which I found rather self-approving. Then something happened that made me change my mind. A local developer donated the old Contra Costa Times building on Hart Avenue for use as gallery and studio space. The two-story structure featured approximately 2,000 square feet on each of its two floors. The agreement was that ADAS could use the building for six months, at which time the developer would raze it and begin construction of a commercial and residential complex.
ADAS members could exhibit/work in the gallery/studio space. So I joined ADAS. The business was dubbed the Pioneer Gallery, after the Valley Pioneer newspaper, housed in this building until 1988.
The building had seen better days. I called some of the dodgy wiring in the place a “code quagmire”. But the new residents moved in, contributing to buy paint and other supplies, and we began fixing the place, after moving in, in the fall of 2007. A board of directors quickly been elected, and the most numerically challenged member (me) becomes treasurer. Despite this poor choice, the Pioneer thrived. Artists create, exhibit and sell their works. Each month an individual artist was featured.
In addition to serving as an exhibition space, the first floor offered jam sessions on Thursday nights, hosted by member Stephen Sanfilippo, a drummer. Member Phil Hellsten painted a 16 x 16 foot depiction of St. Jude on the roof. The studios were divided into six rooms on the second floor: three large, one medium, two small. The large and medium rooms were shared by several artists.
Mainly splendid weather was spent by most. However, several bluenoses among the members raised the specter of censorship. One particularly Puritan member went so far as to glue fig leaves to parts of an artist’s painting – without first asking permission and risking damaging the work. In light of such theatrics, the group split into two camps: pro- and anti-censorship, with most on the opposite side.
Tension mounts as the six-month deadline increases to 18, after which the owner-developer gives the band an eviction notice. After a grand final pioneer party, ADAS left the gallery business. But not for long: the group struck a deal with the Blackhawk Mall and secured a free space. The Blackhawk Gallery still exists today and has been in this location for over ten years. The quality of work is everywhere.
Two of my studio mates in cramped quarters.
For several years after the Pioneer closed, the owner of the building continued to rent studio apartments on the second floor. This studio space was eventually reduced to three adjoining rooms, one large and two small. The two small rooms were rented out as offices, so five artists, including me, and their easels, tables, paintings, etc., were crammed into a room that was less than 400 square feet. After the owner failed to obtain a permit for his planned project, he sold the building. In 2013, the new owner evicted the remaining artists from the studio and converted the entire second floor into rental office space. He also covered Hellsten’s topside opus and other works with which he had scalloped the roof, with white sealing compound. There’s a reason Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. The building is currently occupied by a “canine spa” and other businesses.
Site of the old Pioneer Gallery.
Shortly after ADAS was given the boot of the Pioneer, an artist by the name of Kevin Milligan came to town. Milligan was an ambitious landscape painter with enough means to rent about 1,200 square feet on Hartz Avenue. He created a small gallery in the space and had grand visions of adding a wine bar. He encouraged Bill to create a sculpture for the portico of the building. But the city rejected Bill’s work, titled “The Hero.” No hero emerged to save Milligan’s gallery. This building now houses Bliss Danville.
Design by Bill for the Milligan Gallery.
After about a year, Milligan decamped to Carmel, where he opened another gallery, which is still in operation.
The aforementioned Stephen Sanfilippo then gave it a shot. The owner of the Pioneer Gallery building had space available in Danville’s Rose Garden shopping center and he allowed Sanfilippo to use the space as a gallery. Sanfilippo exhibited his work and that of other artists. But his gallery was short-lived. Like Milligan, he headed to Carmel, where he also operates a gallery. Sanfilippo’s former art venue is now occupied by a Subway franchise… from the gallery to the kitchen.
Next: Michael Tate. Tate, a sign painter who showed up one day from Sacramento and somehow defrauded (eh, “persuaded”) the owners of a commercial building on Railroad Avenue – a location that previously housed Pegasus Bicycle Works – to let him rent the cavernous space -free. Tate’s ultimately dissatisfied pitch to the landlords was that he would create an arts venue to draw traffic to the mall housing the gallery, for the benefit of the other tenants, two of which were Chow’s and La Boulanger – both now gone. (The building currently houses Joint Chiropractic and other businesses.) The Tate Gallery in London, it was not.
Tate made an effort, hosting exhibitions and concerts in the cavernous nearly 3,000-foot space. Many local artists including Bill Carmel and I have exhibited and volunteered at the “Tate Gallery”. But Tate lacked the resources to achieve what he started, and before long his gallery was gone, as was his short-lived successor, led by a gallery owner in Capitola. Tate had left town under cover of obscurity, having defrauded some artists who had exhibited there.
So what’s left on Galmory Lane? The Village Theater Gallery, operated by the Town of Danville, and ADAS’s Blackhawk Gallery.
The apparent moral of the story: to run a gallery – here, and probably anywhere – either requires adequate resources or a keen business sense. Or you have to find some patron. Or both.
Although Glamory Lane is full of many missing galleries, other options have been tried. One, the framing store, combines this activity with a “gallery”, usually selling prints and exhibiting works. In this category, locally, was Art on the Lane, long gone from East Prospect Lane.
Beyond the borders of Danville, the Lamorinda Art Council has managed to put together one of the best civic-minded galleries in the region. Just like the Richmond Art Center. These private 501 C-3s work with local city and county governments (City of Richmond and Friends of the Orinda Library).
Jennifer Perlmutter https://jenniferperlmuttergallery.com/ is an artist/gallerist in Lafayette who has been successful on her own so far. But she too was bitten by the virus of Carmel, leaving Lafayette and settling in this city. Perhaps Carmel’s fame as a vacation destination and magnet for luxury lifestyles offers galleries a better chance of commercial success.
But the cemetery of suburban galleries around here highlights some of the difficulties of creating and running a successful art exhibition/sale venue.