The recent merger of a community-run, grassroots organization with an age-old, high-brow institution has left artists and supporters wondering whether they’ve lost a community center, or after decades of ups and downs, have finally gained one.
The idea to create the Art Exchange in the early 2000s was inspired by The Torpedo Factory Art Center in Virginia, an adaptive reuse project that transformed an old munitions plant into what would become a haven for the country’s largest collection of working artists and studios under one roof and a cultural destination that sees over half a million visitors annually, according to its website.
Once backed by the now-dissolved Redevelopment Agency, the Art Exchange was supposed to be an anchor of the East Village Arts District, a supporter of both local and regional artists, an economic catalyst, and a cultural and learning destination. However, after years of changing leadership, the disappearance of millions of RDA dollars and other funds and hurdles to forming a unified vision, the space has struggled with cementing its place in Long Beach’s creative fabric.
Recent and seemingly positive change in 2016 came in the form of renovating, restoring and updating the well-worn main gallery and studios into a more contemporary campus—now closer in design to art galleries you might see in SoHo New York with purposely exposed brick and stark white walls—than what visitors had come to expect as a somewhat neglected, yet still utilized, campus on the corner of Elm Avenue and 3rd Street.
Months later Ron Nelson, executive director of the Long Beach Museum of Art, joined the board on the recommendation of artist Gregory Pickens, one of the project’s earliest champions, along with Steve Elicker and Phil Appleby. The nonprofit soon merged with the museum’s foundation, a charitable organization, to be renamed LBMAx, whose operators—which now include museum staff—cling optimistically to the notion that it can still be successful.
“What we’ve done is ensured that there’s a continuity of the vision for the old Art Exchange that the museum will now carry on,” said Jay Hong, who has served as a board member of Art Exchange since 2016 and said six of the nine people of that board have now joined the museum foundation board.
The merger with the museum, he said, will help them achieve their vision much more quickly and with a higher standard of quality than if they were to continue going at it alone.
That vision includes more renovations, which will activate 2,000-square feet reserved for LBMAx operations to create a sense of place for those who work there, allowing them to “interact with the resident artists, with the community, develop programs that fit the downtown demographic, and as importantly, put on incredibly creative exhibits in the gallery that quite frankly we’ve struggled to do because we just didn’t have the resources,” Hong said.
One of these added resources is Nelson himself, who now serves as executive director of LBMAx. He has been the director of the museum for the past decade, and played a major part in bringing the mural festival POW! WOW! Long Beach to town, as well as the museum’s collaborative series, Vitality & Verve, which is known to draw record numbers of visitors to Long Beach and the museum.
“Ron is the conduit to having exhibits that we could never have conceived of or implemented before,” Hong said. “So not only does Ron have the vision, the relationships, the creativity to put on better and more frequent exhibits, but he’s got a whole staff that now works at the museum that he can leverage at LBMAx.”
Proving the importance of maintaining a space where not only artists and collectors, but students as well as marginalized segments of the local population can go to learn, reflect and contemplate the works of creative people and learn to make art themselves, may prove to be difficult even under new management.
Those who have seen the Art Exchange through some of its most trying times with little reward or compensation are justifiably skeptical of what has been, at its best, a well-intentioned but argued-over mission to a create a hub that supports artists and helps them foster their careers, while making Long Beach known to outsiders as a city that cares about art.
Nicolassa Galvez, who began working pro bono for the organization in 2012 and later took on the position of chief executive officer, grew ArtX’s budget from under $10,000 to $80,000 despite myriad obstacles and restrictions, Galvez said.
“My experience with ArtX is not the only story of sacrifice in its long history but submitting my resignation to the board in February 2016 was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make,” Galvez told the Post.
So how will the current board ensure that the formerly community-run art space, now under institutional leadership, will still include programming and offerings that are of use hyper-locally, yet relevant regionally? Hong pointed to two examples of the work LBMAx is already doing or will implement in the near future.
LBMAx Board Member Jay Hong, left, President of the Long Beach Museum of Art Foundation Board of Trustees Barbara Wilde, and LBMAx Executive Director Ron Nelson in Long Beach July 27, 2018. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova
One included the current exhibition, the first one curated under LBMAx management. Viewable in the main gallery, Praxis was curated by a Long Beach City College professor and features ceramic art by college students and local artists.
Another includes bringing 3rd and 4th graders from nearby elementary schools to the space to teach them about downtown’s ongoing developments and offer them art instruction.
Hong, who is also on the board of The LGBTQ Center of Long Beach, said they carve out private evenings for groups who utilize the services at the center to visit the gallery, check out the art and socialize.
“It means a lot to these kids and to these youth groups, and some of these parts of the community that we just don’t remember sometimes,” Hong said. “That’s what the new LBMAx wants to do. We’re going to use [the space] constructively, and it’s not just for wealthy people, it’s for everybody.”
Hely Omar Gonzalez, a painter who has been an LBMAx studio artist for a little over a year, said that the building’s location alone has played a big factor in encouraging his involvement in the local art scene. He shares the space with two other creatives, Shay Bredimus, a tattoo artist who has shown works at the museum, and Brendan Sharkey. All three were classmates at Laguna College of Art & Design.
“What we intend to do is to keep our art studios affordable, not only to allow artists to be resident artists, to have a storefront, but we want to give them the mentoring, the experience, better coaching so they have a better chance of succeeding or understanding all aspects of art and business,” Hong said.
While Hong said LBMAx keeps the rent for its studio spaces at 75 percent below market rate, Gonzalez said it’s affordable split three ways. Neither would share exact dollar amounts. Gonzalez commented that he’s grateful to be able to have the studio space, on top of paying for living expenses and student loans.
“As a member/resident artist, having access to the beautiful main gallery and the expertise of the staff are keynote resources that I didn’t have before, working from my home studio,” Gonzalez said. “The space itself is inspiring and working alongside other artists and creative professionals can help to motivate you when you need it most.”
“Personally, I see so much blue sky,” Nelson said. “There are so many artists in Long Beach that don’t have a place to show their work and I really love looking forward to being a part of their careers. Art changes lives. I see it every day.”
Asia Morris is a Long Beach native covering arts and culture for the Long Beach Post. You can reach her on Twitter and Instagram @theasiamorris and via email at [email protected]
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