The Midpeninsula institution that’s withstood a major move, a recession and the pandemic looks to the future.
From borrowed exhibit space in a house to the bespoke walls of its own gallery, Palo Alto’s Gallery House has built a solid foundation in the Peninsula arts community.
Much as in an actual house, the residents – or members, in this case – may change over time, but the character and “good bones” of Gallery House remain. The cooperative gallery, founded in Palo Alto in 1958, is marking its 65th anniversary this month and will celebrate the occasion with a June 9 reception that also highlights its current show featuring works in a variety of media by the 30 artists who are members of the gallery.
A Palo Alto institution, Gallery House, just in the last two decades, has withstood the encroachment of online art sales, a major move across town, a recession and a pandemic. And throughout its history, each member has contributed in their own way to making Gallery House a home for art in Palo Alto.
Mixed-media artist Theresa Robinson has been a member since 1979.
“It had a feeling right from the start of being a real gallery – a center for art – but of course, we also wanted to appeal to people to buy art,” Robinson said. “There was a sense of quality and people who were really serious about what they were doing.”
The cooperative was co-founded by the late Edith Sommers and the late Estelle Grunewald, and as its name suggests, its first location was in a house. In its early days, the gallery counted among its patrons novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner and William Hewlett.
Robinson and clay artist Barbara Brown, who also joined in 1979, are the gallery’s longest serving members, and a number of others can count their years of membership in decades, though Gallery House has members who have joined more recently.
As press materials for the gallery’s 50th anniversary noted, not long after Brown joined, she launched the effort to host regular receptions at the gallery, which still continue to this day, very much in the gallery’s cooperative spirit.
In 2000, Gallery House moved from its longtime space on Ramona Street in downtown Palo Alto to its current space at 320 California Ave., Palo Alto. The gallery shares a building with Printers Cafe and Moods Wine Bar.
A pandemic pivot
A glance around the space instantly reveals art in a broad range of media: paintings, photographs, mixed-media art, sculpture, jewelry and ceramics, in both vibrant hues and striking monochromatic palettes. Sleek, minimalist ceramics share space with swirling wire sculptures and playful pieces that nod to folk art.
Due to the nature of its format, the gallery has always featured works in a variety of media, though Robinson noted that over time, there has been a move toward more abstract works.
“We’ve evolved at the same time with the basic truth of what we do without picking up on a trend,” Robinson said.
One major change that the gallery did make in response to the times was a renovation of the interior layout due to the pandemic.
“Our whole way of exhibiting has changed,” said Sydell Lewis, a painter and digital printmaker who has belonged to Gallery House since 2000.
The pandemic not only spurred a renovation that brought more display space to the gallery, but also brought a major shift in how members’ works are shown. Additional walls were installed to provide extra display space in the large area, and the gallery switched from showing members’ works all mixed together “salon style,” to a format in which each artist has their own dedicated space.
Early in the pandemic, the switch allowed for a staggered schedule for hanging art, to ensure that just a few people were in the gallery at any one time. Though the need for a socially distanced art-hanging has waned, Gallery House kept the new exhibit format.
“People like it (and) the artists like hanging like this. Because we each get our space, we can have quite a few pictures on the wall at any one time,” painter Trevlyn Williams said.
In it together
What hasn’t changed in its long lifetime is Gallery House’s co-op format and community spirit.
From paying the rent to reception-planning, steering the gallery as board members to developing marketing strategies, member artists run every element of the operation.
“I’ve just always found it to be a gallery space that works because we run the gallery, we make the decisions, which is a good and a bad thing, because it means responsibility, but it also means that it’s a shared responsibility as opposed to being in a gallery that’s owned by somebody else,” said Williams, who served as board chair from 2005 to 2008.
“The privately owned galleries take a bigger commission. We’re not looking to profit, as such, we’re just looking to maintain an operating budget. We can give more of the commission to the artists,” she added.
Members pay dues and a 30% commission on sales, which go toward rent and operational costs. They also are expected to share the work of running the gallery business, to volunteer, taking turns staffing the gallery, helping host receptions and other duties. Some members also take up posts that draw on professional areas of expertise outside of art, using knowledge of marketing to help with publicity, for example.
“People come to the gallery with different backgrounds. I’m a former chemist, we have a former Ph.D. biologist. And then we have lawyers. We have people who come in from other disciplines – they have always been artists, they’ve always loved to do this, but for some reason, this is their time. They bring in their backgrounds to help the gallery run, ” said Lewis, who served as the gallery’s chair from 2008 through 2014.
“I think everybody contributes in a way that they can,” Williams said.
A jury of peers
The gallery’s members hail from around the Bay Area and a few points beyond, including Monterey County. Membership is juried, so that artists interested in joining must apply and submit some of their pieces for consideration in a process that has two stages of judging.
“The gallery has a reputation for being difficult to get into. And I think if you look at the work, you’ll see,” Lewis said.
Though it’s a welcoming space for art, it’s not the place for beginners, Walker noted.
“We are picky about the artists having a degree of accomplishment. You need to be proficient in your medium, your production and also your presentation,” she said.
That’s not to say that artists who join are required to stay in that one specific lane – whether it’s subject matter or an entirely different medium. The gallery encourages members to explore different media or techniques.
“We allow people to try to develop into other areas that are of interest. So one of the reasons we want to have strong artists is because if they’re going to deviate, we want to make sure you’re in the right,” Lewis said.
Some artists who juried into the gallery with one medium are now working in something else entirely. If an artist is making a significant shift, they may be asked to “re-jury,” as Lewis who had juried in as a painter, was asked to do when she began working in digital printmaking.
Robinson, a Saratoga resident, said that when she joined, just as the co-op had passed its 20th anniversary, Gallery House had already made a name in the art community that went beyond the Peninsula. She said it was an art teacher at West Valley College who suggested she apply.
Her work has always focused on figures, but Robinson said that she has worked in a variety of media, including printmaking, watercolors, drawing and etching. But her work at Gallery House has come to highlight mixed-media works. For a while, she said, she was even repurposing found materials from friends making home renovations to create pieces.
Williams continues to focus on painting, but has shifted her subject matter from cultural objects and wildlife that reflected her South African homeland to landscapes that take inspiration from the Bay Area.
Part of the community
Experiencing art in person can be pretty different than seeing it online – an option that Gallery House offered during the lockdown era in the absence of people being able to come in person.
Lewis and Williams said that since then, visitors have been slow to return, which they attribute in part to several blocks of California Avenue (including the 300 block) continuing to be closed for outdoor dining. However, Lewis did note that she saw greater numbers come through the gallery during Silicon Valley Open Studios last month – at least 100 people in one afternoon.
Visitors’ presence is a necessary part of the equation that makes a special space like Gallery House work, from engaging with the artists, learning about their pieces, and yes, hopefully buying some, too.
“Art almost needs living people around it, you know, as an artist you need to have your work somewhere that people can actually see it and as an artist that feeds you,” Williams said. From behind the scenes, what seems to have always made it all work are the artists of Gallery House. As Williams said, the gallery’s longevity shows that “the model works.”
Lewis compared Gallery House to her experiences working with a commercial gallery. Though Gallery House’s artists also aim to sell works, there’s camaraderie and support – and a chance to forge meaningful connections with other artists and the public.
“I stayed here because not only I want to be part of the business and doing this, but it’s because I have friends here. We have a community, which if you’re in a commercial gallery, you don’t. You go there once in a while and you bring your work, you take your work, and occasionally you’ll have a reception but you don’t connect with people. Whereas here, we do have a community, and I think that’s really important.
As Robinson put it, “We are what we are: part of the community.”
Gallery House celebrates its 65th anniversary June 9, 5-7 p.m. at 320 S. California Ave., Palo Alto. The current exhibition, “On a Clear Day,” will be on view through June 25. For more information, visit galleryhouse.art.