An “X” marks the new art spot in Long Beach.
On Saturday, the Art Exchange, or ARTX, a community art center first envisioned nearly 20 years ago, will finally open to the public. The nonprofit center, in a renovated downtown historical building at Third Avenue and Elm Street, includes a 3,000-square-foot exhibition and event gallery, plus four artist studios and a classroom.
ARTX’s grand reopening on Oct. 8 will feature a reception for the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, “The Best of Long Beach,” which includes photographs, paintings, drawings and sculptures by artists who live in or have ties to Long Beach.
“Best of Long Beach” doesn’t just refer to the artists and their art, however, said Jay Hong, ARTX’s interim director.
“It’s really being the best that we can be for Long Beach, which means a great art campus,” Hong said. “Think about all aspects of art: creating it, teaching it, learning it, showing it, selling it. We’re going to offer all of that ‘exchange’ in one space.”
The bright, airy new gallery, featuring modern furnishings along with décor that includes the 1925 building’s original concrete floors, brick walls and wooden window frames shaped like ocean waves, belies ARTX’s troubled history.
Through the years, ARTX supporters said, the project often appeared doomed because of funding or organizational problems. But the determination of a dedicated community of artists, government officials, entrepreneurs, art lovers and residents kept ARTX on the easel.
Steve Elicker, a current members of the nonprofit’s board, is one of ARTX’s co-founders.
The idea for ARTX, Elicker said, “came out of the designation of the East Village Arts District in the late ’90s, but there weren’t any available studios that were up to code.”
Elicker, a glass artist, had worked with artists in Laguna Beach.
“I saw firsthand the benefits for artists of making work and directly selling it to the public, with the public watching it being made,” he said.
A city task force was convened, Elicker said, to pursue the idea of an artists’ working and retail space based on the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Va., housed in an old munitions plant.
Initially, Elicker said, the money for the project was supposed to come from Redevelopment Agency (RDA) funds.
The center’s supporters followed the standard RDA protocol before the project could be built: land studies, roundtable discussions, community surveys, etc., that took many years.
But when the California Supreme Court upheld legislation that dissolved the state’s redevelopment agencies in 2012, ARTX’s backers lost all their funding.
“It was such a big blow, and pretty disheartening, but the need was still there, so we vowed to carry on,” Elicker said.
Supporters scaled back their original vision, offering programming at various city locations including a youth summer arts camp, adult art classes, gallery exhibitions, family art nights and temporary exhibits.
Gregory Navarro Pickens, another ARTX board member, joined the ARTX project about 15 years ago as a member of the East Village Association.
“As an art educator, I was very interested in seeing it thrive programmatically, because there’s such a deficit of arts programming in schools, especially in the lower grades,” said Navarro Pickens, an art teacher.
The original plans to build a community arts center and artists’ studios eventually got back on track, and in March 2016, Hong said, the renovation of ARTX’s current building began, with funding “cobbled together” from city and state grants along with private donations.
ARTX’s building has been renovated entirely on the inside with new electrical wiring and plumbing, LED lighting and bathrooms that are ADA-compliant. The Art Exchange also has a new roof, and meets current state building codes, Hong said.
Money is still needed to renovate the outside of the building, Hong said, and to refurbish a second-floor apartment that will become an artist’s residence.
ARTX will also earn money through artist and public membership fees, and rental fees from outside organizations that want to use the space for events.
All artwork on display during exhibitions will be for sale, with 100% of proceeds going to the artists.
The current resident artists using the four studios are photographer Russ Quackenbush, illustrator Brendan Sharkey, glass fusion artist Vivian Shimoyama, and jewelry/accessory makers Suzie Edwards and Aingeel Talley.
Hong, a retired businessman who is volunteering as interim director, gives extra credit to Mayor Robert Garcia and other politicians for keeping the project alive.
“It’s very easy to knock buildings like this down and sell the land for major retail and commercial projects to be built,” Hong said. “But to carve this out, and see how it adds to the fabric and culture of Long Beach, takes vision.”
ARTX’s grand reopening and reception for “The Best of Long Beach” exhibition, open to the public, will take place from 5:30 to 9 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 8, at 356 E. Third St.
“The Best of Long Beach” will be on display from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, or by appointment, through Oct. 23. For more information, visit www.artexchangelb.org.
Karen Lindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.