Galleries stake out Downtown Eastside

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      Here’s a familiar scenario. Artists band together to open exhibition spaces in low-rent urban areas. Gentrification creeps in. Landlords raise rents. Studios disappear. Galleries collapse.

      Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is especially volatile, and artist-run centres such as Artspeak, Access, Centre A, Gallery Gachet, and the Helen Pitt Gallery, early stakeholders in and around the area, survive through dedicated boards and staff, energetic fundraising, and occasional grants. But what about the independent galleries, showing emerging artists and attempting commercial viability without subsidy? Here are three new or newish examples. They’re some of the best of the Downtown Eastside—and slightly beyond.

      Gallery Atsui

      602 East Hastings Street

      In an area where SROs, missions, and drop-in centres meet the quiet homes and gardens of Strathcona, the by-appointment-only Gallery Atsui has just made its impressive debut. Its professional appearance is a testament to the experience of its founders, artists Alex Grewal and Sascha Yamashita and writer-designer Todd Nickel. “I’ve got a background in commercial galleries and Alex has a background in artist-run centres,” Yamashita says. “We thought Todd would be a great third addition, having worked in other facets of the arts.”

      The gallery’s front window features a collaborative textwork by its artists, Kim Kennedy Austin, Steve Calbert, and Aaron Carpenter. Inside, the beautiful watercolour drawings, digital abstractions, and felt cutouts are well served by the polished appearance of the room. Immaculate white walls, glossy grey floors, and discrete track lighting all contrast with the raw appearance of many artist-run enterprises.

      Keeping expenses low was a significant factor in choosing the location, and in undertaking most of the renovations themselves. The three partners all have day jobs, and Grewal and Yamashita share the studio at the back of their rented space. “We’re a working studio-gallery space, we’re not a nonprofit organization,” says Yamashita. Grewal adds: “To go the nonprofit, artist-run centre route, there would be so many obstacles, like becoming a registered charity.”

      Their aim is to produce monthly exhibitions, do some community outreach, and make Atsui self-supporting through sales. “We would really love it to break even,” says Nickel modestly.

      Jeffrey Boone Gallery

      140–1 East Cordova Street

      The show that’s on at the Jeffrey Boone Gallery, negative photographs by Jamie Tolagson, reflects on the lost ideals of the hippie counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. The eloquent work also speaks to other belief systems that have come and gone.

      The metaphor of coming and going suits the location where Boone has planted his small but ambitious commercial gallery. Near the corner of Cordova and Carrall streets, the place is witness to a community experiencing immense—and controversial—change. Two doors down from Boone, binners and their carts are parked outside a methadone clinic. Half a block the other way, a high-end condo nears completion.

      “The area is in flux day to day and week to week,” Boone says. “It’s often said that here you’ll see crack pipes going in one direction and Louis Vuitton bags going in the other.”

      Something in that contradiction brought Boone to this spot in May 2007: the potential for low-cost experimentation, introducing new artists to the public without incurring huge debts. “Real-estate affordability was a key factor in the whole business,” Boone affirms. His desire to create a stable context for the artists he represents motivated him to buy rather than rent the 450-square-foot studio that houses his gallery. He also anticipated a growing market for art among new condo owners.

      LES Gallery

      1879 Powell Street

      The LES Gallery (its name is an acronym for Lower East Side) is set in a historic building at the corner of Powell and Victoria streets. Although many blocks from the Downtown Eastside proper, the area shares the sense of a neighbourhood in flux. The shops, studios, and galleries that line its faí§ade form a wedge of culture between railway tracks and a busy road bordered by small factories, warehouses, and autobody shops. “This is my first space and my first real venture into curating,” says LES’s director Lisa Giroday, whose background is in fashion styling. “For the first couple of years, we were pretty low pro. I was just getting a feel for what I was doing.”

      In 2005, when Giroday began organizing shows in the sunny storefront space, it was a functioning artists’ studio, shared by her friends. During infrequent exhibitions, they cleared away their gear and viewings were by appointment, she recalls. For the past two years, however, LES has been a dedicated gallery with an increasingly ambitious exhibition program.

      Currently on view are paintings by Haligonian Joey Haley, whose mysterious, untitled images evoke a ghostly, postapocalyptic world.

      Success is an evolving process. “I would love the gallery to sustain itself completely,” says Giroday, who makes ends meet through a day job. “I’d love to be able to take artists to [international art] fairs and work more in a commercial direction, while still maintaining the experimental aspect. Not wanting to verge on conservative—ever.”