Before Blackbird Studios, 1551 S. Commerce St., opened in 2010, when the walls were still being painted and the first show was being hung, someone stencil painted “Blackbird Studios your days are numbered” in front of the door, like a graffiti doormat. The influential gallery will shut its doors this month for the last time after one last show-closing party.
“That was crazy. We weren’t even open yet, and we were getting tagged,” said gallery and workspace owner Gina Quaranto. “We never found out who did it — if it was meant as a joke; if someone actually had a beef with me. They actually did us a favor because we didn’t have a sign up yet, so for a while, it was the only way anyone knew where we were.”
Blackbird Studios has been a critical success, introducing or highlighting some of the most interesting up-and-coming artists in the valley and hosting shows by several nationally known artists. Quaranto brought in the shows that were frequently the most talked about but not always the ones with the most sales. It was one of the few independent spaces that had several conceptual shows or installations, which defy easy sales, but it managed to keep the doors open through sweat and gumption.
“In the years that we’ve been open, there have probably been 100 other galleries that have opened and closed,” Quaranto said. “All these people start with big goals and dreams, and they think they’re going to make big money and a name for themselves. They think owning a gallery is romantic and cool, but they don’t realize how much work it is and how hard it is.”
Over the years, Quaranto and volunteers made a name for the gallery by highlighting the work of emerging artists, hosting fundraising events for disaster relief and local charities, and going all-out for themed shows, including the gallery’s final offering, “The Art of Wes Anderson.” Many of the shows were a combination of group show and art installation with trompe l’oeil painting transforming the gallery into sets for Anderson’s films, the pages of a Dr. Seuss book or, for one memorable month, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”
“The Pee-wee show was absolutely one of my favorites,” said artist and gallery volunteer Lisa Dittrich, who participated in several group shows and had solo exhibitions in the space. “I made Chairy for that show. It all came together. We had a Pee-wee band, and a Pee-wee Herman impersonator showed up for the opening.”
Quaranto discovered and fostered many new and emerging artists. Several artists who first showed their work at Blackbird have gone on to become frequent exhibitors at other galleries around town and in California.
The gallery was sometimes a musical venue for performers who didn’t fit into the right niche for more traditional music venues. The music acts were never something Quaranto booked, but rather, the acts found her through the gallery’s website.
“Before the Velveteen Rabbit opened up, there really wasn’t a venue for low-key artsy music down here,” Quaranto said. “We had Jason Webley of The Dresden Dolls here and a bunch of other people who were on tour and couldn’t find a venue in town that worked better for them.”
The gallery had several challenges to overcome to last as long as it did. It also opened during the recession and struggled to get the word out beyond the relatively insular arts community. Its location was technically outside of the 18b Arts District on a street that was otherwise occupied by vacant shops and small businesses that didn’t cater to foot traffic. It was only a few blocks off of the beaten track, but those blocks are dark, scruffy and uninviting, particularly to visitors unfamiliar with the area. There were also issues with the homeless community, which often sleeps in the area. A decorative wall provided convenient shelter for the homeless, and Quaranto sometimes had to wake someone rather than step over him to get in the gallery.
Many times, official brochures, announcements and events regarding the downtown art scene left Blackbird Studios out. Quaranto tried to counter this isolation by becoming a member of several art and arts district boards and attending many of the city’s planning commission meetings and other meetings that sought to shape the future of downtown.
“Really, Gina’s held this place together through everything by working her butt off,” Dittrich said. “She worked extra jobs to pay the rent on this place. She’s in here all the time, especially right before a show, working long hours and doing everything. I think she just can’t afford to do it anymore. There’s only so many hours in a day.”
Quaranto confirmed that the gallery was constantly struggling financially while its shows received praise from nearly everyone who saw or wrote about them. She managed to keep the doors open as long as she did through the kindness of the part-owner and property manager she worked with, who allowed her to turn in rent late, knowing she would get it in eventually. As the gallery shuts its doors, she still owes rent, which she suspects she will be working months to catch up on.
“It’s all or nothing,” Quaranto said. “You have to do it all the way, or you just don’t do it. I feel like I have, and I can go to bed with a clear conscience knowing I’ve done everything I could for as long as I can.”
As a single mother, Quaranto’s son is in junior high school this year, and that was a factor in her decision to close the gallery. She also hopes to have the time to do a little more of her own art, which has been mostly on a back burner while she dealt with the gallery’s demands. She isn’t sure where she’ll show the new work.
“Maybe someplace will open up like Blackbird,” Quaranto said. “I’m sad for everyone who loves the gallery, but we had a good run. I guess our days were numbered, but it was a big number.”
*Editor’s note: The author of this article is one of the artists involved with the studio and has work in the current and final show.
— To reach East Valley View reporter F. Andrew Taylor, email email@example.com or call 702-380-4532.