Revamping NoHo, One Space at a Time
On a micro-budget, fueled by blood, sweat and tears,
two innovative women offset the effects
of the recession with a pioneering concept.
Written byPauline Adamek •
“We started simply with a traditional gallery in the NoHo Arts District. We didn’t want to be in Culver City or downtown, where everybody else was. We wanted to be here.”
The dark-haired young woman, McKenzie Alexander, is flashing an impish smile as we hang out at their current hub, Cella Gallery—a spacious, sundrenched art-filled space on Weddington Street. The walls are adorned by stunning images of graphic design and “concept art.” As the pixie-like Alexander explains, “We have really diverse tastes in art. That’s how we developed our reputation at Cella Gallery; people became interested to see what we were going to do next.”
But this gallery, which Alexander runs with Shannon Currie Holmes, is just the part of what these two dynamic, thirtysomething women are trying to do. By all accounts, when it comes to the arts and music scene in North Hollywood, they’re shaking things up.
In The Beginning
Capitalizing on their flair for showcasing up-and-coming artists by creating savvy and innovative marketing campaigns, Alexander and Holmes opened the first Cella Gallery in 2008. The airy, two-level space on Lankershim Boulevard was more than pictures hung on a rough brick wall. It became a venue for art exhibitions, music concerts, fashion events, artist’s salons and live performance art. With new exhibitions every six weeks, the women developed the careers of both established and emerging artists while handling marketing and sales for clients.
They are, you might say, big-picture women. As soon as they moved to town, the energetic duo jumped on the board of directors of the NoHo Business Improvement District. Their first task was to brand NoHo as a burgeoning art community by hanging multi-colored banners on street poles denoting the NoHo Arts District. Recalls Alexander, “It was an uphill battle. People didn’t know what NoHo was, or they had a bad connotation, such as, ‘It’s ghetto.’”
The vivacious women juggled their home lives (each has a young child) while building their gallery business. Life was good. But as Alexander and Holmes watched the economic downturn generate a wave of business closures, they realized they needed to do more to help their struggling community. Says Holmes, “A lot of the planned development came to an absolute halt.”
Launching The Pop-Up
In April 2009, these artistic ambassadors took action. They devised an original concept called Cella Gallery Satellites, forging a unique partnership between artists, curators, property owners and local communities.
The partners take over unused warehouse spaces and vacant shop fronts and make them clean, presentable and functional.
The next step is the launch of pop-up art galleries, installing temporary art displays into the empty spaces. The beautification of the space not only spruces up the neighborhood, it attracts new tenants while promoting emerging artists.
Cella Gallery Satellites are not simply storefronts. They’re complete gallery spaces that offer all of the services of a traditional gallery, such as publicity, promotion, marketing, public events and sales.
The owners at the gallery
Open to the public by appointment, the art exhibits stay until the commercial space is leased. Alexander points out, “Most of the spaces we go into have been sitting vacant for two to four years.” The success rate of the satellites is just shy of 100%, with all but one of those empty properties leasing within two months. More than once, their pop-up art shows attracted interested tenants for the venue within a single day.
Holmes maintains it’s similar to staging your house for a sale. “We invite people to come and see the space. And we don’t just invite art patrons. We also invite potential tenants–we work with commercial real estate agents and the landlords themselves to try to target who they want to occupy that space.”
Earlier this year, Alexander and Holmes staged their Scaling the Wall exhibition, which focused on large-scale graffiti art at a vast, 7,000-square-foot warehouse on Burbank Boulevard. In July they hosted an exhibit of miniature graffiti works, created and curated by artist Dersk One. The show gave street art lovers the opportunity to see a graffiti artist in action staging live painting events.
Currently there are four operating satellites: one in their own gallery space on Weddington Street and three others, also occupying vacant live/work lofts along the Weddington corridor.
A diverse crowd attends the opening party for an exhibit at the old Lankershim Blvd. location
Harder than it looks
Despite their successes, the concept is not always an easy sell. Confesses Holmes, “It’s been successful for every satellite that we’ve been in, yet it’s still an enormous challenge to convince landlords that they’re not losing money on a vacant property to invest even the smallest amount of money to do something about it.”
All these events are staged on the fly, so they’ve had to completely rethink their marketing approach. Says Holmes, “The biggest challenge is that we can never do promotion very far in advance. If you want to have previews in national art magazines, you have to do that six months beforehand.” Instead, they rely on networking via social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and email. Explains Alexander, “We can get a lot of people to an event very quickly. Our last opening became a block party, and it went viral. We had about 400 people.” That was all within a week of conceiving, staging and promoting the art event.
Their latest exhibition, entitled Grimm Tales, just opened in their main space and kicked off with a lively block party. Permeated by a dark, macabre theme, this group art show is inspired by the classic folktales of the Brothers Grimm.
The women are also behind the November launch of the Experience NoHo Arts Festival, on Saturday, November 12. The multi-discipline, day-long street event will offer free entertainment. Clearly excited, Alexander describes its evolution. “The Experience NoHo Festival will encompass everything that the NoHo Arts District has to offer. It’ll be live theatre, dance, music, art, fashion, food, film–everything!”