There is a vital art scene in downtown Palo Alto, with organizations such as the Pacific Art League, Pace Gallery and The Bryant Street Gallery, all within blocks of each other. Now there is an addition to the cultural landscape, the Pamela Walsh Gallery, located in a historic Birge Clark building on Ramona Street.
The gallery had a formal opening on Nov. 16 with a group show of six artists but its genesis began years ago when Pamela Walsh decided to put down her paintbrush and become an art adviser.
Born in Massachusetts, Walsh attended Indiana University because of its prestigious art and music programs. She was a painting major but quickly discovered that the solitary, isolated lifestyle of the typical artist was not her cup of tea.
"I liked organizing modeling sessions and arranging exhibitions of my friends' work. I liked being in the studio with other people," she said.
After graduating, she made her way to California with little work experience and no connections.
"My first job was selling copiers in San Francisco," she said with a smile. As her boss told her, "if you can sell these, you can sell art." After just one year she felt she had the confidence to approach an art gallery for a job.
"I practically begged the owner of Franklin Bowles Gallery for a job and he took a chance on me." Fast forward 20 years, and Walsh was still with the gallery, moving up the ranks to director and overseeing multiple galleries and a staff of two dozen people. When the owner of the gallery decided to retire, Walsh seized the moment to leave ("the hardest thing I have ever done") in order to become an independent art adviser. She worked from her home for two years, while looking for a brick-and-mortar space to further grow her business. After a year-long search, a perfect space in a charming Spanish Colonial Style building became available and Walsh made her move.
Walsh, who exudes enthusiasm when talking about her new gallery, always knew that Palo Alto was the perfect venue for what she wants to do.
"Palo Alto is a little bit of a vortex, an energy vortex," she said. "There is a great innovative spirit here." Her new space, formerly a clothing store, is large, airy and has fantastic natural light.
"I love the fact that Birge Clark designed the whole block and that it has such historic appeal." She's also surrounded by some of Palo Alto's most well-established restaurants and bars. Art is displayed on the lower level gallery as well as the mezzanine upstairs that leads out onto a balcony overlooking Ramona Street.
But in an age when art can be purchased over the internet, why take the risk of setting up a new business in a city with sky-high rents?
"I am deeply passionate about what I do," Walsh said. Noting that she did not get into this business "to get rich quick," she went on to explain her belief in the fundamental need for art. "I have seen people transformed by art. And it's so great for an artist to be 'gotten.'"
And as for the argument that art is now available online, Walsh counters by saying, "There is nothing on your screen that can explain how you feel when you stand in front of a painting." She points to the large-scale work of Australian artist Craig Waddell. These life-sized botanical paintings are studies in texture, with thick impasto applied to canvas, creating a visual symphony of floral forms. Another example is Spanish artist Raul De La Torre, who adds delicate embroidery to the surface of his abstract paintings. Such detail cannot be discerned by looking at a digitized picture. Walsh feels that the "pendulum is moving and people have learned that life is very rich when we move away from our screens and experience things."
In addition to the contemporary artists and sculptors that she will be showing, Walsh has entered into an agreement with the estate of Bay Area figurative artist Nathan Oliveira. She is showing several of his watercolor pieces and plans, in the future, to hold a show of his rarely-seen sculpture.
"Sculpture is often something people come to later in their collecting journey," she noted. Her inaugural show, titled "Grand: The Significance of Scale," includes the bronze and stainless steel sculpture of San Francisco artist Matt Gil.
"Gil is doing a large-scale commission for a private company on Webster Street so it seemed quite natural to introduce his work to Palo Alto."
Other artists featured in the first exhibition include Marna Shopoff, whose brightly colored geometric abstractions explore the ideas of perception, place identity and visual memory. In contrast, the black-and-white portraits of Armenian artist Tigran Tsitoghdzyan are notable for their hyper-realism. Walsh anticipates that she will have a combination of both solo shows of contemporary artists and group exhibitions.
"People who love art and appreciate art have to keep pushing it forward."
Fully aware that the easier course of action might have been to continue to advise and sell art from her home, Walsh commented that "you don't build community if you don't have a space." She knows opening a gallery is a risky business venture but also an opportunity to fully explore her passion for bringing art and people together.
"In a community like Palo Alto, where there are educated and creative people, what I want to tell them is that they need art. I am sure of it."
Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at [email protected]
What: Pamela Walsh Gallery.
Where: 540 Ramona St., Palo Alto.
When: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.