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Arts & Culture

SDSU's Downtown Gallery Debuts

John Baldessari's "Two Fish," just one of the works on display at SDSU's new art gallery.
SDSU Downtown Art Gallery
John Baldessari's "Two Fish," just one of the works on display at SDSU's new art gallery.

MCASD, MoPA, OMA…the local art scene is awash in acronyms, and this weekend, one more will enter the fray: SDSU. Seven years in the making, the university will finally debut its stand-alone gallery downtown, the first of its kind in the area.

Housed in the former SDG&E building on Kettner and Broadway, the project began at the hands of John Gordon, SDSU's former director of the department of art, design and art history, and is funded entirely on donations and grants - something made entirely possible by the fact that it's rent free.

You heard right - at a time when even established galleries in town are having trouble staying afloat, the new space's lofty 2,800-square-feet (roughly a city block) are leased gratis for 30 years, with a renewal option that "will probably work out to be 60," said Arthur Ollman, the current director of SDSU's art department.

Ollman said the deal was spurred by SDSU's first brush with downtown in 2003, when a makeshift gallery was set up for a year in the Gaslamp.

After the project ended, the non-profit City Centre Development Corporation kept the university in mind, eventually serving as a liason to Bosa Development Corporation, who wanted to develop the space into sleek city apartments.

Those apartments still exist, but with a unique ground-floor twist: a no-admission-required gallery that serves as a visual yearbook of some of the school's most eminent alumni, like famed conceptualist John Baldessari, modernist Andrea Zittel, and sculptor Deborah Butterfield, best known for her industrial equine aesthetic. Their work is part of its first exhibit, "Divergence," which will debut this weekend.

Why here? Ollman said the CCDC requires that, relative to the size of the property and its location, most new developments must dedicate a certain percentage of their space to the arts.

"What a lot of companies do is just plop down a big piece of public art," Ollman said. "Bosa decided that if they could cooperate with the CCDC, and the CCDC was interested in doing something with SDSU, instead of having a piece of art, why not have a living institution that changes continually?"

Ollman said the project's operating budget is $80,000 (peanuts, in gallery-speak), something made feasible by the fact that its associate director, Catherine Gleason, also serves on the faculty at SDSU. Other typical costs, such as maintainence and repairs, are tempered by the fact that the space is brand-new.

Ollman said future costs will most likely be acquired through donations and grants.

"I've lived in the non-profit world my entire career, and this is golden," he added.

Gleason said while "Divergence" stretches until January 2011, she's already in talks with the faculty advisory staff committee about what's next.

"We’ve already had conversations about ways to collaborate in the future," Gleason said, referring to the university's on-campus gallery. "Perhaps exhibitions at both places simultaneously…the two galleries feed off of each other, and they’re closely related."

"The school has a great department and faculty that are exceptionally talented in guiding their students from student life to working artists," she said. "A recent SDSU graduate, Lael Corbin, is included in the exhibition at the MCSAD Downtown right now."

Speaking of local prodigies, what of that other MFA program to the north?

"The day after the Union-Tribune (ran a story on us), I got an email from a friend in the art department at UCSD," said Ollman with a laugh. "It said congrats - we're incredibly jealous!"

"The university has a million things going on in San Diego, internships everywhere, projects everywhere," he added. "Where's the sign you’re doing it through SDSU? We’re not visible, this is going to be one of those places where we are."

“Divergence,” at the SDSU Downtown Gallery, opens to the public this Friday.