The recent soft opening for Think Tank's new Little Tokyo headquarters was confined to a tiny storefront, walls lined with art, T-shirts, zines and other merchandise. Behind a curtain, work was underway on a larger space, for the kind of interactive shows in which the gallery specializes.
"We try to bring things to life," said co-owner John Kennamann, pointing to a widened hallway where neon artist Ginger Q's car installation will fit later this year, right next to a hospital film set (it came with the place) that will be used in an upcoming immersive theater show.
Roughly, that's an idea of how the new space will operate: A free gallery up front, a (mostly) ticketed experience in the back, with some crossover — and memberships starting at $250 a year.
Creative director Jacob Patterson, who co-founded the artist collective in 2010, acknowledges it's a shift from how they ran things at their 13,500-square-foot Santee Alley space, where built-out, immersive environments were always free.
"We feel it's almost like a micro theme park, more than an art show. Works artists produce will be available for viewing, but there will also be some interactive element," he said, likening it to a righteous selfie palace. "Our goal is to prove that this model can be done with legitimate content and social responsibility."
Calling inclusion "part of our ethos," he said there will always be a free day for every show. "I would not want my 10-year-old self to not be invited to a gallery because I can't afford $10."
Sponsored events are one thing, corporate-commissioned art another, and Think Tank has developed something of a niche as a whisperer between artist and sponsor.
"Brands are starting to figure out that the No. 1 most likely route to success for them is to make something the artists feel is genuine to their work," Patterson said. "I kinda think it's our role to educate them on how that process works. We can just delicately handle that conversation."
They're at ease in this dicey equilibrium, having learned through trial and error.
Back in the heyday of the Santee Alley warehouse, subtenants ("a legal gray area living situation") covered overhead and allowed Think Tank to experiment. "Seven years of that was a blessing. We were able to learn through having the freedom to make mistakes, learn how to do it in a way that's profitable and beneficial to artists," Patterson said.
Then the Ghost Ship Fire tragedy happened in 2016, and in the wake of public policy overhauls, Think Tank was forced to vacate and recalibrate. It began renting space to companies like Nickelodeon and Footlocker. "We realized we weren't making art anymore. The only art we made was offsite," Patterson said.
Recent examples include a performance series at the Santa Monica Pier, a pop-up at the Santa Anita Derby and "We Stole the Fire" — a monthlong gallery intervention on Melrose with a lofty manifesto, a roster of beloved street artists and a Molotov cocktail vending machine.
Over the years, Think Tank has amassed a network of corporate partners and expertise navigating the city's permitting process, which will be put to use in a consulting business.
DIY galleries looking to survive in L.A. may have to adapt, beyond subtenants, booze sponsorships and merch. Time will tell how Think Tank's model pans out in such a fickle environment, where scenes come and go, and usually don't have $250 memberships.
Will art kids pay for ticketed, enhanced experiences? Patterson said they'll test the model to see what sticks.
"That's how we started, and we're really excited to get back to that," he said. "We're booked up through August with shows that are so varied. I'm just kinda stoked to try out a bunch of stuff and see how it works — again."
Coming up next, the gallery's inaugural mega group show, "L.A. Is Trying to Kill Me," on Feb. 16; light artist Ginger Q's "Antibodies" on March 23; and, of course, something special for 4/20.
Think Tank, 516 E. Fourth St., Little Tokyo. thinktank.gallery/jointventure.
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