Head out to Gallery 1988 when either one of its Melrose Avenue outposts is hosting a pop culture-centric, group show opening and you'll see a line. The line will be long. Sometimes there will people who have been holding their spots for hours.
Once in a while, you might meet someone who camped out. That's what happened in late August when “The Official Edgar Wright Art Show” opened at Gallery 1988 West. While this particular show coincided with the release of Wright's latest film, The World's End, and featured an appearance from the director and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, it wasn't an unusual occurrence. The fans heading down to the gallery aren't necessarily waiting for a celebrity sighting. They aren't always looking for original art pieces. At Gallery 1988, it's the prints that are the big draw.
There are always prints at the big Gallery 1988 shows. Lots of them. There are giclee prints and screenprints. Some are reproductions of paintings featured in the show. Others exist on their own. The prints are released as limited-edition items, some with runs as small as 15. The prices are reasonable. You'll find plenty available for $30 inside the gallery.
Once the pieces sell out, though, the prices can jump on the secondary market. Search eBay and you'll find a host of prints from previous events, including several from the still-running Edgar Wright show. A search on Sept. 3 turned up five of Alex Pardee's “The Wright Stuff” prints. There were only 15 of those made for the show. The prices range from $174.21 to $249.99, although they were originally sold for $65. Whether or not the re-sales will go at those prices remains to be seen.
It wasn't always like this. “If you told me ten years ago, when we opened, that we'd be concerned about what order our customers walked in, just to buy something, I'd insist you were lying,” says Jensen Karp, co-owner and co-curator of Gallery 1988, via email.
Karp and business partner Katie Cromwell opened the gallery in 2004. They were college friends from USC, and Cromwell was helping Karp track down art for his apartment.
“All the artists we looked up online, we couldn't find them in galleries,” says Cromwell. “We had to meet them in parking lots and random places to do the exchange.” That's how they ended up in the art business. “We knew people who would spend money on clothes and shoes and handbags, but they wouldn't really consider artwork,” Cromwell says. “It's like they didn't even know it was an option.”
It's not just the opening parties that bring in the crowds here. When I met with Cromwell at Gallery 1988 West last Saturday afternoon, there were between 10 and 20 people fluctuating in and out of the space. They were staring intently at the art on the walls, all based on Edgar Wright's handful of film releases, as well as his cult favorite TV show, Spaced.
Gallery 1988 didn't start out as a pop culture-centric art gallery. That happened after a few extremely successful shows, like their popular exhibition, “Crazy 4 Cult,” and a few shows inspired by retro video games. The gallery owners had struck a chord with a new breed of art collector, ones also fascinated by film, television and video games.
It was a perfect storm. Gallery 1988's rise to success coincides with the rise of both social media and the “geek blog.” By the end of the first decade of the century, you had a gallery in L.A. hosting shows where artists could express their own fascination with pop culture. At the same time, you had millions of people online chatting about their daily interests, the ones with the most universal appeal reaching trending status. On top of that, you had a new breed of blogs dedicated to bringing large audiences the latest, and often strangest, takes on popular franchises.
The Melrose Avenue galleries have earned a reputation that spreads far beyond Los Angeles. Most of their sales happen online, where works will appear after opening night. They also see people standing in line for friends who can't make it to Hollywood.
Gallery 1988 isn't the only ones in the pop culture art game, but it's been around long enough to build a following of its own. The curators have a few advantages under their belts as well. The biggest is that they frequently work closely with the properties' creators and/or rights-holders. “It's not just licensing, paying a production company to license a certain property,” says Cromwell. “We're actually working with them.” For the Edgar Wright show, the director collaborated with the curators from the start. He even made suggestions for artists to include in the event. Last year, a show based on the Marvel heroes The Avengers was part of a promotional push for the film. For a 2012 exhibition based on series airing on Adult Swim, they worked directly with the late-night network.
For fans of the properties referenced in these art shows, this kind of close connection makes the pieces more valuable. “Authenticity,” is a word that several collectors volunteered to the Weekly when discussing this kind of art. “This makes it, in some way, an extended part of the central property that I am somehow already invested in,” says Steve Spicer, a collector from London.
But it's not just the popularity of a film franchise or television show that sells these prints. It's also the artists. Over the years, Gallery 1988 has cultivated a large roster of artists who work with it. Some shows have as many as 100 participants. The artists range from up-and-comers to established names. Cromwell points out that artists like Alex Pardee or Mike Mitchell, who have large followings, add to the buzz surrounding the shows. That's also where the secondary market comes into play. Those prints from well-known artists can gain value.
“Prints can definitely be investment pieces,” says Cromwell. “We've seen the price raise really quickly with prints. With originals, it's probably a longer term investment.”
Both Cromwell and Karp link the clamor over prints as investment purchases to the current popularity of screenprints. (Both reference a previous trend in vinyl toys, which has calmed down in recent years.) That some prints almost immediately end up on eBay is a little “discouraging,” Cromwell says.
“It is helping support the artist and their name and making their brand strong,” she explains. “At the same time, it's a little frustrating when we see the artwork go to people who are flipping it rather than people who want to take it home and hang it on their walls.”
Karp's thoughts are similar. “We just hope the people who buying these affordable pieces to sell it and make money — end up sticking around for the actual art,” he says.
“It will be interesting to see what happens with prints,” she adds. “When we first opened, this didn't really exist.”
For now, Cromwell and Karp are managing the crowds. Says Cromwell, “It's still a little bit crazy to us that people are spending the night outside. It's incredible and it shows that people love not only the artist, but the theme of the show, like Edgar Wright.”
But as nice as it is to see events become so popular, Cromwell adds, “you feel kind of bad” upon seeing folks camped out on a Hollywood sidewalk. “We try to make it a little more comfortable. We'll try to bring donuts or coffee in the morning.”