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Art of the Deal
Jerry Hicks | Photo: Ethan Pines | April 2, 2013
He blazed a trail for the contemporary art scene in Laguna, and two decades later, Peter Blake is still a leader in the industry.
Peter Blake acknowledges, with a wisp of a smile, that it’s not your conventional path for going into the art gallery business: no college education, no background, no studio, no encouragement, no money. But he knew his life in Laguna Beach wasn’t heading in a direction that excited him, and he didn’t want to follow the same career path as his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather. He had a determination to do what he wanted to do with his life.
“It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t have anything more than a high school diploma,” he says. “If I’d been more educated, I would have known how great the odds were stacked against me.”
Bad odds or not, Blake opened Laguna’s first contemporary art gallery in 1993. This year, the Peter Blake Gallery celebrates its 20th anniversary. Located at 435 Ocean Ave., in the heart of downtown (his third spot), he keeps it lean and sparse, with white walls and concrete floors to make the pieces stand out with grace. (“Art doesn’t need bells and whistles,” he says.)
Blake’s smile widens as he recalls those early days: “I didn’t know what I was doing. I simply went up and down Laguna Canyon Road, searching for artists. I found several who loved contemporary art, but they had nowhere to show their work, so they were doing more traditional pieces.”
The city was loaded with galleries. But they sold historic or traditional paintings. None specialized at the time in contemporary works. He represented many of those same artists until just a couple of years ago, when he narrowed the gallery’s focus to minimal abstraction and reductive works, and broadened his interest in national and international artists. Today, Blake’s gallery is an eclectic mix of large and small sculptures, and wall pieces with everything from wood to acrylics to polyester. Blake loves what he calls minimal abstraction. “I love seeing what someone can do with less,” he says.
Take a tour with him, and you will see his usual quiet demeanor show more excitement. Notice how just the shadows from this piece become a part of the art itself, he says of one work on a wall. Look at the blend of textures here, he says of another. You can understand why he is partial to sculptures by an artist named Stephanie Bachiero. She is his girlfriend and helps him run the gallery. Bachiero is as enthusiastic about the exhibits as Blake. “I absolutely love my life,” she says. “Working here with Peter is such a pleasure.”
Blake doesn’t apologize for his shoot-from-the-hip subjective style. He just knows what he likes when he sees it. He’s always been that way. Which is why he doesn’t see studying art in college as a prerequisite for going into the business.
The career he thought he was destined to pursue was in the restaurant industry. Following that tradition, Blake moved west from Virginia in his 20s and got a job waiting tables at Romeo Cucina in Laguna. In a few years he worked his way up to restaurant manager. Then one day in ’93, after his shift, he came across a vacant space in a building at Village Fair, and it just clicked: He should take that space and do what he really wanted to do with his life—engulf himself in the world of contemporary art. Not the easiest thing to do when you have no extra money for a startup.
“I paid the rent out of my weekly check from the restaurant,” Blake says. There was no encouragement from friends or family, either. “Everybody said no, don’t do it, it’s just too hard to make it a success,” Blake recalls now. “They were extremely negative.”
Turns out they were all right—at first. He kept working a full shift at the restaurant and spent every other waking hour at his new gallery. It took Blake five years to put the gallery into the black. He could finally leave the restaurant industry for good, though he doesn’t discount the value of the experience.
“I discovered that the two businesses paralleled each other,” Blake says. “Just like there are many different ways to prepare a steak, there are many different styles in creating art. Neither field is exact science.” Not that the transition was easy. Soon after turning a profit for the gallery, the recession hit. And that made it tough for people to buy contemporary art. “When money’s tight, art is one of the first things to eliminate,” Blake says. Even today, he says the business is not as good as it once was. But there are bright moments. Blake is a dealer for an artist from the Netherlands and helped him sell all four pieces at a recent show in Palm Springs. And a current exhibit from Eric Johnson has drawn much attention.
A great source of Blake’s excitement about the gallery is that he and Bachiero are doing it together. Where did they meet? This may sound like an old Jimmy Stewart/Carole Landis movie, but they met at Bloomingdale’s. Blake was displaying some pieces at the opening of the new South Coast Plaza store when Bachiero walked in. She admired his pieces and told him so. That led to a closer relationship pretty quickly.
Not that contemporary art is a fast-paced business. Bachiero says it usually takes her about four months to complete a piece. “But I love what I do, so it makes it worthwhile,” she says.
How do they split the business? “Peter is very much a people person, so he’s the one who goes out into the community,” Bachiero says. “I tend to be the art manager. But really, we do almost everything together.”
Any regrets about this career path? To Blake, that’s a nonsensical question. The gallery has become his life—not just because he loves it so much, but also because he enjoys being an outlet for a lot of talented artists. “Anything we sell, we split the proceeds in half with the artist,” Blake says. “But we provide them an opportunity they can’t get in more traditional galleries.”
Blake clearly admires the artists’ talent. He tried his own hand at an art piece once, for a friend. “Doing that piece taught me to appreciate my artists and what they go through,” he says. “I have a great deal more empathy for any of their difficulties than I did before.”
A visitor comes through the glass doors of the gallery, admires a tall Johnson sculpture and suggests that it would look grand in the foyer of someone’s mansion. “Of course it would,” Blake says. “That’s why it’s there. All these pieces will sell by the time the show is over—if we’re lucky.”