This article originally appeared on April 11, 2014 in The Alamedan. Michele Ellson, editor. Reprinted with an additional image.
“My name is Gary Francis Comoglio, and throughout my whole lifetime, my last name has been butchered,” the artist-turned-gallerist said. So he decided to go with something “easier and more concise” when he launched his gallery, Gary Francis Fine Art. His image makeover coincides with that of his venue.
Have you been to Pillow Park lately? After 40 years of being a furniture store, the front gates closed while “Pillow Park Plaza”—now simply “Park Street Plaza”—was completely remodeled. In addition to Gary Francis Fine Art, the space is now home to a collection of boutique shops: Clothiers Aphrodite’s Closet (displaced from their previous location by a fire) and Lanvie, Dandelion Flowers & Gifts, Artistic Home Studio & Boutique—co-owned by JaYing Wang, who taught art to a generation of Alameda’s children—mobile café Gotham Harbor Coffee, and Bonne Vie Fine Spirits & Cigars.
Nestled down a long corridor on Park Street between the defunct Bonaire Bakery and Hong Kong seafood, many passersby are unaware that anything has changed, and “I didn’t even know this was here” is something Comoglio hears on a weekly basis. Debbie and Frank George own Bonne Vie, and the property.
“They’ve done a tremendous job transforming this building from the furniture store,” Comoglio said.
Comoglio is not only a working artist himself—a painter and printmaker—but brings extensive curatorial experience to his gallery, having put together nearly 30 exhibitions for the California Society of Printmakers (CSP) in his capacity as its director of exhibitions. That experience taught him how to make art exhibits “engaging with the public,” Comoglio said. He has hosted five exhibitions since opening Gary Francis Fine Art in October 2013 with his wife Kavita, who handles the marketing side of the business.
Gary Francis Fine Art has begun the process of shaping its own identity among the half dozen galleries already established on the Island, starting with its selection of artists. “We definitely want to make sure that we’re establishing a vibe or a look for our business,” Comoglio said. Artists who have shown in Alameda before and continue to show in Alameda are “something that we’ve shied away (from) a little bit,” he said.
“We really represent Bay Area artists. And that’s really our focus,” Comoglio said. “We have shown several Alameda artists in the past, but we don’t want to create anything that’s a replica of any other gallery. We want to have our own voice.”
Gary Francis will further differentiate itself from other Alameda galleries by adding a publishing arm to its business. “We want to be known as a gallery that not only specializes in printmaking but that we publish prints. We’re looking forward in the future to being the next Crown Point Press,” Comoglio said, referring to San Francisco’s fine art print shop. “The Bay Area has such a rich history of printmaking, and we want to be the next in line when people think about printmaking.”
Each of the gallery’s exhibits thus far—group shows averaging 18 artists—was cohesive and excellent as a whole, while featuring some individual contributions that truly exceed expectations for a new gallery. In “The Art of Giving Art,” a holiday gift-oriented show late last year, Sherana Harriette Frances unwrapped the Playboy bunnies she painted in 1965, which had been hanging in her studio in Marin.
“That was quite a special find,” said Comoglio, who stumbled upon them while visiting the artist’s studio to purchase printmaking supplies. “They really hadn’t been shown outside of her studio since the early ’80s.”
Viewing Frances’ paintings, one can easily imagine them hanging in the Oakland Museum right next to those by pop art master Mel Ramos. “They are the type of paintings that I think stun people when they come into the gallery, because they expect to see art work but they don’t expect to see … real museum-quality pieces,” Comoglio said. “We’re fortunate to have so many contacts with different age groups, mostly through the society of printmakers, that we can reach out to some artists that have had careers for 40 and 50 years and get some really exceptional works of art.”
Frances’ work was so popular that Comoglio plans to exhibit it again in next month’s show, “Image Hungry.” According to Comoglio, the show will reference some images of pop art from the past, “but it’s really going to be a modern take of what pop art has grown up into, since it’s so different from its origins in the ’60s.”
The bar was raised high, and Gary Francis continued to deliver. In January’s “Urban Grit” show, John McNamara’s oil landscape, “Encroachment,” boggled the mind and blurred the boundaries between painting and viewer; Vanessa Marsh’s collaged process-centric photograms in February’s “Unique Surfaces – A Collage” show were both clever and haunting. The gallery’s current exhibit, “The Figure: A Bay Area Legacy,” includes complex yet balanced figurative nudes by established artist Fernando Reyes.
As the former printmaking studio manager at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, Comoglio discovered “how rich the
talent was amongst our young artists,” and Reyes’ pieces are juxtaposed with “Ink,” a photorealistic portrait by newcomer Nathaniel Evans, capturing a dark intensity reminiscent of James Whistler.
In June, Comoglio will open the gallery for Pro Arts’ open studios, with space allotted to six of the artists who have exhibited there previously or who are scheduled for exhibitions there in the future.
Gary Francis seems to have hit upon a winning formula with these large group shows averaging 18 artists each. “Every single time we open the doors on second Fridays we are amazed to see how many people come through the doors and how many new people there are each month,” Comoglio said. “And it’s always encouraging for us because leading up to that time, from the time that we hang a new show going right up to the second Fridays, the opening reception, it’s a very nervous time for us. Because pretty much the whole success of our business relies on how well those opening receptions are received by the public.”
After getting a feel for the public response to the gallery’s offerings, Comoglio has planned a shift to “smaller group shows and more artist-based shows,” he said. “But we will never completely throw away the group show. We want to make sure that we are always discovering new artists.”
In a bit of a gamble, Comoglio is planning his gallery’s first solo exhibit in September, small works by Sandy Walker. “Not only is it a two-month exhibition, but it’s also a solo exhibition, so we won’t be bringing in a massive crowd with all the artists on the opening night like we’ve had in the past,” Comoglio said.
He said the gallery usually attracts about 200 people to its three-hour opening receptions but with Walker’s work, “we’re expecting that we’re going to be reaching out to a crowd who are art collectors already, or people who already know Sandy’s work through different museum exhibitions or different art exhibitions that they’ve seen his work in San Francisco.”
This shift in paradigm is a calculated risk, and part of carving out Gary Francis’ own niche as a gallery that attracts established art collectors, while at the same time, “cultivating new art collectors, especially within our Alameda community.” The gallery seeks to do this by offering affordable work, including a bin of works priced $200 and under, and by educating its visitors.
“We try to engage every person that comes in, because we know there’s a big educational gap in art with the public. A lot of people don’t even know how to approach art, or how to look at it, or even how to respond to it sometimes,” Comoglio said.
Comoglio said that Alan Bamberger, the Bay Area art consultant who maintains the ArtBusiness.com website, “told me a long time ago that in order to understand art, all you have to do is enjoy it. And a lot of people forget that if they enjoy it, they understand it, and there’s not much deeper than that sometimes.”
Gary Francis Fine Art is located inside Park Street Plaza at 1419E Park Street. The gallery is open Sundays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. 629-1175. http://www.garyfrancisfineart.com. email@example.com.