At 9 p.m. on Saturday night on Eagle Rock Boulevard, light spilled from the windows of Cactus Gallery onto a small knot of people on the sidewalk. Inside, the red and ochre walls were filled with art for the gallery’s 7th Annual Tiny Treasures Show. But the crowd was surprisingly thin for the always-popular gallery, where art patrons are known to stand shoulder to shoulder during shows until well past closing.
The sparse attendance was especially puzzling because Cactus Gallery's owner, Sandra Mastroianni, announced late this past week that the Dec. 8 show would be the gallery’s last in its current location.
“This Saturday's artwalk marks our 84th exhibit with NELA," read Mastroianni’s e-mail. "In all, we have had 100-plus events in our nearly eight years of existence. Unfortunately, the owner of the building Cactus is housed in has decided to sell the building to someone else. I am deeply saddened.”
The gallery, Mastroianni said, would close on Christmas eve.
An Interrupted Goodbye Party
On Saturday night, Mastroianni was too busy darting around the gallery, talking up her artists to comment on the smaller-than-usual crowd. The next day, however, the former schoolteacher revealed that “10 cops in four cars” arrived and issued citations because Mastroianni had live music—an acoustic guitar and several female singers—and was allegedly “selling” alcohol without a permit. Mastroianni vehemently denies selling alcohol, which she says was brought by well-wishers to the gallery’s final potluck event.
Worse than the citations, according to Mastroianni, was that “everybody left when the cops came.”
Many of those who remained after officers of the Los Angeles Police Department left were artists—a handful of the 300-plus people that Mastroianni estimates she’s represented over the years. Just about every one of them, she said, is saddened by the gallery's impending closure.
“Sandra loves art, she enjoys the artists, and she’s very supportive,” said Josè Lopes, whose work was in the Tiny Treasures show. “She’s always—always—helping everybody.”
Mastroianni's future may be uncertain, but the gallery owner was more concerned about the artists' prospects than her own. “I feel like I’m letting people down,” she worried. “Will people be able to get diapers for their kids?”
'Houses Full of Art'
Mastroianni's concern about the artists' economic prospects is not unfounded. Lopes noted that when the economy is bad, “art is the first thing to suffer and the last thing to recover." Artists represented at Cactus, however, "did well,” he added.
One of Mastroianni's first artists, the extremely prolific Walt Hall, estimates that Sandra has sold “literally thousands” of his small, reasonably priced paintings at Cactus over the years.
Mastroianni laughs, remembering her studio's early years. "I started with big group shows and told everyone to shamelessly promote," she said. "The gallery’s reputation grew by word of mouth."
Now, she said, "there are people with whole houses full of art they got at Cactus.”
A Different Kind of Gallery
Listening to the artists, it's apparent that the "houses full of art" are because of Mastroianni's philosphophy at Cactus. "This is a really open-minded gallery," said Douglas Alvarez, whose “Comfort Food” was the last solo show at Cactus.
Said artist and curator Terri "Tooter" Berman: “Sandra has a personal relationship with every artist.”
Lopes’s wife Anna Bjornsdottir, a clothing designer, added: “There’s a creative juice here. People feel comfortable buying art. It's not intimidating.”
Artist Patricia Krebs, who has shown at galleries from Pasadena to Venice, owes a special debt to Mastroianni's gallery. “People started collecting my work because of Cactus," she said. "Things are different here. People connect. No one’s competing, so [Sandra] is able to combine people in different ways.”
Putting together art shows is “like a puzzle" for the Argentinean-born Mastroianni. "Somehow it all fits together,” she said, with a shrug.
Cactus may not be the only gallery going dark on 2nd Saturdays. When Mastroianni opened Cactus, she persuaded her next door neighbor, sculptor and artist D. Paul Verbre, to open his studio on NELA 2nd Saturday Gallery Night. “Now the block will be pretty quiet," said Verbre. "I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
As for Mastroianni, she may not know her next gallery location, but in a recent e-mail, she assured her "chosen family" of artists that after a much-needed hiatus, she'll be back "pimping art."
To quote her: "Viva el Arte!"