Contemporary gallery Artists Republic 4 Tomorrow provides a platform for those who defy the mainstream limits of what it means to be an artist.
By Tess Eyrich
Walk into Artists Republic 4 Tomorrow (AR4T) on any given day and you’ll be greeted warmly by the gallery’s founder, Torrey Cook, and co-owner Mark Weiner. As friends, fellow gallery owners and artists filter into the space to chat, survey the latest pieces on view and browse a selection of books curated by Costa Mesa’s As Issued bookstore, it’ll become strikingly clear that AR4T is much more than just a gallery; it’s a gathering place for people who appreciate art not only for its aesthetic benefits, but for the sense of community that often springs from creative expression.
AR4T’s founding in May 2010 catalyzed a sea change in Laguna that’s resulted in a significant boom in contemporary art galleries, with up-and-comers like saltfineart, Orange County Creatives and Donna Morin’s DM Studio finding success alongside local mainstays known for showing more traditional work. Here, the duo behind the game-changing gallery shares AR4T’s story as it celebrates its fourth anniversary.
NEW TO THIS TOWN
AR4T’s genesis, though somewhat unconventional, is a testament to its owners’ passions for contemporary art.
A Southern California native, Torrey’s professional background includes time spent in San Diego as an editor at Warp Magazine, a Transworld Media publication that covered action sports and music, and San Francisco, where she first began exhibiting her own art at a friend’s pop-up gallery.
“For me, the feeling of having people look at my work and being a part of something big like that was so exciting,” she says. “I’d shown my work in little spots here and there, but to show with a group in a gallery setting was completely new and different. It was awesome.”
So awesome, in fact, that when she moved back to Southern California to work in the action sports apparel industry, she began putting together her own pop-up exhibitions to tie in with various marketing initiatives. After several years of honing her skills as a sort of guerilla curator, she decided to search for her own gallery space, eventually happening upon the kind of real estate boon that’s too good to pass up in Laguna: an inexpensive lease directly across from Main Beach.
“It was something good to start with where we could do some experimental stuff,” she says of the space. “I knew we weren’t going to be bringing in art like what was in Laguna already.” At the time, she notes, the only other space comparable to what would become AR4T was The Surf Gallery operated by Will Pennartz, who shuttered the beloved Laguna hangout in 2010. Will would prove to be a valued mentor to Torrey in the early days of AR4T, and she honored his former gallery in 2013 with a retrospective of surf-themed prints, paintings and photographs.
It was also through Will that she eventually met Mark, a collector who splits his time between Los Angeles and Dana Point. “What I saw in the window [at AR4T] was not what anyone else was doing in Laguna—that really hit me,” Mark says of his initial introduction to the gallery, adding that he lacks a professional arts background and just really likes “being around art.”
The two became fast friends and official partners in the ownership of the gallery around two years ago, maintaining AR4T’s original mission of bringing a new breed of contemporary art to Laguna: pieces that expose the intersections between artistic work and action sports like skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding.
“My husband and I have both been in this youth culture world of snowboarding and skateboarding forever, and through that we’ve met and made relationships with so many amazing artists; you’ve seen their work all over a snowboard or on an ad, but the public hasn’t seen their fine art sides,” Torrey says. “And those are all outlets of creative expression, so it’s only natural that they intersect.”
For both Torrey and Mark, one of the most fulfilling aspects of overseeing the gallery has involved forming lasting relationships with emerging and established artists like local painters Ben Brough and Robert “Sticky” Shaw as well as woodcutting giant Dennis McNett, who has produced art and graphics for brands including Volcom, Vans and Anti-Hero skateboards.
“It’s kind of like creating a family network,” Torrey muses. “Seeing some of these guys grow has been very, very cool. … We [had a solo show] in June with Sticky. He was one of the first shows that I had, and I remember that I squeezed him in between two shows. I had a two-week block, and he said, ‘I’ll take it!’ To see him progress and to see his collector base grow—that’s really cool.”
The gallery, too, grew over its first three years in operation and, in August 2013, Torrey and Mark relocated to an airy space off Pacific Coast Highway in the up-and-coming HIP District that stretches from Thalia Street to Bluebird Canyon Drive. “I think this section of town is really great for art,” Torrey says of the new space, which is conveniently located just steps away from Thalia Surf Shop and Handplant skate shop.
Also contributing to the expansion is a landmark partnership with Vans that has added dimension to the gallery’s roster of artists. Like most of AR4T’s relationships, the pairing developed organically; Torrey, whose husband works on the corporate side of Vans, decided to approach the company’s leadership last year with a proposal after noticing that many of the artists she was working with had connections to the skateboarding powerhouse.
“Vans had just put together an art committee, and they’re doing a lot more with artists,” she explains. “… We’re the first gallery that Vans is supporting like this. … I feel really fortunate that they selected us to partner with—it’s been awesome so far.” Such partnerships have become increasingly common over the past 10 years among brands like RVCA, which launched its Artist Network Program to support visual artists and musicians, and Volcom, whose team of artists is nearly as robust as its team of competitive skaters.
Over the past nine months, the relationship between AR4T and Vans has produced a range of memorable shows from major players like muralist Zio Ziegler, digital designer Don Pendleton and award-winning painter Russ Pope, whose work was spotlighted this past April in a joint exhibition with skateboarding legend Neil Blender. Neil is no stranger to creative innovation, having pioneered classic tricks like the lien air (lien is Neil spelled backward) and being one of the first skaters to add his own art to a pro model skate deck. “Before that, there were artists doing work and putting it on decks, but Neil was the first one to say, ‘This is me, and this is what I want to do,’ ” Torrey recalls. “It shaped that entire attitude and culture of skateboarding.”
The collaboration also has brought the gallery a greater degree of financial security in a business that’s notoriously unstable. “[When we relocated to the HIP District,] we doubled our space and, financially, we were going to be taking some more risks by having more rent,” Torrey says. “I definitely feel like it’s our partnerships that have allowed us to stay here. Our partnership with Vans has allowed us to grow.”
But growing their own gallery isn’t Torrey and Mark’s only objective—they’re quick to emphasize that the endgame is much more complex than that. They’re committed to helping build a stronger creative community in Laguna, a city that’s acclaimed for its arts but also known as something of a tourist town.
“[Many people who visit Laguna] aren’t people who are here every month and can come to your openings and see what you’re doing,” Mark says, stressing the difficulty of gaining a local following in a place that most people consider a vacation destination rather than a home.
Still, they’ve managed to weave together a network of like-minded galleries and loyal friends over the past four years, many of whom made the transition with Torrey and Mark from the Main Beach space to their new location in the HIP District. One of those friends, mixed media artist David Blake, began exhibiting with AR4T in October 2011 during a rock ’n’ roll-tinged group show called “Heaven’s on Fire.”
“It was a great experience for me, and I immediately had a sense that Torrey was building something unique and special that didn’t exist in Laguna or elsewhere in Orange County, for that matter,” David says of the show and gallery. He describes working with Torrey and Mark as “incredibly positive” and has continued to exhibit with AR4T over the past three years, his most recent show being “Greetings From the OC,” staged in March 2014.
“I genuinely respect [Torrey and Mark] and have gotten to know them on a personal level,” he continues. “I feel as though we’ve sort of grown up together in a way, and they’ve given me an amazing opportunity to continue to push myself as an artist. … They have been willing to take risks by showing emerging artists that other galleries might not show.”
Chantal deFelice, the gallery’s manager as well as an exhibited artist at AR4T, also feels incredibly supported. And not only where the gallery is concerned but also in terms of sales and promotion. “We are much more than ‘artists’ to Torrey and Mark,” she says. “It might sound to hokey to refer to the ‘AR4T family,’ but it really is an amazing community that has coalesced in this space and in the gallery’s virtual presence. In the last [several] months since I’ve also been working at the gallery, I have seen even more confirmation that selling art does not have to be a souless, competitive venture as some aspects of the art world would have you believe.”
Torrey stays connected to those artists and the greater community through AR4T’s online presence and a second website that she maintains, OC Artists Republic, which showcases contemporary galleries across Orange County. She also serves as a board member for First Thursdays Art Walk, an event in which AR4T has participated since its opening in 2010.
“I do feel like over the past four years, there’s been this kind of camaraderie developing—not just among the contemporary galleries but all of the Art Walk galleries,” she says. With education in mind, she and Mark hope that AR4T will become a resource both for collectors and anyone who appreciates art or craves the friendship that develops from regularly visiting a neighborhood gallery.
Most importantly, they’d like to boost Laguna’s reputation as a cutting-edge arts enclave that rivals cities LA and San Francisco. “Laguna has such a great, diverse art scene,” Torrey adds. “I think it’d be cool to have more awareness, because there’s great stuff going on here.”