Galerie Nico – Venice’s First Gallery

The other day I was bicycling around Venice and I saw an open doorway at the site of what I remembered to be a local Venice art gallery on Market Street. I ended up having a brief conversation with Larry Bell, an old Venice artist, renowned for his glass sculpture creations. He’s now taken over the space of the former William Turner Gallery, who’s recently moved over to the Bergamont complex.

A side note: it’s almost the same space he’d previously occupied back in the 70s when he was doing the tempered glass box artworks and had used his color experimentations on the slats of his louvered glass window panes.

Today, it seems almost commonplace to accept the notion that Venice is a leading locale for contemporary art. With all the local artists in seemingly every nook and cranny - if you take the Venice Art Walk and kind of improvise to include all the un-"official" artists’ studios - it’s as if Venice has always been a haven for art galleries, artists, radicals, and their ilk.

And it’s true, the lineage of art galleries in Venice  goes back through many wild and eclectic times. From the most recent galleries – the ex-Griffin Contemporary at 53 N. Venice Blvd. (they’ve recently moved to the cool Colorado art area in Santa Monica), the old Sandbox Gallery run by Jennifer Wolf at 1327 Abbot Kinney Blvd., now the Solomon Gallery, the always experimental Light Space Gallery at 1730 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Sponto Gallery at its historic Dudley Ave. address, the Soapbox Gallery at 701 N. Venice Blvd., the Irma Hawkins Gallery at 419 Carroll Canal, Diana Hobson Fine Art at 1316 Abbot Kinney Blvd., to the "olden days" when the Ace Gallery was originally at 72 Market Street.

I remember when Andy Warhol had his "Torsos" show opening there, and when he entered, he was underwhelmed because the laid-back locals weren’t mobbing him, as he was accustomed. The film crew covering the event kinda stopped and looked at each other because nobody was reacting "normally." So us locals just went up to Andy and said "Thanks for the cool show." And then we bought his signed posters for a steal. Or he signed our tomato soup cans with a resigned sigh. Ah, fame.

But that was back in the late 70s. Before the Ace Gallery moved over to the old Bank of America building at Windward and Main, where it’s now been memorialized by the Ace Market/ dredger building design, by the architectural firm of Steven Ehrlich & Associates, circa 1989. Back in the days when there were the cool galleries at the Main Street Design Center, L. A. Louver was also on Market Street, before expanding to its present location at 45 N. Venice Boulevard, there was the gallery at 57 Market Street – anybody remember its name? –  and exhibitions were being held at the Old City Jail on Venice Boulevard. And don’t forget the apartment-sized Hippopotamus Gallery run by Susan Cohen at 32 Horizon. Back when the West Beach at 60 N. Venice Boulevard, was claiming it was "the first American restaurant to host a curated show of art," there was the Native American Gallery on Windward just east of Hama Sushi, and local artists were being featured in gallery exhibitions at both the Rose Café, at Rose Avenue and Hampton, and the north room of the infamous Lafayette Café, at Westminster and the Ocean Front Walk.

The 80s and 90s also saw the rise – and fall – of local galleries. There was the Cruz LA Gallery on the Windward circle, just north of Hama, with its unique subterranean space. Now gone. There used to be the Diana Miller gallery on Venice Blvd., before it became the space for the Griffin Contemporary gallery. Many galleries along Abbot Kinney Boulevard were once hot, but now also gone. They included the Zenetka/Kertisz Gallery at 1319, the James Born Art Gallery at 1326, Gallery Noel at 1346, the Patricia Correia Gallery at 1355, the Toucan Art Studio at 1413, the Sadler Fine Arts Gallery at 1424, the Rawlings Gallery at 1428, the Shamanistic Gallery at 1505, the Zerrien Gallery at 1624, and Odalisque Fine Art at 1638.

So where does that leave us on our search for another Venice first? We need to go back to the 50s when Venice was the raging center of all Southern California bohemianism. Meaning hipster beatniks. And the two local "hip" hang-outs, the Gas House, at Market and Ocean Front Walk, (its weird isn’t it, how so many centers of art happenings were located on Market – originally known as Zephyr Avenue) on the southeast corner, and the aforementioned  Sponto Gallery, neé Venice West Café at 7 Dudley Avenue.

And that leaves us with the question of who actually opened the first Venice art gallery.

According to an article from the Ocean Front Weekly, July 19, 1978, a weekly newspaper of Venice Beach and Ocean Park at the time, local Venice artist Nico van del Huevel opened what he considered the first Venice art gallery during the early 1960s. A Venice first, yes no?

He opened "Galerie Nico" at 40 Market Street, when "those were years when a lot of rules were broken. People were trying marijuana for the first time and resisting all conventions," the Holland-born artist recalled.

The interior of the space was a stark white exhibition space, featuring a collection of the then "hip" abstract paintings and sculpture. There were even futuristic atomic-age ashtrays to keep in synch with the whole "forward" idealism of the time.

He remembered the beat period vividly.

"In the early 60s, we had hoped to create a kind of artists’ village, where the rich and the poor could mix freely. But all that was ruined by the violent misfits who hung on to the beat movement," Van del Heuvel said.

And what became of the Galerie Nico? Almost as soon as the beat movement appeared, it disappeared. By 1963, most of the local coffeehouses had closed, mostly due to lack of general interest.

So, later on in the 60s, the space that held Venice’s first art gallery became the emporium for Fern Violette, a leading clothing designer of the times. In the 70s it became the offices of Richard Dreyfuss and other Hollywood prominants who wanted to be "cool" by having a production office in Venice. Once again on Market Street, the "hip" street.

And that feeling of the artistic "hip" spirit is still alive today, all across Venice. There are still a number of present-day galleries maintaining the Venice allegiance to being "on the edge," whether it’s the SKG Gallery at 1423 Abbot Kinney Blvd., the Consortium Gallery at 1102 Abbot Kinney, even the Surfing Cowboys at 1624 Abbot Kinney (one of my local favorites for way-cool old surfing memorabilia and art), and the Bryce Bannatyne Gallery at 1509 Abbot Kinney, which features everything from furniture to open-wheeled 60s race cars! Now, that’s Venice!

As Nico van del Heuvel finally commented with some resignation, "The beats were soon replaced by the flower children and the hippies and the whole thing started over again."

Little did he realize his history-making, casual and refined art gallery would be the impetus for many other galleries to follow. Venice was the spot for art to be shown and seen. Reaffirming that even today, Venice is once and again a first.