Betty Mast Estate
Art Gallery Celebrates 25th Year
By Ellen Schlesinger
Bee Art Correspondent
Sunday, November 13, 1983
Art galleries, like restaurants are so dependent on public taste for their livelihood that they open and close with regrettable frequency. When a gallery can withstand almost constant about-faces that occur on the art scene and stay in business for 25 years, it is cause for celebration. And that’s exactly the thinking behind “The Artists Contemporary Gallery Exhibition” currently being held at the Crocker Art museum.
What began as a cooperative venture amount a group of energetic and enterprising artists a quarter of a century ago has hung on and evolved into Sacramento’s oldest, continuously operating gallery of contemporary art.
Artists Contemporary Gallery, ACG, as it is called familiarly, was formed in 1958 by a group of 21 artists willing to take on the responsibility of both managing and directing an art gallery. They traded time at their easels for the headaches of a cooperative association because they wanted a place to show their work.
These days, up-and-coming artists in Sacramento can present their slides and resumes to at least a dozen gallery owners in the hope of having an exhibition, but in the late 1950s the options were limited to the rental gallery at the Crocker, the print room at the State Library, the annual State Fair art show and the Kingsley exhibit (now the Crocker-Kingsley).
Like the old saying, all dressed dup and no where to go, such artists as Wayne Thiebaud, Greg Kondos and Robert Else had a backlog of work to their credit with few places to show it.
By all accounts, Thiebaud, who today is Sacramento’s most illustrious painter, was the driving force behind ACG. But back in 1958, he was just another dedicated but little-known artist without a local gallery to exhibit his paintings.
“The idea behind ACG,” Thiebaud said recently, “was that there was to be no hierarchy, no judging or editing of the work. Artists could show anything they wanted. We had some rotten shows and some good ones. The main criterion was that everyone who worked seriously could have a place to show.”
With the financial backing of Russell Solomon, owner of Tower Books, the Artists Contemporary Gallery, then called the Artists Cooperative Gallery, open its doors in the Lanai shopping center (across from where the Corti Bros. Court Yard store is today) on April 25, 1958, with a group show by its 21 members/ artists.
Now, 25 years later, one can find gentle irony in the face that a project hat thad its beginnings in the dreams of a group of idealistic painters should have lasted long enough to become a bastion of local culture, a constant on the ever-changing scene.
But of course, ACG’s road from artists’ cooperative to an establishment institution was not without its bumps and curves. Over the years the gallery has moved more than half a dozen times, criss-crossing Sacramento and settling on its present location in Downtown Plaza.
In 1967, nine years after its founding, the gallery made the switch from a cooperative to a self-supporting gallery and changed its name. It had become increasingly difficult to keep the gallery staffed by its members — artists and craftspeople whose teaching and career obligations put severe limitations on their time. On top of that, the gallery’s expectations were growing with increased public interest, an interest that it had helped kindle.
Betty Mast, who joined ACG’s staff in 1963, swearing to help out for “no more than two months,” has instead remained as the gallery’s director for 20 years. “I’ve probably seen 30 galleries come and go in that time,” Mast says. “ACG owes its longevity to the loyalty of its artists and the support of its collectors.”
As Victoria Dalkey, the gallery’s assistant director, points out in the exhibit’s catalog, ” the list of people who have shown at ACG reads like a Who’s Who of Sacramento Art: Thiebaud, Mel Ramos, Joan Moment, Gregory Kondos, Robert Else, Roland Petersen and Darrell Forney” are just a few of the local talents who have benefited from its existence.
At present, compared to, say Fido Gallery which routinely shows the work of young artists fresh out of school, ACG may seem staid and tame, but the gallery has a history of taking chances. Thiebaud’s paintings of cakes and pies (the mistakenly labels “Pop Art” paintings that gained him entree in to Alan Stone’s New York gallery) were first when at ACCG. The Gallery also introduced Ralph Goings’ photo-realist works, Forney’s Large-Letter Postcard paintings and Robert Arneson’s ceramic urinals. ACG’s track record, like Adeliza McHugh’s Candy Store in Folsom, has been outstanding.
As the oldest gallery around, ACG might not be as interest in shaking things up as newer places tend to be, but it is also not a defender of the status quo. In the last year and a half, it has taken on the work of 10 new artist. Perhaps the greatest example of its egalitarian philosophy is its association with the young painter Boyd Gavin.
New only 23, he began showing at ACG when he was 16. Although he was still in high school, the gallery directors were not prejudiced by his youth but instead captivated by his talent. By exhibition Gavin’s work, they encouraged the budding painter.
Gavin, in turn, has the highest regard for the gallery.
“I’ve shown at ACG for seven years,” the artist says, “but my appreciation for the gallery goes back to the sixth grade. What is significant is that no ‘school’ ever dominated from show to show. The gallery has never chosen a single direction.”
The broad scope of ACG is made evident by the chitin in its honor at the Corker. It is clear form the diversity of the work on view that neither the gallery nor its artist can be easily pigeon-holed.
The exhibit consists of 80 pieces by 65 artist who have been involved with ACG during the past 25 years. It is an impressive array of styles and media, including Norman Crag’s funky sculpture “Rodney,” Mel Ramos’ sexy oil “Hubba-Hubba” and Philip Menard’s evocative painting, “Moonrise and Blossoming Orchards,” Conservatives as well as non-traditionalists will find much here that is pleasing.
The show also contains early and recent works by the gallery’s core group — such artists as Theibaud, Forney, Larry Welden, Ruth Rippon and Greg Kondos – 15 in all.
Older works contrasted with new ones act as reminders that while some artists doggedly stick to one theme or one style during their careers, others seem to change from piece to piece.
For newcomers to the scene, the show honoring ACG is an eye-opener, a primer on Sacramento art for the past quarter of a century. For people who have grown up alongside the gallery, the exhibit will simply confirm what already know: that since its inception ACG has been deeply committed to showcasing local and regional talent.