DTLA ART WALK
Renee Warren, Ren Gallery: Profile
Owning and running a contemporary art gallery is not for the fainthearted. For art gallery startups in particular, it can be a daunting test of survival. A love it or leave it commitment. That said, stalwarts like REN Gallery owner Renee Warren prove that success is possible with a passion for art, Herculean hard work, negotiating wizardry, luck and, by the way, a degree in marketing.
“I made a lot of art from childhood through high school, and wanted to be a fine arts major in college,” she explains. “But my dad kind of talked me out of it. He said, ‘Could you study business or something else a little easier to get a job in?’ And so I did. I followed his advice and went to school for marketing and international studies.”
After college she dove into the corporate world as a sales representative for a communications company. And while the work brought her praise and a pathway to promotion, she wasn’t fulfilled. At 25, she quit and embarked on a journey around the world, returning a year later to Downtown Los Angeles where she had previously lived for several years, and grown fond of the artist community there. “Art has always been my passion,” she says.
By 2010, with her growing involvement in the local art scene, she was asked if she knew anyone who could produce an art show to coincide with the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk in the lobby and old ballroom of the Alexandria Hotel. “You’re lookin’ at that person,” she told them. “Of course, I could do that!”
In preparation for her debut as event director, she spent a month talking to artists and seeing as many art exhibitions as she could. “Out of the 300 people I spoke to, I found 30 who agreed to try this new type of pop-up exhibition,” she says.
At the time, pop-up art events were just catching on in Downtown Los Angeles’ Historic Core, with its proliferation of deteriorating architectural gems filled with vacancies. It was a stopgap way for property owners to attract new businesses to lease those vacant spaces. For Renee, it was an opportunity to promote Los Angeles-based artists.
“The Art Walk shows [in the Alexandria Hotel ballroom] were a huge hit,” she says. “And after a year of producing the monthly one-night Art Walk exhibitions there, I was approached by other property developers in the area who said they loved how the shows livened up the block and brought new energy to the old vacant spaces.”
In partnering with Renee during the Art Walk, the developers’ goal was to activate The Medallion, a new business park located at Main and 4th with 50 small shops in a courtyard, and apartment residences above. “We had live performers, bands, music, food, and sometimes up to 100 artists showing in the park. So, it was quite a production,” she explains.
After two years, and a growing reputation for success, Renee took a break from producing large events, and found mentor Alex Slato, a former director of the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach. “He took me under his wing and showed me a lot more about fine art dealing, appraisals, and managing estate collections,” she explains. This helped to significantly broaden her art experience beyond working with emerging artists.
After two years learning the ropes with Slato, she was thinking of launching her own contemporary art gallery, but she still lacked complete confidence in her ability to do it alone. Her friend Richard Duardo, renowned owner of printmaking studio Modern Multiples, became the catalyst and potential partner for her first venture. “Richard said to me, ‘You’ve been producing these pop-up shows long enough. You know the business. Why don’t you have a gallery yet? When are you going to do this?’ We got talking about partnering. He’d provide the prints and I would curate the original artworks.”
His encouragement motivated her to start talking with different developers. “I showed them what I could bring, and what I had already done for the community for so many years.” It then took her three months to decide on the right space and location. Essex Property Trust was impressed and stepped forward with an unparalleled offer allowing her to use one of their properties essentially free of charge. “When I found it, I was so excited I sent Richard a text message that night. ‘I got the place!’ I wrote him. ‘You gotta come see it tomorrow. The leasing office has the keys. We can just go in and open it up. Come see if you like it and we can do this.’ But he didn’t reply. The next morning, I learned he had passed away that night. It was all over the news. He had diabetes. He went to sleep and didn’t wake up.”
Duardo’s death hit her hard, like so many of his friends and fans around the world. (Modern Multiples has worked with Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Keith Haring, and other prominent artists.) But Renee was literally holding the keys to her new future, and able to go forward with her plan even without any startup capital. Her first REN Gallery show in a formerly vacant space near 6th and Los Angeles took place in January 2015.
“Essex Property Trust helped me get my new business off the ground by practically donating me a space [in one of their properties] for six months. They said, ‘You just get the insurance. Turn on the lights. Fix the place up. Take it as it is, and it’s yours for six months.’” She adds, “The space was in an edgy part of town that was under development and had a lot of vacancies. So, they probably preferred keeping the lights on rather than leaving it dark for another three years.”
Freedom from debt made the deal particularly attractive. “I didn’t have to take out a loan, and then get stuck with huge overhead and go into debt. This has killed a lot of galleries.” Financial risk, though, remained. “It wasn’t a long-term lease. Practically month by month,” she admits. “So, if anybody else came along and wanted to take it, they could.”
The lease for her current space is a “proper one,” she says. Opened in 2017, REN Gallery is located within an attractive and safe inner courtyard complex that can be reached through an alleyway entrance on South Santee Street, and another on Los Angeles Street. During Art Walk evenings the large inviting space, with its tall glass frontage, attracts a confluence of visitors. “Once people are here in this courtyard, with its sense of community, they want to join us, enjoy the art and relax.”
And while Renee has hundreds of artists in her mental catalogue, she now represents 15 who are all Los Angeles-based, with a mix of pop, street and abstract styles. “It’s the art of urban expressionism, or L.A. expressionism that I’m looking for,” she explains. She adds there’s always opportunity to bring in new artists, but her process is lengthy. “I don’t just look at their work, but fully interview them and try to get to know them personally before I decide if I’ll work with them. Because it’s not just the art. It’s also the person behind it that can make or break your day.”
Renee is now expanding her reach. “Along with one-on-one private art sales, we’ll also be getting our artists’ larger commissioned works in public spaces such as hospitals, hotels, bars, and restaurants, which we can customize for each client,” she explains. She recently scored a commission for her artist Rob Grad who is creating a 30 x 12 foot, mixed-media installation for Hudson Pacific Properties that will hang in the lobby of the Wells Fargo Tower in Brentwood. “It’s really great because hundreds of companies are in that building, so everybody coming and going through the lobby will be able to see his work.” She is also currently working on a hotel project in Palm Springs that will be completed in the fall of 2020. “They want all the community spaces throughout the property to be furnished with art. Art is the focus, which is really exciting.”
With her success, albeit ‘alternative,’ Renee is now also an encouraging voice for those considering starting a contemporary art gallery from the ground up. ‘Activating’ a vacant space, she says, can be worth the risk. “New galleries and new artists trying to find somewhere to show should reach out to people and businesses in their local area when they see a street that’s dark and vacant. Go and see what you can get, because sometimes the developers are happier to have someone there than not, at least for the short term. It’s always worth a try to find out what’s possible.”
Originally posted on downtownartwalk.org