Standing on the bottom level of her new Union Square gallery, surrounded by two levels of photography, video, and painting by an Oakland artist named Swampy, Ashley Chandran is beaming as she describes her week. The biggest event? Her gallery's opening, when more than 1,000 people — many from outside California — ventured through her doors to experience Swampy's work in a long, expansive space that gives the art, and the art-goers, room to breathe. Chandran, an artist herself (body painting is her specialty), had long aspired to open a San Francisco gallery — especially as other downtown art spaces began to retrench and disappear over the last five years.
"Artists are always shoved into little gallery spaces," Chandran tells a visitor. "And I wanted to, right here in Union Square, create a big massive space for them to work with."
Chandran is only 27, but she has the background of someone who is suited to gallery ownership. Her father is an entrepreneur who emigrated from India and started an oil company, and she inherited his ability to take risks in areas that require passion and motivation. Chandran, who grew up in Millbrae, studied mass media and communications at New York University, taking business and art classes on the side. She always knew she'd return to the Bay Area. And she knew that art was her forte.
"My big adventure growing up was to go to San Francisco and look at the art — that was my escape, and it helped me go through a lot of my younger years," says Chandran, whose gallery sponsored art events before the building opened. "As I got older, I started to really get interested in the contexts of mass publics and art, and communication between the two. I came back here and the galleries were leaving. And the scene that I'd grown up and loved, and took shelter in, was leaving. And people were saying that art was dying in San Francisco. But I've always loved how art mixes in with this city. I wanted to see it come back and get the respect it deserves."
For longtime San Francisco galleries that rent their spaces, especially those on Geary St. near Union Square, the recent upturn in San Francisco's real-estate has pushed many to the brink. Among the high-profile Geary galleries that have been forced out in the past two years: George Krevsky Gallery, Rena Bransten Gallery, and Patricia Sweetow Gallery.
At Chandran Gallery, Swampy's art makes for an ideal first exhibit. His work features new images and video from train- and boat-hopping ventures from Mexico to Alaska. The people Swampy captures are like him: stowaways and riders of the rails. Swampy rarely appears in person at his shows, so the July 25 opening at Chandran Gallery attracted fans from around the western United States.
"My family came, and then the loyal scenesters came at night, and then I won't forget it: These punk kids who don't have the money to buy anything at art shows, coming from different states, spending $40 on a book [of Swampy's art], because they're so loyal," Chandran says. "I saw these kids with spikes, and vests, and the patches, curled up in the corner just adoring every single page. So many of these kids thanked me for opening the gallery and showing this type of artist. They felt like they'd been shut out. That was very special for me."
Chandran says she spent four times as much upgrading 459 Geary St. as she did buying it in 2010 — costs that included seismic improvements, redesigning the layout, and eliminating years of previous construction neglect. In the building's previous state, the interior almost resembled a war zone. The gallery is 6,500 square feet. "I designed every inch," she says of the transformation. "It took five years." Looking around her gallery, Chandran says she's still amazed at the building's transformation. "It's a dream come true," Chandran says, adding, "It's an investment of passion. There's no limit to what I would do for artists."
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