The Educated Eye

Who is Sylvia White, and what does she mean to the Arts in Ventura?

By Matt Katz, Editor

Owner Sylvia White’s footsteps echo through the open space that characterizes her new fine art gallery in Midtown Ventura. photos by Michael Robinson Chavez.


assersby would never guess that the anonymous building next to a tattoo parlor in Midtown Ventura was a bellwether of the local arts scene. The sign—which reads simply, “Sylvia White Gallery”—is practically invisible. In the adjacent doorway, an inked-up lurker takes a last drag off his cigarette butt before stomping it dead beneath steel-toe Doc Martens. Curls of smoke waft further up Main Street—away from the beach, away from Downtown. Cars whiz past without a glance. It’s not a particularly glitzy neighborhood, but to the educated eye of Sylvia White it’s a prime spot for a fine art gallery.

The new Sylvia White Gallery in Ventura is compelling not only for its unexpected Midtown location, but because it boosts the level of professionalism in a place striving to fulfill the bold moniker of “New Art City.” The interior space—all clean lines and high ceilings and uncluttered displays of internationally acclaimed artwork from the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, John Baldessari, Vija Celmins, and Ed Ruscha—belies the building’s subtle façade. Make no mistake, this fresh addition to Midtown is a milestone in the evolution of Ventura as a cultural city.

In an effort to broaden the perspective—to break the constraints of a straight Q & A with Sylvia White—we invited three select residents of Ventura County to join our discussion: Michael Todd, a renowned sculptor who now lives in Camarillo; Elena Brokaw, the Community Services Director for the City of Ventura, who earned her MFA in fine arts from Harvard; and Alejandra Abella, a Spanish-born art lover now living in Somis.

We’ve limited the editorial voice, stripping down our questions and allowing the participants to share anecdotes and tangential remarks. Essentially, we set the beat and let the others riff on the significance of the Sylvia White Gallery in Ventura—and whatever else fits the discourse.

Alejandra Abella, Elena Brokaw, and Michael Todd.

VENTANA: Was the Midtown location a conscious decision?

SYLVIA WHITE: I specifically did not want to be Downtown. … I felt I needed to make a statement about being different. I knew I was taking a huge risk, but I just wanted to say, “I’m not like the galleries Downtown or on Front Street.” And that’s not to place a value judgment on anything that’s happening here in Ventura; I just wanted to do something different. … I want people to look for me. I don’t want flashy lights. If they want to find me, they will. And that was a huge distinction between Downtown and here. I don’t rely on foot traffic; I can do my sales online and on the phone.

VENTANA: The quantum leap from L.A. to Ventura was another big statement.

SYLVIA WHITE: I’ve always wanted to have a very great gallery. And I wouldn’t have been able to do this in Santa Monica, because a lot of the artists I want to show are already represented by major L.A. galleries, or New York galleries. Michael Todd, for example, would not show with me if I were in Santa Monica. But the fact that I’m in Ventura—I can ask really big name artists to come here; I’m not a threat to the L.A. exclusivity that very established artists have. … And my husband and I were just so happy to find a city that had values that were congruent with our own. I saw Ventura bending over backward to help its artists. … Basically, I’ve spent the last 30 years helping artists learn how to manage their careers and take care of themselves in the business world. To find a whole city that is congruent with your core values is really rare.

Sylvia White at the head of the not-so-round table.

VENTANA (To Michael Todd): As an established artist, what do you require from a gallery?

MICHAEL TODD: A certain level of professionalism is very important. There are a lot of galleries that I would consider local, or provincial, or more amateur. And then there is a professional level, which occurs in most of your major cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Washington D.C. … I need a beautiful space, and at least a decent dealer. … I don’t know if Sylvia will ever sell anything for me; my prices have gotten kind of high. But I have enough income from other sources, so I don’t have to worry too much about it.

SYLVIA WHITE: This brings up another point about why I’m doing this. I’m not really planning to sell any work. I’d love to sell work, and I think it’s a great source of validation for the artist and a great source of income for the gallery, but that’s not my reason for opening the gallery. My reason for opening the gallery is to show artists who wouldn’t show in Ventura otherwise, to raise the caliber of the artists being shown, to get some national spotlight attention in Ventura. I’m really one of the only people who can do that right now.

MICHAEL TODD: There’s a level of galleries that are very professional, and in Ventura County I can’t think of another one apart from Sylvia’s that is at that level.

White and Brokaw bid adieu.

VENTANA: So without this gallery you simply wouldn’t show your work in Ventura County?

MICHAEL TODD: I hate to be a snob, but…

ALEJANDRA ABELLA (To Sylvia White): When you were talking about how impressed you were with Ventura and what it was doing for the artist, you said that to find such a town is rare—you didn’t say unheard of. So who else is doing it?

SYLVIA WHITE: Seattle has set a very high precedent. Portland, too. And it’s funny, I’ve been getting emails from the city of San Pedro saying that they’re trying to follow Ventura’s lead. A Business Week article that came out several months ago called “Bohemian Today, High-Rent tomorrow” has really influenced a lot of cities to understand that maybe they are missing something if they don’t keep track of the Arts. Any artist you talk to knows that. Look at what happened to Venice. Look at what happened to SoHo. Those artists got priced out of the neighborhoods that they were responsible for creating.

The gallery’s contemporary interior space.

VENTANA (To Elena Brokaw): When did the city first start working with Sylvia?

ELENA BROKAW: She actually came here the first time in 2002 and did a career management workshop. The city retained her to do workshops and one-on-one consultations with artists. It was standing-room-only, and we brought her back a number of times. So I think she’s already part of the fabric of Ventura.

MICHAEL TODD: She’s been, for a long time, part of the fabric of Los Angeles. There were some people here for [the inauguration of the gallery] that I was really surprised to see. People from L.A. But you got them up here.

A glimpse of Michael Todd’s large-scale circle sculptures, calligraphic works that express the Zen concept of “everything and nothing.”

VENTANA (To Alejandra Abella): As an art lover, what do you look for in a gallery or museum?

ALEJANDRA ABELLA: I look for space. One of the things that worries me most when I go to museums is the inability to enjoy the art. There’s a dichotomy there: I’m from Europe, and we have to pay for a lot of our museums. But we also have some of the most amazing museums in the world. The Prado in Madrid is kind of the place everybody needs to go and see; it’s a bit of a Mecca. And there are a lot less people than you’ll find here. I also lived for a long time in Washington D.C., where all of the museums are free, so you have hoards of people going through. There’s a beautiful part—that the art is open to everybody—but on the other hand, there are a lot of people just sort of cruising by what they’re looking at. I always wonder, is anything sticking?

MICHAEL TODD: Things do stick. Speaking from my own experience, when I was 18 in Chicago I saw this painter at the Art Institute, and he was just slathering paint all over the place. I was so insulted. A monkey could do that! Within six months it had worked on my mind. Of course the painter was Jackson Pollock. My whole life now has been trying to, not make Jackson Pollock’s, but to get that freedom.

SYLVIA WHITE: Just to get back to Alejandra’s point about space: I think a lot of people don’t realize that you need physical space around the artwork to allow you to have a primary experience with it. So when you go into these galleries and there’s all mishmash millions of things on one wall, it prevents you from being able to have a primary experience with that particular piece of art. At the opening, someone came in here and asked when I was going to put the rest of the work up. And I said, “This is it; this is the show.” I do expect to get some anger as a result of what I’m doing. I had a couple of watercolor artists come in here, and they asked, “Is this the kind of stuff you’re going to be showing?” I said, “Yeah.” And they kind of turned around and walked out.

Sylvia White has, over the past 30 years, developed a professional touch for exhibiting fine art. “You need physical space around the artwork to allow you to have a primary experience with it,” she says.

VENTANA (To Elena Brokaw): How do you think this gallery is going to affect the way people outside the city perceive Ventura?

ELENA BROKAW: This gallery is extraordinarily important at this particular time in Ventura’s evolution as a cultural city. … We’ve been working step by step with a big vision in mind, which is that Ventura will be an Art City in the California geography. But it takes a lot of little steps to get there. We have a lot of galleries in town that show local artists, but I think Sylvia is taking us up a step. A big step. And I think it’s going to make a critical difference in how people see Ventura. In fact, they will have heard ofVentura, and associate it with the Arts.

VENTANA (To Sylvia White): As a curator, what kind of artists do you find yourself drawn to?

SYLVIA WHITE: I find myself drawn to work that speaks to me. And I think that is a result of an accumulation of visual imagery that a person has over their entire lifetime. Just having a place for people to walk in and see the art—they don’t have to learn about it, they don’t have to be lectured about it—the visual stimuli does something in your brain that teaches you how to develop your eye.

MICHAEL TODD: We talk about “the eye” a lot in art, about the educated eye. Well, the educated eye is going to a lot of art exhibits.

ELENA BROKAW: One of the interesting challenges of thinking about this gallery belonging in Ventura is that there is sort of a disconnect between the general population and art. People don’t think of art as something that they can relate to, that they can do, that they can own. People are much more likely to go to Z Gallerie and buy a reproduction, partially because—and certainly this is true in Ventura—[art] does have a connotation of being exclusive and not belonging to us. … I like the way this is another gallery that anybody can come into. It belongs to all of us. Everybody is welcome. And that’s partially because [Sylvia] has an open and welcoming spirit—which I think is very important for a fine art gallery in Ventura.

SYLVIA WHITE: I know that galleries can be very intimidating. Sometimes you walk into the galleries at Bergamot Station and you feel like you’ve walked into someone’s bedroom. So I do make an effort to really make people feel comfortable here. … Ventura as California’s New Art City is not about one gallery or quality artists or museums or getting to know about art. It’s about the common person having art in their lives every day. Having art be relevant. That’s my goal, and that’s the definition of the New Art City. It’s not the art scene. It’s not artists. It’s everybody feeling that art is relevant to their lives.


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