Collecting pop culture
By Carlo Wolff
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” comes to mind when one enters District Gallery, a welcoming, 1,500-square-foot enterprise at the Van Aken District in Shaker Heights.
The phrase is the title of a short story by Ernest Hemingway, a writer who believed in trimming language to its essence. Like Hemingway’s prose, there’s no fat in the District Gallery, which opened in August 2019 at 20076 Walker Road. Rather, there is decidedly contemporary art, spanning paintings by the clear-eyed and celebrated American Alex Katz, the tactile resin blocks of Venezuelan native Alejandra Nuñez Advent, and the pop pointillism of Gavin Rain – a South African like Richard Uria, one of the gallery partners.
While the space is about more than pop art, it is all about pop culture, targeting collectors from sneakerheads to connoisseurs. And it’s doing really well, according to Uria, who owns the gallery along with retired pharmacist and philanthropist Bob Roth and Roth’s niece, Karen Chaikin.
Uria, who is also a philatelist, is in the lumber business. Chaikin’s background is journalism. All three are art collectors. How they came together is a trip – literally.
A friend familiar with Roth’s collection introduced Uria to Roth some 10 years ago, when they first discussed opening a gallery, Roth says. He resisted.
“I honestly don’t think galleries do very well in this city,” Roth says – though, he admits, he’s happily been proven wrong. Talks continued over the years, and what finally sealed the deal was a long flight from Johannesburg back home to the States about two years ago, when Uria and Roth sat next to each other, talked art non-stop and agreed to give a gallery a try.
Once “we had the whole concept in place,” Uria says, “Karen became part of the journey and she became our partner.”
“We all play a role in what we acquire,” he says. “As partners, we discuss artists that we want to work with, artists that we want to consider representing, and artists that we want to bring to Cleveland to show their exceptional work.
“The gallery is a passion and an incredible business that’s really taken off very well, but my full-time business is the lumber industry,” he adds.
A different kind of showplace
Chaikin says the three chose to locate in the Van Aken District because “the vibe just felt so comfortable.”
“We really liked the sense of community, we liked the clientele, and it just felt like a really good fit, and it has been,” she says. “We have a really nice partnership with the district. We have done joint events together. They’re super supportive of our presence here, and we have some of our artwork throughout the district.”
Prices at District Gallery run from $75 to $25,000, reflecting its target market: collectors, from beginners to veterans.
“Our belief is that anyone and everyone can be a collector, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money to start collecting art,” Chaikin says. “We’ve seen from sneakerhead culture that young kids are starting to collect sneakers that have value, and they’re buying and selling them. That generation is starting to look at the art world. … For example, the athletes are all buying art; their people love collecting. So we see this as an opportunity to bring that type of collector to the mix, in addition to showing really fine art and representing some very established artists.”
The gallery has already engaged with Xhibition, Robert Rosenthal’s high-tech, high-fashion (and high-ticket) store a few steps away, and hopes to collaborate at some point: Some Xhibition customers have expressed interest in District Gallery art that hangs there, Chaikin says. She and her partners also are working with an influencer DJ helping the gallery with social media and “connecting to that clientele.”
“We are constantly getting in new work and our walls are always fresh, being switched up every month or so,” says Carolina Kane, a District Gallery artist and the gallery’s manager. “We give clients and visitors stories to tell once their art is at home. We are all about making art accessible and attainable to everyone.”
Although plans have not solidified, “2022 will bring many exciting things for District Gallery,” Kane says.
“We will be doing a winter show featuring all new work by our artists,” she says. “We are also working on collaborations with our artists that will target the sneakerheads and athletes, as they are fast becoming great collectors. This collaboration truly fits into the part of our mission about how anyone can become a collector regardless of age or economic status.”
And not only does District Gallery aim to connect to Northeast Ohio’s larger art community – and beyond – it’s working its way into the Van Aken District, a creative variation on a suburban mall with unique offerings in fashion, food, clothing, wellness products and a sense of community all its own.
“Whether you’re buying a $250 print or a $21,000 original painting,” Chaikin says, “we want to help everyone, and we want this to be a comfortable space to do that.”
That space can be actual, virtual or even at the customer’s home. The COVID-19 pandemic led to improvisation.
“We had to pivot the way we went to market,” Uria says. “We did a lot of virtual art placements for clients in their homes, and we did some virtual art programs for clients. We actually continued to operate very well, but it was virtual and by appointment only until we fully opened again in the latter part of 2020.”
Chaikin, Uria and Roth are, above all, art lovers who learned about art through collecting. Chaikin suggests she and Uria enjoy communicating that love to their clients (Roth plays more of an advisory role). Being personal arts shoppers – visiting homes to advise customers on what art they should buy and where it should go – has been “a huge part of our business,” she says.
“Very few people come in and buy a piece of art off the wall,” she says. “We go into their home, we talk about what speaks to them, we look at their taste, and we will often bring several pieces to the house and hang them to see what they like. But we also have a program on the computer that allows us to virtually hang pieces on people’s walls.”
In addition, corporate business is growing fast, Chaikin says, citing a client of Uria’s who is in the metals business and wanted a triptych for his company’s wall. Uria commissioned a District Gallery artist to create a lenticular, personalized work including the client’s logo and other business signifiers. The gallery also is working with a local cheese company seeking to fill its corporate headquarters with art. It has connected that company to its artists, told the artists what the company stands for, “and had our artists do commissioned pieces that speak to their brand and what they produce.”
The three partners see corporate business as “very low-hanging fruit,” developed by marrying artists to companies that know what they want to communicate about their culture and values.
Cleveland artist Lauren Mckenzie Noel was commissioned to create a huge mural about community for the front area of the cheese company. Chaikin shows a giant, stylized wedge of cheese destined for the lobby. South African artist Neill Wright made it of acrylic and resin. Don’t bite into it.
Local artists who have shown in District Gallery since it opened in August 2019
Amber N. Ford
Austin Halpern (Born in Cleveland, currently lives in Telluride, Colo.)
Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson
Alejandra Núñez Advent
Norm Paris (Born in Cleveland, currently lives in New York)
Marc Ross (Born in Cleveland, currently lives in Columbus)
Paula Grant Rubinstein
H. Spencer Young (Born in Cleveland, currently lives in New York)