Altadena native Ben McGinty had a vision for this sleepy, unincorporated town when he first opened his art gallery on North Lake Avenue in 1994. McGinty wanted to see the business community come together and nurture a local self-sustaining economy.
Unfortunately, after 16 years in business and several transformations, his vision has not yet been realized, and so the 47-year-old has decided to close his popular Gallery at the End of the World after one more weekend-long event, which begins tonight and continues through Sunday evening.
“I really hoped this area would take off,” said McGinty. “But it didn’t, so we did our own thing for awhile. Unfortunately, now it’s time for me to relinquish the reins of trying to build this business community and let someone else run with it.”
He added that it’s not hopeless for the area to be that ideal community. “It will never be a Sierra Madre, but things can get better business-wise,” he said.
Los Angeles County officials have been helping by lifting bans on parking and making the area more business-friendly. But McGinty said he just can’t wait another 10 years for that possibility to materialize. It’s just not financially viable for him.
Over the past 16 years, his shop has moved back and forth between two adjacent buildings owned by separate landlords and has morphed from a vintage clothing and collectibles store to an underground coffee bar to the Underground Art Society to the Gallery at the End of the World, located at 2475 N. Lake Ave. He began hosting monthly “art bender” weekends, which became very popular events with each attracting nearly 1,000 people. Then the events were held only once every three months.
The problem, McGinty said, was that people would come and hang out but rarely buy art, and the $5 cover charge for events just wasn’t enough to pay the rent. He was constantly breaking even and at times making up the difference out of his own pocket.
“I want to get back to being an artist and making more art and stop being an arts promoter and events coordinator,” he said. “I’m feeling the clock ticking. About every four years I reinvent myself.”
Rumors of his art gallery closing have circulated before in the past few years, but he says this time it’s for good.
Leigh Adams, who has worked with McGinty since the beginning, said she was saddened by news of yet another local business closing, especially one that tried so hard to bring the community together and one she spent so many years helping stay afloat.
“My kids grew up working in Ben’s underground coffee shop and vintage clothing store,” she said. “They learned a lot from Ben about how to support one another and their community, and what community actually means. He provided countless opportunities for young artists to show their work and brought other artists together to collaborate.”
However, for whatever reason, all McGinty’s efforts just weren’t enough to transform Altadena, which, ironically, was built by artists more than 100 years ago.
As to the community not taking to McGinty’s vision of a growing local economy, Dave Lovejoy, who has worked with McGinty for more than four years, said it’s a culmination of a lot of things.
“It’s a small community and therefore a small community of artists and supporters of the arts,” he said. “And in these current economic times, it’s just tough for a business like an art gallery.”
Helena Davies, whose parents, Richard and Gwenda Davies, participated in many of McGinty’s art showings, began as a patron of the gallery and before long started helping out by bartending at events. She sees the closure as a further fragmentation of a struggling community.
“It’s definitely the end of something special,” she said. “We’ve all gone there and developed a social network, and now it’s leaving. I don’t know why it didn’t come together, but it’s going to leave a big hole.”
McGinty’s gallery is an art installation in and of itself, which is one of the reasons why it became such a popular social hang out. Besides the main, more traditional indoor gallery, the backyard, which used to be a parking lot, is a world unto its own. From antique street signs to a vintage bar to a wooden stage to cubbies outfitted for individual artists to hundreds of magnifying glasses hanging from what once was a small trumpet vine that has now grown exponentially and wrapped itself around the fences of the property and over the makeshift canopy, stepping into this world is like entering an artist’s paradise.
“You could say that trumpet vine really tied the room together,” McGinty joked, adding that it’s one of the main things he will miss when he dismantles his “environmental installation” gallery in the coming months.
McGinty’s efforts to grow the local economy went beyond fun, well-attended art show parties. He spoke to the Altadena Town Council and the Altadena Chamber of Commerce numerous times about his ideas for local growth. He said his ideas fell on deaf ears.
He also formed the Arts Coalition along with other local merchants near the intersection of Lake Avenue and Mariposa Street. They started holding festivals in the alley just south of his gallery in an effort to get the community excited about the fact that they have a community.
“I would like to salute Ben for what he intended to do and did for everyone, and I’m sorry he didn’t receive enough support,” said Adams.
The Altadena Arts Council, which formed shortly after McGinty’s Underground Art Society in 2002, gave McGinty a Certificate of Recognition in 2007 for his contributions to the Altadena arts community. He received similar certificates of congratulations shortly thereafter from county Supervisor Michael Antonovich, Congressman Adam Schiff and then-state Sen. Jack Scott.
But McGinty and the Arts Council never officially collaborated because, according to McGinty, they had separate agendas.
“At first I thought it would be a great organization to promote local artists, but they focus primarily on art events for children,” he said. “And my scene is more about uncensored, edgy work by up-and-coming artists and aspiring artists. So the Arts Council and I never really linked.”
Adams said divisions among the Altadena community and different organizations that represent the community were among the reasons why there wasn’t enough support for McGinty’s vision.
“Ben had a visionary concept and many people couldn’t conceive of how those ideas would work without their versions of controls and checks and balances,” said Adams. “They often don’t give something an opportunity to test itself. In Altadena, we have an unusual situation since we’re unincorporated and we have an on-again off-again Town Council, who are, for the most part, very nice people trying very hard to do something that isn’t easy: reaching a consensus. But I still would have liked to see a lot more support from every area of the community.”
The highlight of his 16 years of service in Altadena, McGinty said, was watching artists’ work progressing after being shown at his gallery.
“I could see their confidence level growing and their art becoming more precise,” he said. “Seeing where artists come from and go creatively is phenomenal. That’s what I’ve loved most about all this.”
He said after the gallery is shut down he will continue to sell his wares at local flea markets. One of his many dreams is to some day open a men’s vintage clothing store. He has more than enough in his collection to make that dream a reality.
In the meantime, he just wants to get back to cultivating himself as an artist. One of his favorite quotes is “A world without art is a world without a future.” He said we haven’t realized yet that we need to focus on restoring the biggest art piece, the earth, which he compared to a painting.
“The world is one big art ball that we just keep fucking up,” he said. “So we must continue to make art, and that’s what I intend to do.”
On that note, McGinty encourages everyone to come by this weekend for one last celebration of a venerable Altadena relic. The four-day event, which includes the works of nearly 50 artists, including featured artist and Pasadena City College student Brian Dario, kicks off tonight from 6 to 9 p.m. with an artist’s reception and a performance by HB3 & Friends. The reception is free and open to the public.
From 7 p.m. Friday to 1 a.m. Saturday is the big Art Club Opening. The Subs with Chicos Bail Bonds and Nocturra & Ric Sarabia will perform. There is a $5 cover charge. On Saturday, watch Artichoke perform and bring a dish for the potluck barbeque from noon to 6 p.m.
Also on Saturday, 25 local merchants are sponsoring “The North Lake Pole Holiday Festival” in the alley south of McGinty’s gallery and just north of Mariposa Street from 4 to 9 p.m. The event will include music, food, a raffle and sledding with real snow, which will be set up on the hill at the alley’s east entrance. Santa himself will be making an appearance at 6 p.m., according to sources who requested to remain anonymous.
HB3 will perform again Sunday for the final event, a brunch from noon to 6 p.m. appropriately titled “Tie One On.”