Sometimes there’s more to a story than meets the eye. Dennis Calabi is a shining example.
His unassuming storefront, Calabi Gallery, sits on Tenth Street in downtown Santa Rosa, where its simple exterior belies both its contents and Calabi himself.
The Calabi Gallery is extending its current “contemporary” exhibition for another few weeks, through June 4. In order to understand the gallery’s present, however, one must understand Calabi himself and the path that led him here.
Calabi grew up on a farm in rural New York state, the son of two Holocaust refugees. His parents, city folk who missed the art and culture of their former metropolitan European lives, exposed him to both from an early age, instilling in him a lifelong interest in art and artists. He moved to the West Coast to attend UC Berkeley in the 1960s, dropped out after a year, and then opened an art gallery with his father and began voraciously reading histories of American painting, ultimately specializing in 19th century American landscapes.
He also began visiting museums and galleries, but quickly concluded they were part of a corrupt, dog-eat-dog world that would eat him and his father alive. Still wanting to work with fine art in some capacity, though, in 1968 he found a mentor and entered into an “Old World” apprenticeship, where he worked six days a week for free, and learned his life’s trade as an art restorer in a mere two years, without putting his parents into debt or going into debt himself. Since 1970, he has been in private practice as a conservator of paintings.
In the ensuing years, he stayed mostly in the Bay Area, eventually moving north from San Francisco in search of a slower-paced life. While he initially opened Calabi Gallery in Petaluma 13 years ago with hopes he could find “a more sedentary and less stressful way of working with art,” he found that in reality he’s “in the studio day and night trying to pay for the gallery, which has never even broken even, let alone made a profit.” He says his clientele includes “anyone who calls—museums, dealers, collectors, people who own a few pieces, whatever.”
Having found that shipping paintings is an expensive and risky proposition, he tends to keep local Bay Area clients, sometimes even picking up and delivering paintings himself. In fact, more than once he’s weighed shipping costs and odds, and driven all the way to Los Angeles to hand-deliver restored paintings to their owners. After four years in Petaluma, he moved his gallery to its current Santa Rosa location, and still restores paintings in his home studio.
The Calabi Gallery is set up such that the first little room to the right upon entering has a more static, traditional—that is, either antique or modern contemporary works in the old style—inventory, while the main room and the other side room show more movement with their inventory as exhibitions with various themes come and go.
The gallery’s last show was a solo exhibition of a local artist, Christian Quintin. Calabi writes on his website: “[Quintin’s] fantastic visionary scenes derive much of their power from his remarkable technical skills and his use of the best materials available. While the conceptual compositions are of paramount importance to the art, his technical prowess is extremely rare in contemporary art.”
The show prior to that was part of the international art effort called “Extraction,” a project, organized by the Codex Foundation in Berkeley, which included multiple exhibitions with work by artists who are concerned with humankind’s over-extraction of natural resources and the resulting climate change humans and the planet now experience. Calabi kept the exhibition open for five months, by far the longest he has ever shown one, partly due to “Covid inertia” and partly because it “made an important political statement at a time when few people were coming in.”
Covid hit the gallery hard. “Being mostly closed during that time—except by appointment—had a devastating effect on sales,” Calabi says. “We survived due to much-appreciated government loans and grants, as well as heavily discounted sales to better-heeled dealers.”
The current exhibition, in Calabi’s own words, “represents the eclectic nature of my gallery” and “contains a little bit of everything—some antique, some modern, some contemporary, some totally abstract, some photographic realism—in every conceivable medium.” He adds, “Most [artists] are from the Bay Area, but we show work from all around the country and the world. We also do shows on specific themes, as well as 1- or 2-person shows, but this is clearly not one of them.” When I ask him about the public response to this exhibition, he says, “We haven’t had much traffic … but most visitors were enthusiastic about the experience.”
I know little of art, and expected only paintings when I stepped into Calabi’s gallery. So the delightful, colorful sculptures dotting the floor caught me entirely unaware, and had me smiling ear to ear. When I expressed my surprise, Calabi assured me his gallery contains art of all types—paintings and sculptures among them.
Calabi’s decision to extend the current exhibition through June 4 is informed by his desire to get more people in the gallery, viewing art. Sales tend to be made in-person, not online. With Covid on the wane, he hopes to promote more foot traffic, which is good for the whole downtown area.
What of the future? “Our next show, opening June 11, will feature local artist Alejandro Salazar,” Calabi tells me. “Later this year, we will be showing works by prominent artists working shortly after World War II. We tend to make show decisions spontaneously rather than planning way in advance, but that entails marathon work sessions to accomplish the goal in a reasonably timely fashion. We often display art dealing with social issues and politics during election season. Most shows run for about two months.”
Long ago, Calabi made a conscious choice of lifestyle over professional laurels, eschewing greed for his love of art itself. Still, he’d like to see business pick up, and with Covid on the wane, now is as good a time as any.
His advice to anyone who’d like to know more about his gallery?
“All of our past shows are archived on our website,” he says. “You may wish to glance through them to get a better idea of the breadth of our program.”
Calabi Gallery, 456 Tenth St., Santa Rosa. Hours: Thu–Sat, 11am to 5pm. 707.781.7070 www.calabigallery.com