Exterior of Cruise Control Cambria gallery in California (photo John Seed/Hyperallergic)

After financial struggles and multiple gallery closures in the wake of COVID-19, California’s art world is finally experiencing a surge of optimism, resulting in a host of emerging gallerists and new galleries. Inspired, flexible, and passionate about visual art, this generation of gallerists is defined by innovation as they find novel ways to establish and run their spaces.

The three profiled below vary in some practical respects — for example, they range in size from 600 to 3,500 square feet — but all are managed by people who believe they can sustain personalized business models that prioritize community and access over profit.

Cruise Control Cambria

1075 Main Street, Cambria, California
Opened: April 30, 2022 (Instagram)

Situated on the first floor of a small commercial building in a coastal town of 6,000 people, Cruise Control is a 1,000-square-foot “casual contemporary” gallery founded by Charley Smith. Opened as the COVID-19 pandemic waned, Smith comments that “This whole thing is probably just my personal overreaction to watching so many mid-tier galleries close during the pandemic as well as seeing so many institutions from the east coast opening spaces in California, Los Angeles to be specific.” Showing California artists who work in a variety of media in six-week intervals, Smith makes “handshake” deals with his artists (no paperwork) and says he tries to “get out of the way at showtime and let the artist’s work speak for itself.”

Smith, a former postal worker with a background in art, is the gallery’s only employee and he takes work on the side as needed to generate additional income. He describes his business plan as “just foolish enough to believe in this with zero evidence.” He has a master’s degree in film writing and lived in New York City for eight years, where many of his friends were visual artists. He also cites Micol Hebron, with whom he studied, as one inspiration for his interest in art; he calls the artist “My catalyst for personal artistic freedom.” As opposed to many white-cube spaces, Cruise Control cultivates a “sit and stay awhile” atmosphere, and visitors can sip on tea or coffee as they relax on purple cushions. “It’s the smallest acts that remind me this is not a purely transactional retail space,” he comments. “It’s a place for the curious to find on their own when the time is right.”

Benches in the front room of Cruise Control Cambria (photo John Seed/Hyperallergic)
Charlie Smith (photo John Seed/Hyperallergic)

614 Kentucky Street, Bakersfield, California
Opened: March 10, 2023 (Instagram)

Founded in 2023 by curator Rachel McCullah Wainwright and housed in a former movie theater in Bakersfield, RAM Gallery features art made in or relevant to California’s Central Valley. The building’s landlord is LA-based artist Charles Arnoldi, who purchased the 7,000-square-foot space (half of which he uses for art storage) in 2019. Arnoldi worked closely with Wainwright on configuring and designing the interior spaces, which were then constructed by her husband, Henry, and her father. 

During its first two years of operation the gallery will feature group shows that Wainwright hopes will generate dialogues and solidify not only the market but the curatorial vision and future of the space. Her business model also involves engaging a diverse range of collectors. 

“We are strategically working with artists that allow us to have a wide range of price points available,” she offers. “We want everyone to feel welcome and that they can be a part of the ‘art world.’” She plans to host events during each exhibition to highlight specific themes and individual artists. She believes strongly that if cultural dialogues between local artists and community members are created and valued, RAM Gallery can make a significant positive impact on Bakersfield’s culture and establish a lasting presence. 

RAM exterior view (photo John Seed/Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Allen Ruppersberg, “What a Strange Day it has Been” (2018), in The Wilds at RAM (photo by Beth Ann Whittaker)
Rachel and Henry Wainwright of RAM (photo by Andrew Hawley)

Ryan Graff Contemporary 

804 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California
Opened: June 3, 2023 (Instagram)

Ryan Graff, who conceived the idea for his gallery during the COVID-19 lockdown, has an idealistic personal vision. Graff was able to make his vision a reality when a 600-square-foot space on San Francisco’s iconic Sutter Street, formerly occupied by Hashimoto Contemporary, became available. His plan is to focus on representational paintings that possess what he describes as “an alchemical combination of intellect, technique, and emotion, which combine to create soul in paint and pigment.” His roster of local and international artists also features photographers.

It is Graff’s hope that a community will form around his gallery and its values, which include making art accessible to first-time collectors with mid-level incomes; he hopes to find a way for art lovers to bring home works that speak to them in a deeply personal way. Graff, who has designed artist’s books for San Francisco’s Dolby Chadwick Gallery, was able to secure the space and create a financial cushion by building up his savings during the pandemic, and he will continue working as a designer. This financial cushion allows him to alternate between shows that are likely to generate revenue and more “risky” ones. “While I want to be profitable,” he says, “I don’t view RGC as being an enterprise for generating wealth. So long as I can pay the rent and incidentals, I’m going to show what I believe in, not something that’s necessarily a slam-dunk for sales.”

Installation view of Barron Storey: Recollection at Ryan Graff Contemporary (photo by Ryan Graff)
Installation view of Future Present at Ryan Graff Contemporary (photo by Ryan Graff)
Ryan Graff (photo by N.D. Koster)

John Seed is a professor emeritus of art and art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California. He is also the author of Disrupted Realism: Paintings for a Distracted World (2019) and More...