The irrepressible Sylvia White and the tough decision to close her gallery
By Michel Miller 05/01/2014
Late last year, after developing an annoying facial tic and some other symptoms, Sylvia White walked into her doctor’s office and joked that she probably had a brain tumor. Two months later she underwent delicate surgery to remove a relatively large, but benign mass that she named Cruella de Ville. She went public about the life-altering experience on her blog last week and dropped another bombshell: She’s closing her Ventura art gallery. Many factors, all personal, played into the bittersweet decision to pack up the space, including the upcoming birth of her first grandchild. In the five years that her gallery has been open in Midtown, White has brought some of the world’s most celebrated contemporary artists to the area, including Ed Moses, Don Ed Hardy and Christo. Her husband, John, an internationally respected performance artist and collected visual artist has also made an impact on the community through his work and involvement; that will not change. The two will maintain a studio and office in an industrial area of Ventura where she will continue her 35-year consulting career and he will make art. The gallery is closing its doors on July 15. There will be two more exhibits before then: “Collector’s Choice,” which opened last week, will run through May 25, and Jim Murray which opens June 7.
While White has a huge heart for Ventura and its artists, she does not mince words when it comes to government leadership, policies and attitudes concerning the arts community. She took a few minutes to speak with VCReporter before heading off to yoga class.
VCReporter: How have your feelings about the city’s art community changed since first moving here?
Sylvia White It’s important that people of Ventura understand this was a tremendous labor of love for me. My [consulting] business is what supported the gallery. I know I was appreciated, [but] no one wanted to take the next step in terms of getting educated or leveraging the experience of having me there.
There are five museums in striking distance. Not one of them approached me or tried to take advantage of the times when I had big-name artists in town, or buy work or [seek] my advice about curatorial decisions. The minute I moved here the city discontinued grants for artists and buying art. The [Museum of Ventura County’s] acquisition committee is made of people who know nothing about art. There is no curatorial person on the committee. You can’t have laypeople making those kinds of decisions. There are some extraordinary Ventura artists [whose work has] not seen the inside of the museum. The resources are not being tapped. It’s like having an oil well in your back yard and not tapping it. I adore Ventura. I respect the artists. There are things that happened to me that would never have happened in L.A. It’s been great for me. I think I was a great ambassador for Ventura. Everyone would say, “Why are you in Ventura,” and I loved answering that because it’s such a vital arts community. There is something to do every night and that is the beauty of a small vital art-scene town. I will miss that. I feel very proud and satisfied. I don’t know that I’m going to have a gallery again or what the future will bring. But right now I want to focus on my consulting business and being a grandma — and on getting better. I am healed as much as I can be physically, but the tumor took a toll on me emotionally. When you think you’re going to die it changes you in profound ways.
So the city lost its cultural focus.
I don’t think the city has any. What are they doing? There’s no support for the arts anymore. When I moved here there was this great article in the Wall Street Journal that talked about how artists moving into a community is the No. 1 reason real estate prices go up. The city did this whole study. . . . I remember sitting in these sessions for hours and hours talking about how much the economy is stimulated by having artists there. And still, nothing. I admire the art community for surviving because the city has done nothing for them.
Is the city doing anything right?
No. Everything I came here for has been dismantled. Public art, the grants program. City Hall stopped buying art, ArtWalk isn’t funded anymore. There were the electrical boxes and the bus stops . . . they were so cool! What happened to that? OK, the money dried up, but you know, you have to put things in priority. If you want businesses like mine to stay in Ventura, you need to show you deserve it. The city flat-out dropped the ball.
What does a robust and sustainable art scene look like?
It looks like it did when I first came here. And that would have been the city continuing the support of the arts through the grants. It was the city’s funding the ArtWalk. The city should have done something to promote the WAV on a more national level, and [addressed] the disaster of the downstairs not being rented. That building should not have been occupied until the downstairs was full. That could have been a vital community, it could have been a phenomenal project, and they kind of left it on its own to flounder. A vital arts city would have had all those things I was promised when I came here, which is what made it exciting for me.
What is important for people to know about you and the closing of the gallery?
A: I’m OK. B: I love what I do and I’m not going to stop. C: The brain tumor opened a new world for me that I never knew I had. I would never have taken a month away if this hadn’t happened. There’s some kind of Einstein theory about when two like energies meet, and it was something my daughter said. It wouldn’t have taken knee surgery or pneumonia, it had to be a brain tumor. It had to be the most serious thing imaginable to stop me. I feel like I dodged a bullet.