There's a new reason to head to Grand Avenue's arts district. Unexpected Art Gallery, located at 734 West Polk Street, opened during the Grand Avenue Festival on November 14. Since then, it's hosted the annual exhibition of the ASU Sculpture Club, a one-night show held during First Friday on December 4, and established regular hours on First Fridays.
Gallery principal Ben Smith runs the art space and works with building owner John Lines, who serves as president of Surplus Asset Management, a company that was using the space to store items purchased for resale. (Think fixtures from restaurants going out of business.) Smith has worked at Surplus Asset Management for about a year now as its chief strategic officer, but he consulted with Lines for several years prior.
Smith says they started talking about six months ago about clearing out the Grand Avenue space and making it more habitable, hoping to create a place where they could display and sell Lines’ collection of eclectic objects acquired through the years – including antiques and works of art. Everything in the space, which constantly changes as the asset management company acquires new goods, is for sale.
Instead of storing things in a warehouse, Lines and Smith have arranged objects into displays. Some are in cases, others on tabletops. Works of art line gallery-style walls. At any given time, you might find a $5 print and a $9,000 art object exhibited side by side. Although neither has an arts background, Lines is a longtime collector, and Smith says he has consulted for several years with artists throughout the Southwest — helping them with design, marketing, and other business-related aspects of being an artist.
They spent about three months transforming the space into Unexpected Art Gallery, Smith says. The gallery’s name is meant to reflect the fact that it houses pieces not found in most art galleries. Smith expects the offerings will change every week or so as works are sold and new items are acquired. Smith says they have more than 550 framed works of art, more than 10,000 art prints, more than 200 antiques, and objects from around the world such as Indian tribal masks and Tibetan brass pieces. Smith describes the place as “quirky, unique, and unstuffy.”
Since they're typically open only on First Fridays and Third Thursdays, those who want to explore the gallery other times need to make an appointment. Most of the time, the gallery contains an evolving collection of objects, but they will also be presenting exhibitions of additional works — including those by local artists. Smith says checking their website is the best way to keep track of upcoming shows.
Works on view span several decades. During the Grand Avenue Festival, they included a 1930s circus poster priced at $725, a World War II-era Navajo weaving priced at $450, an oil on wood painting by Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia (whose murals inside GreenHaus were lost to demolition earlier this year) priced at $2,750, and contemporary paintings by local artist Lucretia Torva — who teaches classes at the gallery.
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“It’s not your normal art gallery,” Smith says of the space. There's a pool table, a claw machine, and a grand piano with a sign inviting visitors to sit down and play it. They’re all located near the back of the space, where there’s also an opening to something Smith calls the Back Alley. It’s an outdoor area with a 24-foot by 14-foot stage and room for vendors to sell their wares during special events.
During the “After Hours” portion of this year’s Grand Avenue Festival, they cleared space inside the gallery for a circus-inspired fashion show presented by Marshall Shore, creating a runway between long rows of chairs. And Smith says they will be the site for the latest iteration of the annual “Inspired Soles” exhibition of artist-decorated stilettos this spring.
Lines and Smith are planning several additional projects to increase the venue’s offerings — including a maker space, game room, art library, VIP space, and studio for photography as well as video and audio recordings. They’ve yet to announce a timeline for when these projects will be completed, but Smith says it could take 18 months or so to bring everything on board. In the meantime, they’ve got plenty of art and other objects to share.
Smith says they're eager to engage with local artists and community members. They’re open to suggestions about ways the space can fill the needs of local artists. “We want to be connected with the whole art community.”