Culver City


I was still looking tirelessly for a new space to house the gallery in and I wasn’t posting on social media about it because my ego was telling me that I WOULD FIND THE NEW LOCATION MYSELF and that it would be weak to publicly ask for help. Which, of course was total bullshit. And just about the time I realized that, something magical happened. I got a Facebook message from a friend.

The artist Camilla Taylor, told me about these guys in Culver City who were trying to sublet their former gallery space named Bustamante Gil. They had gotten tired with the art businesses and wanted to rent out half of the space to someone trustworthy while they retained the other half as personal offices. Camilla had shown at their gallery before so I had actually been there and knew it was in a great area.

I drove over to meet Eli and then later his businesses partner Jon at the space and signed an agreement within 48 hours to sublet it. It was nearly half the amount of the Santa Monica space, at $1100 per month for about 400 square feet, and in the epicenter of Los Angeles' fine art world. The block we were on (which is technically Los Angeles, but considered by the crowd to be Culver City) had international galleries on it selling million dollar works of art. It was almost too good to be true.

Foot traffic in Culver City was a lot less than I was used to in Santa Monica. In Santa Monica thousands, if not millions of people, would walk by our windows everyday whereas in Culver City we would be lucky if 4 or 5 people walked in. The spaces around us were catering to a very specific crowd, whereas our target audience was the general public. 

However, it was the most exciting space in the universe at the time because I had it all to myself. Yes, it was a sublet, but my wife and I installed a door between the two halves so it was completely isolated. 

I had built custom furniture for the Santa Monica location, but I began to really expand that practice in order to execute ideas that went beyond the typical gallery environment. I even built sandwich boards and designed walking maps of all the galleries around us to put out on the street so more people could learn about what was going on. Including, the patrons of the bar across the road who barely knew the galleries existed since most of the other spaces were fairly private. I even built a very special sandwich board to let people know about our gallery, which was located in the driveway of our courtyard and read “Daniel Rolnik Gallery is up your butt and around the corner” since you couldn’t see us from the street and on the back it said “WARNING: if you didn’t buy anything my mom will come to your house and fart on your pillow!”

While all this great stuff was happening, the guys I had been subletting from warned me about the actual landlord, who was an evil harsh man that owned the entire block. But I had never seen him until my very last day there, when he wrecked everything.

Here's a little backstory leading up the chaos.

This new gallery space in Culver City had a massive courtyard in the front. It was kind of weird. If you were walking down the street you would see a big gate and then inside that gate was the courtyard with three different businesses inside of it - one of which was ours; way far in the back that you couldn't see unless you actually walked in. During the exhibit's opening reception before our final one, I had an idea to have The Radioactive Chicken Heads perform in the courtyard, They’re an epic band who put on a whole theatrical show with props and costumes and they played and it was epic! Inspiring me to have the even bigger idea of throwing a carnival. It was a two-fold experiment. One, I wanted to throw a carnival and Two, I wanted to see if it was possible to throw my own art fair. 

I invited a little over 20 artists, galleries, and makers to participate as well as had my intern at the time, Ansar, book a bunch of local bands he knew in addition to my other friend Kyle booking a string of comedians who could do a set while each band set up. It was a simple pitch to the vendors: bring your own table and I'll promote it. No one would have to pay anything to attend or be a vendor - they would only pay for whatever each vendor was selling directly from them if they wanted to buy it. 

The gallery was having an opening reception for our artist Keith Dugas inside on top of what I was calling the "Epic Carnival" outside. It didn't even occur to me to tell the 'evil' landlord I had heard so much about, about this event, because in my mind he would either say no or ask me for money. And besides, for the past 6 months he hadn't shown up a single time, so I figured my odds were good.

We advertised the carnival to run from noon to midnight and I let the vendors know they could come at whatever time they liked. So, most arrived at around 11am that morning to set up and in effect be there all day. Things were going great. Bands were playing, comedians were performing, guests were coming and buying things, and everyone was in high spirits. At around 5pm our wave of 'all-star' vendors came by to set up and Ice Cream Ian arrived. He's an epic dude from Long Beach who bought an old ice cream truck and as a project uses it to give out free ice cream to people, which he was able to do until 6pm, when all hell broke loose.

At 6pm, the ‘evil’ landlord who I had heard so much about arrived. It was as if all joyous energy was sucked out of the world as he approached me. I hadn’t even seen a photo of him before, but I knew exactly who it was. It was one of the weirdest sensations I’ve personally ever felt. He started telling me in the coldest way possible that he was going to call the cops and say we were all trespassing on his property. And it was 100% apparent that he wasn’t a man that bluffed.

He was on the phone with his assistant or someone in his office and taking photos of the scene, when I carefully took the microphone from a comedian’s hands who was in the midst of their punchline and said the carnival is over and we all have to go home along with a short and sweet apology. To this day, I feel bad that I didn’t get to explain to the comedian that it wasn’t their fault. I had this odd sense they thought it was because of a joke they told. When in fact, it had nothing to do with that at all and everything to do with greed.

In my head, I had assessed and assumed that if he called the cops we would all get taken to jail and I would be slapped with a huge fine, since there was probably some kind of permit we needed to have for live music and people selling goods in the courtyard. And in this assessment I thought it was best to shut everything down, which is what I did. But I found out later from a police officer that it would’ve been alright to continue the event. Even though I wasn’t on the tenant agreement with the landlord, I had been given a key to the space and had received mail there, which in effect rendered me a legal tenant. So, had he called the cops, I would not have been trespassing. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this at the time so needless to say I was scared on the inside but trying to only show strength on the outside. 

Before any of the vendors could make it out of the gates, the landlord had positioned himself in the driveway and was in the process of locking over 200 people inside. In effect, kidnapping and holding us all hostage. Luckily, I was able to position my foot in-between the gate and where it would’ve locked us all in place. On one side I could see the faces of everyone trying to leave and the other a man holding a cell phone continuing to threaten me with the police - this time while saying I was assaulting him because I was trying to keep the door open so people could leave. 

The first person to run out was the photographer I had hired to document the event. And then thankfully others followed suite to the point where he could no longer hold the gate closed on us anymore. The landlord and I started walking towards the gallery with me constantly and calmly talking with him to get him not to call the police. Eventually he told me we could make a deal and almost knocks over my grandmother in the process of pulling me aside to tell me what he wanted without anyone else hearing.

His deal was that I paid him $500 so he would go away. I didn’t have $500 on me, but I did have $300, so I gave it to him - which people saw. I made sure to look him in the eyes and shake his hand on the deal, which he did. And afterwards he continued for a little bit to threaten people, but eventually walked away - having extorted me for money in an old world style shakedown. 

The vendors tore down their gear in a manner of about 15 minutes and were out of there. My intern and his buddy gave me the tips that were supposed to be for the bands at the end of the night. And like that, this happy joyous event was over. We kept the gallery open, but announced everything had been shut down on social media.

Eventually, a few days later I got the cash back from the landlord. He came to the gallery to torment me and as he was leaving he said ‘you’re a good actor’ to which I replied, ‘No, I’m just a Jewish kid from Los Angeles’. Once he found out I was Jewish something clicked in his brain. Had I been born any other race or religion he would’ve had no problem taking my money, but when he found out I was just like him (minus the evil part) it was as though he realized he had sinned and thought God was going to punish him for it.

He proceeded to tell me about how he was actually a good person. To which I replied, if you’re such a good person why did you take my money and disrupt a peaceful and wonderful event. He came up with the excuse that he was teaching me a lesson and that when someone interferes with his property he becomes vicious. 

It was so fucking weird. He went on to tell me his life story and eventually give me back half of my money. He assumed the guys I was subletting from were in on the event too and that the other half of the money was theirs - which he didn’t mind keeping. Like I said, it was weird. He even came back the next day and offered to be my business partner - saying he would rent me out the space for free as long as we split the money. And all I could think about was the ancient parable of the scorpion and the frog. The one that goes - one day there was a scorpion who asked a frog for a ride across a river. The frog said “no, I cannot take you across because you’ll sting me and I’ll die” to which the scorpion replies “I wouldn’t do that. Because if I sting you while we are in the middle of the river we will both die”. So the frog thinks about it and gives the scorpion a ride across the river - when about halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog, and as they are slowly drowning to death the frog asks the scorpion “why did you sting me?” to which the scorpion replies “it was simply my nature.”

To be fair, we all knew we would be out of that space soon anyways because the lease was coming up for renewal and the landlord wanted to literally charge double, which would've taken it too far out of all of our budgets. So as luck would have it one of the vendors at the carnival was another gallery who had offered me part of their space a few days before this all happened. I turned to them amongst the chaos and said “it looks like I’ll be taking you up on your offer sooner than expected.” And it was an almost immediate transition. I knew it wasn’t safe to have shows where a volatile landlord could appear and disrupt us, so I had to leave - even if the space was in one of the best neighborhoods for an art gallery.

Daniel Rolnik Foundation