Gallery 1988: 80’s Time Warp Replicates in Lower Polk Gulch

Gallery 1988, 1173 Sutter St. at Polk, San Francisco, 94109, Hours Tues-Sat 12-7pm, phone 415.409.1376

Welcome Gallery 1988, San Francisco’s newest arrival on the scene. The grand opening in April was just as much a SF debut for G1988 as it was a homecoming for Co-Director Katie Cromwell, who grew up in Marin County and is an alum of The Branson School.

This is the second location for Gallery 1988. Since opening its Melrose flagship in 2004, G1988 has established its reputation as a purveyor of kitschy 80’s themes that evoke childhood nostalgia including plush animals, skateboarding, early video games, TV cartoons, and Disney. The name hearkens back to a good year for Los Angeles: the Dodgers and the Lakers were champions, Yo MTV Raps was born, and the gallery owners were about to hit puberty.

At the opening party of the current show, Skate Life: Skateboard Inspired Sculptures and Paintings by J. Shea and Freddi C, Katie’s mom and sis were serving beer from the cooler-keg and her dad was hanging back just behind them looking over the scene (her supportive family comes to all of the openings). The guests were a mix of skateboard industry types, graf guys and friends. The collaborative show (up through August 21) features J. Shea’s sculptures of miniature boarders made of Model Magic doing tricks off Freddi C’s camo street-scene painted plywood boards. The figures are loaded with personality and movement and the landscapes are strongly influenced by J. Shea’s background in textile design. ($60-$2,500)

Katie started out as an art major at the University of Southern California, inspired by the talent of her mother, Jean Cromwell, an artist and graphic designer. (She is not related to legendary Trojan track coach Dean Cromwell.) But after taking the mandatory survey art history course required for the practice of art curriculum, she was hooked. When making the decision to switch her studies, her parents asked her to curate a professional career for herself at the same time, and a business plan was born.

After graduation she learned the basics working as a gallery assistant for a short time at Louis Stern Fine Art in West Hollywood. She started her gallery in 2004 with her college sweetheart, Jensen Karp. Jensen did not have an art background, but being a cult rapper and a collector of 80's pop culture memorabilia, he did have his finger on the pulse of youth culture. Living together and starting a small business together took its toll on the relationship. They’ve since broken up and successfully transitioned to be amicable business partners.

When they secured their space off the beaten path in an old Saks Fifth Avenue store on Melrose at La Brea, they weren’t sure of what their focus would be. They knew there was a need for affordable original art and that there was a young customer base who didn’t bat an eye at spending big bucks for fancy designer handbags, so why not introduce this crowd to art? Serendipitously, Acme Game Store moved in next door only one month later and was targeting a similar clientele. A beautiful friendship developed.

Katie and Jensen started out by showing artists who they knew from running around LA, then showed those artists’ friends. In fact, mining those "favorite links" lists that artists post on their websites is the primary way they find new artists. G1988 still has relationships with all four artists featured in their first show: Plastic God (Doug Murphy). ESM (Kerri Sakurai), Nikki Van Pelt and Topher.

Then, a freelance journalist doing a story on next door neighbor Acme happened to stop by the gallery and the idea for what would become their big break was hatched. Writer Jon Gibson, Katie and Jensen worked together to curate “I AM 8 BIT,” art inspired by classic videogames of the ‘80s. (Think portraits of Donkey Kong’s Mario and head shots of Ms. Pac Man.) Limited edition prints are still available:

The opening was timed to coincide with E3 Expo, the annual video game convention, and Jon excercised his media contacts to publicize the show. At the same time, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was showing video game art in a show called "Into the Pixel."

Over 1,500 people showed up for the opening night reception. Not only were most of the paintings sold, Gibson secured a book deal with Chronicle Books. Acme Games closed after about a year, but G1988’s good fortune with neighbors continued when Golden Apple Comics took over the space.

After making the decision to move back to SF and open a second location, Katie looked for affordable gallery space for months. Natoma and Valencia streets were considered, but Sutter at Polk won out because of StrangeCo, with whom G1988 now shares space. Artists and galleries (including G1988 and Fifty24SF Gallery) collaborate with StrangeCo. to make limited edition, vinyl toys.

The Belvedere native’s commitment to the neighborhood is not lip service, she is also a TenderNob resident. She lives a just few blocks away near Bell Market and walks to work with her companion, Finnigan, a miniature Doberman.

Future G1988 shows will feature San Francisco artists Nathan Stapley, Scott Campbell, and Rueben Rood. Jensen and Katie intend to cross-pollinate artists between the two locations.

G1988 is not the first art gallery in the neighborhood. Pioneers Justin Giarla of Shooting Gallery and his partner Andres Guerrero of White Walls (835 and 839 Larkin at O’Farrell) have been friendly and welcoming to the newbie. There’s also funky Space Gallery, the art bar on Polk at Sutter.

But …ahem…, we’re not calling it "Lower Polk Gulch" any more. This notorious section of Polk has been rechristened “Polk Village.” If you need proof, just take a look at the awning of O’Reilly’s Holy Grail (formerly the historic Mayes Oyster House). This rebirth was midwifed by the Polk Corridor Business Association and real estate developers Vanguard, transforming old SRO hotels into condos for seniors (note the proximity to St. Francis Hospital) and yuppies alike.

Stark Guide looks forward to watching Gallery 1988 and Polk Village grow up together.