Northern Exposure: Seattle's Ambach & Rice Make the Move to L.A.

Installation view, Eric Yahnker: Cracks of Dawn, Ambach & Rice satellite exhibition @ Kunsthalle LA, Los Angeles.

Ambach & Rice is a Seattle-based gallery that first opened its doors back in 2003 as a modest book store/gallery. Over the past eight years, Seattle has had the unique opportunity to watch them grow into one of the city's premier galleries. Their diverse roster blends international artists like Ron van der Ende and Karen Sargsyan, with Northwest artists like Jeffry Mitchell and Grant Barnhart. The gallery has always seemed to prefer the periphery to the limelight. When they outgrew their old space, instead of relocating to the Seattle’s traditional art district in Pioneer Square, they moved to outlying Ballard, an historic Scandinavian seafaring community which has slowly gentrified into a mix of eclectic shops, upscale restaurants and dive bars with live music.

Their tendency to stay on the edges, however, is about to change. It's the final weekend for Ambach & Rice in Seattle, and when they re-open in Los Angeles this September, it will be in a very central location on Wilshire Boulevard. With this move, Ambach & Rice join other west coast galleries, like San Francisco's Jancar Jones, who have opted to make L.A. their new home.

The final Ambach & Rice show in Seattle, The Strong, Star-Bright Companions by Ellen Lesperance, will close this Sunday. Before they skip town, I wanted to chat with Charlie Kitchings, co-owner, and his wife, Amanda, about their impending move to Los Angeles, their ability to adapt, and what led them to the move in the first place.  —Joey Veltkamp, Seattle contributor

Ellen Lesperance, "You Can Forbid Almost Everything." She Wailed at an Occupied Greenham Commons. "But You Can't Forbid Me to Think. And You Can't Forbid the Sun to Shine. And you Can't Shut My Mouth When I Sing", 2010 | Gouache and graphite on paper, 23 x 29 inches. Courtesy Ambach & Rice, Seattle.

JV: How did the move come about? I know the Seattle weather has us all dreaming of sunny L.A. right about now.
CK: In all honesty, I think the move came as a surprise even to us. The lease on our gallery was due to expire, and if we renewed our rent would have significantly increased, so we began to slowly search for a new space in Seattle. Initially we imagined that we would seek out a more central location, something closer to downtown (we’ve always been outliers in Ballard), but nothing ever really clicked. Looking back, I think this could probably be attributed to the fact that we were pursuing options in Seattle that others thought would have been in our best interest, after all being closer to your audience wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, but over the course this process I think we neglected to honor some of our own convictions and instincts.

Around the same time, François Ghebaly invited us to host a solo project with Eric Yahnker at a space in Chinatown he was sub-leasing. Living and working in L.A. during part of the winter was an offer too attractive to pass up! Shortly before we headed down there to install, I was contacted by another colleague who informed me that 6148 Wilshire was opening up, so we went and checked it out. Within in a week I knew that relocating to L.A. was the best possible decision for the gallery. We had an overwhelming response to Eric’s exhibit from press, curators, collectors, etc… Suddenly it felt as if the glass ceiling had been lifted. The opportunity to expose our artists to a larger audience was a prospect we couldn’t afford to pass up. This coupled with an ideal location next to fantastic galleries such as Marc Foxx1301PE, and ACME ultimately made the decision pretty effortless.

TOP: Eric Yahnker, The Big Con-onization (Mutha from Calcutta), 2010 | Charcoal and graphite on paper, 72 x 97 inches. BOTTOM: Abigail Reynolds, Universal Now: Piccadilly Circus New Years Celebrations 1951/1961, 2008 | Cut and folded vintage bookplates, 15 x 11 inches. Images courtesy Ambach & Rice, Seattle.

What do you attribute to the secret of success for Ambach & Rice?
We’ve always valued the relationships with our artists first and foremost. Having the privilege of collaborating and working closely with them is the most fulfilling part of this profession. Communication and curiosity are the keystones of these relationships. Any success we’ve experienced can ultimately be attributed to their vision and efforts. They are the sails to our ship.

You folks have always excelled at being adaptable. Since first opening, the gallery model has changed significantly. With the majority of your collector base outside the city, art fairs have made a lot of sense. I'm just curious if your model will change once you relocate.
Seattle has been an excellent city to start the gallery in. It has afforded us the opportunity to grow and evolve through experimentation. We’ve been able to make missteps without serious repercussions, something that wouldn’t have been possible in larger cities. The last three years have enabled us to cultivate our identity and hone our gallery programming at a measured pace. In short, it has been an education.

Seattle’s limitations have ultimately been an asset as it has forced us to recognize ourselves as a gallery in the world rather than a gallery in Seattle. This mindset has been reinforced by our participation in art fairs, which have affirmed our vision at times when it has not been lauded or understood in Seattle. We will continue to participate in fairs after we move to L.A., although I foresee the possibility of being more selective. We also anticipate eventually working with other artists based in L.A., although we are not in any rush to add artists to our stable.

Installation view, From Whence the Rainbow Came, Ambach & Rice, Seattle

I certainly wouldn't ever pin you down for a favorite, but do any shows stick out as being especially memorable? I know From Whence the Rainbow Came was a local favorite.
From Whence the Rainbow Came was definitely a memorable experience. The exhibit was really a celebration of those artists’ contributions to Seattle and a testament to their enduring friendship. I felt more like an observer than a participant as we gave them free reign to develop the exhibit on their own. There was such an outpouring of love during that show and it reinforced how special the Seattle arts community is. That being said, it is impossible to identify one defining moment. It has been a wild ride, but right now we are more focused on the challenges and experiences that await us in L.A.

You folks have such strong ties to the Northwest... how will you keep them strong post-relocation?
We will continue to represent all of our Northwest artists, which include Grant Barnhart, Ellen LesperanceJeffry Mitchell, and Roy McMakin. In essence we will be transplanting a Northwest sensibility to southern California, an emphasis that will undoubtedly distinguish our gallery from or colleagues in Los Angeles.

Ambach & Rice
will open at 6148 Wilshire Blvd on September 10, 2011 with "Conclusion to the Big Ideas," a solo show by Alon Levin. Their final exhibition in Seattle, The Strong, Star-Bright Companions by Ellen Lesperance, will close this Sunday, May 15.

Joey Veltkamp is an artist/writer living in Seattle where he runs the local art blog, best of.