A Space Odyssey

Imago Galleries covers otherwise uncharted territory in its 18-year journey in the world of art.



Elena Ray

As you head south on Highway 74 in Palm Desert, Imago Galleries’ 35-foot building strikes a stately pose. Impeccably designed in a modernist style and boasting Dale Chihuly’s spectacular Desert Grass Chandelier with Golden Tendrils installed in a second-story display window, the space looks more like a branch of the Dia Art Foundation than a locally owned gallery.

This venerable gallery has offered museum-quality experiences for more than a decade. Imago, whose name comes from the Latin word for image, opened in Palm Springs in 1991 and moved to Palm Desert’s fashionable El Paseo in 1994. The word “imago” also refers to an insect’s adult stage following metamorphosis; Imago Galleries built its current home from the ground up in 1999 on a generous parcel of land around the corner from El Paseo.

Having worked in the art world for many years as dealers and consultants, owners Leisa and David Austin knew exactly what they wanted when they undertook designing and building this 17,500-square-foot space. Heeding advice from a mentor that they should “build to the max” rather than add on over the years, the Austins proceeded to create a gallery director’s wish list come to life.

“We designed these spaces with flexibility and efficiency in mind,” Leisa says. “We wanted to be able to separate bodies of work and show a variety of styles and media at the same time without conflict.” On the ground level, lofty ceilings provide an airy space for a reception desk and multiple exhibition areas — a large main gallery, a smaller focus gallery, a wide hallway leading to a 6,000- square-foot sculpture garden, and a “dark gallery” with controlled lighting. The latter works well for sculpture and photography, while the garden and other galleries take advantage of natural light.

There is also a shipping and receiving area with custom storage units and a presentation lounge. Upstairs, an entertaining area with full kitchen opens onto a large patio for indoor/ outdoor parties. The upper level also features a reference library, offices, and an artist’s apartment with a private entrance that opens to the sculpture garden.

The Austins take pride in mounting shows at their space that local residents would otherwise have to travel to Los Angeles or New York to see.

Over the years, the Austins have introduced many important American artists to the desert community: Tom Wesselmann, Peter Halley, Jennifer Bartlett, Ross Bleckner, Ed Moses, Charles Arnoldi, Robert Graham, Mel Ramos, Ken Price, William Wegman, and Tony Berlant have had successful shows here. In 2007, Imago organized The Left Coast, a group exhibition of recent and historical works by important West Coast artists of the last 40 years. Occurring in the midst of a strong wave of international attention paid to Los Angeles artists, the exhibition drew significant media attention and was commemorated with a hardcover catalog.

Thanks to the Austins’ personal and professional relationship with pioneering artist Dale Chihuly, contemporary studio glass also figures prominently in Imago’s repertoire. The Austins have worked with Chihuly since their early years as art consultants in Dallas, and they now sell more of Chihuly’s work than any other gallery. “We do not distinguish glass from other types of sculpture; it’s just the medium the artist chooses to work in,” Leisa says. Studio glass by Chihuly and other noted artists, such as Karen LaMonte and Clifford Rainey, is often exhibited in Imago’s galleries. The Austins also own Studio, a satellite space a few blocks east that focuses on fine art glass and small sculptures.

The Austins are active in many local charities and are supporters of the Palm Springs Art Museum. Collector Madeline Redstone, who started working with them in 1992, calls them “the most honest and hardworking people that I know. They don’t just make the sale and move on. They take the time to get to know your taste. Then they guide you — but never push you — to make purchases that you will be happy with. And their taste is impeccable! I have a beautiful collection because of them.”

One of Redstone’s fondest Imago memories is having her French bulldog and two Dobermans photographed by William Wegman. The noted photographer has come to town for two series of commissioned portraits in the last several years, both of which were big hits with collectors. One year, he used a rare Polaroid 20x24 to make large portraits on the spot. Another year, he used his own digital equipment to make 4-foot-square prints, which were then mounted to Plexiglas. While this type of work is his bread and butter, Wegman also credits the Austins with showing his paintings and larger photographs.

Artist Charles Arnoldi, who has been working with the Austins for more years than he can remember, says that “their passion for the art is really sincere and deep. People need exposure to contemporary art over time in order to understand it, and a place like Imago helps. The Austins make contemporary art real. They give it a strong presence and lots of energy, which people respond to.”

OPEN SEASON:

Imago Galleries opened its 2009/10 season on Nov. 28 with exhibitions of paintings by Charles Arnoldi and works by Lino Tagliapietra, a leading Italian glass blower showing concurrently at Palm Springs Art Museum. Next month, visitors will find wood paintings by Arnoldi, plus a retrospective of works by American figurative sculptor Robert Graham, who died last December. An innovative photography group show called Shoot debuts in February.

GALLERY TIMELINE:

Palm Desert Art Galleries - Imago1991 Original gallery opens in Palm Springs. Inaugural Dale Chihuly exhibition.
Palm Desert Art Galleries - Imago1994 Gallery moves to Palm Desert.
Palm Desert Art Galleries - Imago1996 Dale Chihuly’s End of the Day #2 chandelier is placed with the Palm Springs Art Museum, where it remains on display in the sculpture garden.
1998 Imago begins representing iconic Pop artist Tom Wesselmann.
Palm Desert Art Galleries - Imago1999 New building is constructed on Highway 74, off El Paseo in Palm Desert. Black-tie opening event with more than 40 gallery artists in attendance.
Palm Desert Art Galleries - Imago2001 Imago celebrates its 10-year anniversary season with a December black-tie gala. Pictured: Leisa Austin and Madeline Redstone.
Palm Desert Art Galleries - Imago2002 In December, Imago opens Blue Nudes, the first of three major Tom Wesselmann shows held before the artist’s death in 2004.
Palm Desert Art Galleries - Imago2003 Portraits, a landmark exhibition and catalog of bust and torso sculptures by lauded American sculptor Robert Graham opens in January. Imago becomes Graham’s primary dealer before his death in 2008. First exhibition of works by noted painter Peter Halley.
2004 Art world maverick Arman shows Serious Paintings and Interactives in March.
Palm Desert Art Galleries - Imago2005 Recent Paintings, an exhibition of works by the provocative West Coast Pop artist Mel Ramos, opens in November. Pictured: Leisa Austin and Mel Ramos.
Palm Desert Art Galleries - Imago2006 Earth, a show by leading contemporary painter Jennifer Bartlett, opens in January; Joan Didion writes an essay for the 40-page exhibition catalog.
Palm Desert Art Galleries - Imago2007 The Left Coast, a watershed exhibition for the gallery, opens in March, showcasing important early examples, as well as recent works by leading West Coast artists of the last 40 years. A majority of the artists represented attend, making it one of the great West Coast art gatherings in years. The Left Coast, a book commemorating the exhibition is published by Imago in the following months. Pictured: Dennis Hopper, Frank Gehry, and Ed Ruscha.

Imago Galleries
45450 Hwy. 74
Palm Desert, CA 92260
760-776-9890

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