The Juanita Salazar Lowe Gallery: A New Home for Student and Community Art in Imperial Valley

Mexicali Aqui Opening Reception
Mexicali Aqui Opening Reception. | Photo: Carol Hegarty.

In the Spring of 2011, Imperial Valley College (IVC) celebrated the grand opening of the Juanita Salazar Lowe Gallery. "Before then," Carol Hegarty, Humanities professor and director of the Gallery recollects "We had shows in the studio. We'd clean out and put things up in there, we did a show in the library. It was really hard not [having] a gallery." Hegarty arrived at IVC in 2005 to teach Art, and administrate the then "Train Depot" campus gallery: "It was a great community space, there was a porch out front, and people would come to shows and hang out on the porch." The Depot Gallery began as just that: a train depot that was built at the beginning of the 20th century, and serviced the nearby town of Holtville for many years before being moved to Imperial Valley College in the early 70s.

In 1971, the building was renovated and served as the campus gallery until 2005 when an electrical fire blazed through the nearly hundred year old building, causing irreparable damage. While the building was insured, it was not insured for replacement, and so the arts community hosted shows in classrooms and libraries, until various community initiatives amassed more than enough funds to build a new gallery. The then president of IVC advocated for the reallocation of funds for the new gallery, a local plaster company donated 13,000 worth of dry wall, and the County of Imperial donated 50,000 to the project marked by the Centennial Pavilion that sits outside the gallery. In the end, the amount of money raised for the new building was around a million dollars.

Juanita Salazar Lowe Gallery, Portico view. | Photo: Carol Hegarty.
Juanita Salazar Lowe Gallery, Portico view. | Photo: Carol Hegarty.

The gallery had nearly been completed when a new debate was born around the space: what to name it? The two names vying for the title were Imperial Valley native Dominigo Ulloa, who was named "Father of Chicano Art," by the California State Assembly in 1993, and Juanita Salazar Lowe, whose name eventually won the bid. Juanita was an art professor at IVC from 1961-1990. She was a painter who worked in a vibrant abstract style and was instrumental in establishing the original Train Depot gallery. Lowe was a respected educator that influenced the trajectory of the arts program at IVC and instructed many students who went on to work in the arts inside and outside of Southern California.

The legacy of Lowe's commitment to student learning and community is something that is alive in recent shows of student work, "I'm so impressed by my students, and the creativity in the work they have produced," remarks Hegarty who says that student exhibitions over the past few years have been some of the strongest. In addition to shows of student work, the gallery has also collaborated with community partners like the Imperial Valley Art Collective, to host exhibitions of community art. "[Community participation] has not been what I thought it would be," laments Hegarty of low attendance to exhibitions since the opening, "We want people to know that the space is open to the public and hopefully with time and more publicity that [attendance] will change." The promising student work coupled with an excellent new space to exhibit it keeps Hegarty optimistic about the future of the space. "Volunteers have given generously of their time," says Hegarty gratefully, and she mentions that while the number of people coming to show is smaller than she would like, visitors are very excited about the work, and consistently attend exhibitions. "I think the goal for the gallery is to keep having great shows, and expand to other spaces...to get more art rotating through campus." Hegarty also mentions expanding the gallery space to be a "Launching pad for community involvement."

'Mexicali Aqui' reception. | Photo: Carol Hegarty.
'Mexicali Aqui' reception. | Photo: Carol Hegarty.

At a time when arts institutions in Southern California have begun reflecting upon the artistic contributions of the region in relationship to other international arts centers like New York, and Paris, it seems vital to analyze projects not only outside of those international metropolitan centers, but perhaps also outside of the urban landscape. "There is this notion that no one is doing anything interesting because we're not in a city, and that's just not true," continues Hegarty, who hopes that the gallery will showcase work that illustrates the contributions that artists are making to the Imperial Valley as well as the Southern California generally. "There are a lot of very gifted former IVC students, and Imperial Valley natives that work in the arts and are doing great things all over the world." Eventually, the gallery hopes to expand its programing to include a film series, workshops, artists talks, and theatre all of which would be open to the public.

Currently on view at the gallery is, Mexicali Aqui, an exhibition featuring work by 33 artists from Mexicali, B.C. The pieces on view include several paintings, photography, mixed media work, and an animation. The hope being that this vast body of work will be truly representative of contemporary art in Mexicali today. Mexicali Aqui is a reciprocal show for El Valle Imperial Aqui, a juried exhibition that took place in Mexicali at La Galeria de la Cuidad, in September of 2009. It is interesting that the rural vs. urban relationship that the Imperial Valley has to in relationship to San Diego/Los Angeles, is one that is also mirrored by Mexicali and the city of Tijuana. The cross-border reciprocity between Mexicali and the Imperial Valley is a promising connection that perhaps will lead to new ways of thinking about cultural dynamics between non-urban centers, new ways of thinking beyond the hierarchies between rural and urban art production.

Hosting internationally reciprocal shows like Mexicali Aqui has now been made possible by this new gallery space. Mexicali Aqui will remain open at the Juanita Salazar Lowe Gallery, on the Imperial Valley College campus until September 27, gallery hours are 11am-5pm Monday-Thursday and 11am-2pm.

'Mexicali Aqui' reception. | Photo: Carol Hegarty.
'Mexicali Aqui' reception. | Photo: Carol Hegarty.

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