ART-BREAKING: Rent increase likely to put La Jolla’s underground Misfit gallery out of business

Suddenly, the lights cut out and the room went pitch dark. Usually, gallery owners want people to be able to see the art at their art openings. But at La Jolla’s Misfit Pictures, you never know what might happen.

And so, during former City Council member Donna Frye’s “Crazy Town” exhibit on Oct. 24, 2018, “Love Music” by Sergio Mendes & Brazil ’77 blared at top volume into the darkness, Misfit co-owner Pierce Kavanagh switched on some black lights and handed out glow sticks, and dozens of unsuspecting but open-minded strangers began dancing together.

There, in a 1,300-square-foot basement storefront at 565 Pearl St. — next to yoga and fitness studios that had closed hours earlier for the day — a full-on rave ensued.

Now, the lights are probably going out for good at Misfit. On Feb. 5, Pierce posted the news on the gallery’s Facebook page: “Our lease is up in two months and unless we have the best two months of our history, we will be forced to close the doors.”

In 2016, Pierce and his wife, Petra — surf documentarians who founded the San Diego Surf Film Festival in 2012 — opened their dream with $18,000 in Indiegogo seed money from friends and supporters in the surfing, film and art communities. Misfit was the perfect name, because it’s not a place anyone would expect to encounter in La Jolla, where art is usually envisioned as a $50,000 painting by a famous dead guy.

At the time, the Kavanaghs told the Light they wanted Misfit to bring the art scene back to life in La Jolla. They wanted it to host art exhibitions, book releases and film premieres.

“Basically, things that I would like to see myself around town but I don’t,” Pierce said. “We want to become a community center.”

Now, one three-year lease term later, each of those goals has been achieved and then some. Misfit has hosted exhibits by some of the most important working artists in California, including Joel Farson, Jon Foster and Shawna Ankenbrandt.

On many of the dozens of occasions this reporter walked unannounced into the gallery, which is located in the Light’s office building, it was into a totally different and unpredictable scene: surfboard-shaper Carl Ekstrom discussing his favorite board designs; former Brotherhood of Eternal Love co-founder Ronnie Bevan recalling that time he smuggled the first load of hashish from Afghanistan to America in 1967; elementary-school students creating projects after school while mercilessly ragging on Pierce for his aversion to beard-grooming. (For a while last year, the Kavanaghs held the LJ Arts Youth Program, which rewarded students with actual wall space in the gallery.)

The Kavanaghs basically brought the idea of Andy Warhol’s Factory studio from 1960s Greenwich Village into 2010s La Jolla, bringing the freest thinkers from a firmly established and under-served local counterculture into a collective that speaks with as much artistic authority to its audience as the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library does to theirs.

Word spread among artists, surfers and skateboarders, and the former members of La Jolla’s infamous Mac Meda Destruction Company social group, that something truly fun, creative and underground was happening in La Jolla again. Attendance at each new event duly increased. At one — a screening for Chris Burkard’s short film “Under an Arctic Sky” — 20 people had to be turned away at the door.

But you can’t pay the rent with countercultural significance. Perhaps something so underground was simply doomed to fail in a town so overpriced.

“They want to bring another realtor office in here to sell more million-dollar houses,” Pierce says. “Maybe that’s all La Jolla deserves, but I still have hope that something good will happen and we’ll be able to stay. I still am positive.”

To make the new rent starting in April, Misfit would need a significant bump in its average monthly income. Pierce declined to translate this bump into actual dollars, but noted that Petra already puts in 25 hours a week at Pannikin Coffee & Tea just so the couple can basically break even on their expenses.

“In order to keep this place afloat, it’s not that expensive when you consider all the smiles and rad stuff that’s gone on here,” Pierce says. “It’s just that we don’t happen to have that money.”

If things don’t work out, Petra has a fallback dream — opening a vintage resale store specializing in ‘70s-‘90s clothing and accessories — and Pierce says he’ll just “scramble for money” like he always has.

Already, one of their supporters — a body surfer from Newport Beach who only ever visited the gallery twice — has started a GoFundMe page.

“I’m not going to tear up,” Petra says as she tears up. “It’s really sweet how some people want to help, but—”

Pierce cuts her off.

“But we’re not looking for a handout, we just hope everyone we know goes on a simultaneous art binge and saves us,” he says.

The Misfit Gallery’s next art opening, 6-9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, is called “Diverse Directions” and features artwork by Joshua Ben Paskowitz, Patrick Parker and Gomez Bueno, with live jazz by Red Shift and a DJ set by Jared Aufritchtic. Admission is free.

For information about Misfit Pictures or to purchase art, call (858) 291-8553.

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