Eduardo Rodriguez, the owner of Gallery 788, grins widely, almost wildly, above his Lao-Tzu billy-goat beard. The permanent wide-eyed smile and crazy Zen-master demeanor make one feel immediately welcome, if not entirely certain, in the gallery.
In fact, that welcoming aspect is at the heart of his practice as a gallery owner and curator. "When I started the gallery, I wanted it to be approachable. I wanted it to be a place people would come to and enjoy themselves," he says. In the art world, a gallery opening can be a stuffy, wine-and-cheese, snobbish affair. Rodriguez likens his openings more to great parties. Instead of the cliquishness of most galleries, he seeks to create an atmosphere conducive to mingling. He says that people in the 788 Family, as he calls it, have become good friends, made professional connections, and have even started dating (or at least drunkenly hooked up) because of meeting at the events he hosts. "People ask me, 'How do you pull this off?'" he says. "And it's like, I don't know, maybe I just like to throw parties! If I could bottle what happens at an opening, I think I'd be a billionaire right now."
This party gallery almost never came to be. Five years ago, when Rodriguez moved from Washington, D.C., where he was working as a photographer, to Baltimore, he was, sort of randomly, offered another empty spot in the place he was renting. "I never even thought about having a gallery, and it sort of just fell in my lap," Rodriguez says. "I had not even been in Baltimore 24 hours when [he] offered me the gallery."
Rodriguez was immediately impressed with Baltimore's art and music scenes. "This is like a secret. How come nobody knows about this?" he recalls thinking.
Rodriguez wasn't interested in the typical white-wall gallery, so he issued an open call to artists, and they hung their work salon-style, covering whatever wall space was available, à la the original French salons. This style is beneficial, if controversial, because artists pay to show their work, helping out with the gallery's rent, gaining the chance to sell it with a fairly small commission (again, Rodriguez insists, the money goes towards the operating costs-rent ain't cheap). Rodriguez says that he often sells most, if not all, of the work on display.
A lot of people tell Rodriguez that too many galleries are fairly closed when it comes to accepting new artists. The waiting period can be two or three years, and there's no guarantee that the gallery will even accept your work. He also says that they only accept certain types of artists. "Either you're not hipster enough or you're not out there enough or something," he says. "And so that's why Gallery 788 became very inclusive." He doesn't exclude people based on their experience in the art world either. "You can be showing next to a MICA professor and someone else who has been doing art for a year, showing side by side."
This inclusiveness contributes to the kind of mixing he's looking for. People who would normally never meet get to hang out together, surrounded by walls overflowing with conversation-starters.
Historically, openings at Gallery 788 have been more like multimedia events. Rodriguez likes to have local bands and DJs play, along with performances and video. And of course, it's not an opening without booze. He talks about some of the themed shows they've had in the past. "Our biggest show to date has been the skater show at the Saratoga [Street] location, we had a 24-foot-long half-pipe in the gallery, and it was about 300 to 400 people," he says. "And we also had the motorcycle show, which was a big success. The erotic show is always a big success. It's always fun and it's always different."
He moved the gallery to Maryland Art Place's building on Saratoga Street when his lease was up in Pigtown, but it was only a temporary solution, and now he is clearly overjoyed to be in Hampden, whose quirky vibe fits his anarchic and inclusive view of art. Both his Pigtown and downtown locations lacked the foot traffic of Hampden and were plagued by the often inaccurate perception that there wasn't anything but crime happening. Many of the people who might be drawn to his events might already be in Hampden, which, despite its numerous attractions, is not yet overrun with galleries.
The building he is renting on Hickory Street used to be the Red Men's Hall. "They were pretty much like white men who would dress up as Indians so the British wouldn't find them when they first moved here," Rodriguez says. He shows the poster he found depicting a lot of really racist vignettes of "the noble savage" and some of the posters with rules for the club, like "NO PROFANITY OR TRIBLE [sic] BUSINESS IN SOCIAL ROOM SUBJECT TO FINE OR SUSPENSION."
Despite its ugly history, the building itself is gorgeous, with a brick exterior and a spacious main room full of light and a great view of the Avenue. There's even a rooftop deck, which Rodriguez variously calls "The Roofie," "Art DECKo," and "My Big Deck." He's working on getting a permit and having rails installed so people can hang out, and for a little Hampden flair, he says he wants to pay homage to John Waters, à la Cafe Hon's pink flamingo, by installing a giant version of himself dressed like Divine up on the roof.
Rodriguez has big plans for his upcoming shows. The gallery opened on Sept. 5 with the show Fabrications, which was loosely inspired by the world of fashion. "I wanted to open it up a little more than just fashion, so that's why there's fabrics, textile design, and fiber," he says, pointing out the work of the MICA fiber arts department in the lobby. "We're going to have a runway, we're going to have music, we're going to have DJs, Landis Expandis is performing, TT the Artist is going to be here."
But whatever the theme that catches Rodriguez's fancy, it will be motivated by the same mercurial quality that first caused him to open a gallery in a town he'd just moved to. After Fabrications, he is planning a show based on "metal-metal music, metal sculptures, jewelry, anything to do with metal."
Fabrications is on display through Sept. 29 at Gallery 788.