BROOKLINE — Yng-Ru Chen never planned to open an art gallery. COVID-19 changed that.
Last year, Chen moved from New York back to her childhood home in Brookline to send her kids to schools here. She was still running her art advisory company, Praise Shadows, from a Brooklyn studio, working with artists and companies on new models for entrepreneurship.
Then the pandemic hit.
“I realized how much more localized art was going to be,” Chen said.
As the pandemic wore on, Coolidge Corner businesses began to shutter. The GNC vitamin and supplements store on Harvard Street closed. Anna’s Taqueria closed after 25 years in the neighborhood. The Gap recently announced it would shutter in January.
When Chen walked by the vacated GNC store in July, it hit her: She should open a gallery.
She approached the building’s landlord, Stephen DiMarco. He offered her what she calls “a pandemic rate.”
“He told me, you gotta believe in yourself,” Chen said. “It’s not like I have money set aside to open a gallery. When else am I going to get a good rate?”
“The world is changing, Mom and Pops are going away,” said DiMarco, who has owned the building since the mid-1980s. Three doors down in 2017, he opted to rent to Village Vinyl & Hi-Fi rather than a bank.
“I want to bring different people in,” he said. “We’ve got so many banks. It doesn’t bring people in to shop here.”
Chen renovated the space, and Praise Shadows Art Gallery launched this month with a painting exhibition by Jarrett Key, a Black, LGBTQ artist from Alabama. The recent RISD grad has already caught the eyes of New York collectors.
Praise Shadows isn’t the only new gallery in Coolidge Corner, a creative neighborhood long bereft of visual art. Sanctuary, a cannabis dispensary that opened in August, hired the Brookline Arts Center to program a permanent gallery in the storefront there, rent-free.
The timing was perfect, according to Lauren Riviello, BAC’s executive director. Last year, the nonprofit received a grant from Brookline Community Foundation to help support artists. Beacon Street Gallery, which opened in October, is larger than the BAC’s gallery space on Monmouth Street.
“Before this, it was limited where local artists could share their work,” said Riviello. “This is public-facing, and it shows Brookline’s commitment to art.”
Jason Sidman, Sanctuary’s CEO, said the town regulates a dispensary’s square footage and the windows must be blocked. Why not fill the extra space — and the windows — with local art?
Papering over the windows, Sidman said, “didn’t make sense, in that vibrant part of Coolidge Corner. … Being part of the community, we wanted to bring in other agencies to collaborate.”
BAC will curate Beacon Street Gallery’s quarterly exhibitions. “Chemical Exchanges,” a juried metals show, closes Dec. 18. A photography show opens in January.
In contrast, Praise Shadows, a commercial gallery, has an exhibition calendar stacked with national and international artists, such as Boston-born Duke Riley and light artist James Clar. Chen has the connections. In addition to her advisory company, she spent her New York years working at organizations such as MoMA PS1, Asia Society, and Sotheby’s. The gallery also hosts regular Zoom events — the first was a chat with renowned art activists the Guerrilla Girls.
But Praise Shadows’s programming also actively reaches out to neighbors.
“I see it as a community space,” Chen said. A curatorial adviser will teach high school students exhibition programming, including the nuts and bolts of the business and critical thinking. The first curatorial adviser, Leah Triplett Harrington, assistant curator for the public art agency Now + There, will help students mount an exhibition at the gallery next August.
The gallery also has an art shop. As an art adviser, Chen focuses on enabling artists to support themselves with licensing and branding, so in the shop you can purchase a Shinique Smith bandana or a Yuri Shimojo print. Also on hand for the nascent collector: Guerrilla Girls erasers for $3.50 apiece.
Meanwhile, Chen’s daughter’s sixth-grade classmates are visiting when school gets out, and passersby are stopping in.
“An old man poked his head in and wanted to talk about chiaroscuro paintings,” Chen said. “There’s a pent-up need for this.”
And perhaps she had a pent-up need to open an exhibition space. “Galleries are where the artists are taking a risk, where you will see things for the first time,” Chen said. “I’m already working with [artists]. Now I get to put up exhibitions. It’s the cherry on top.”
JARRETT KEY: CHOSEN FAMILY
At Praise Shadows Art Gallery, 313A Harvard St., Brookline, through Jan. 3. 617-487-5427, www.praiseshadows.com
Beacon Street Gallery, 1351 Beacon St., Brookline, through Dec. 18.www.brooklineartscenter.com/2020-exhibition-calendar/
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.