A Conversation with Elizabeth Munzon of Flatline Gallery

Flatline Gallery facade

I met the talented and hardworking young artist Elizabeth Munzon back in October at an art reception, and I learned that she was an artist with a storefront studio space/gallery in north Long Beach called Flatline. I wanted to learn more about her and her work, and she was gracious enough to meet with me for a fun conversation in her gallery.

What’s your background in art—your education and work experience?

I graduated with a BFA in painting and drawing, with a minor in marketing, from CSULB in Spring of 2017. The summer after graduating I moved into this space, and also started working at the Arts Council for Long Beach. Before being staff at the Arts Council I had been their marketing intern for 2016, I loved the idea of incorporating my art degree with my marketing degree, I learned a lot while there. When I came back, I came back to assist, then eventually coordinate the arts education programs within the Arts Council

As a child, were you an artistic kid, did you like to draw a lot, that kind of thing.

Yeah, I think with any artist you’re always doodling and drawing as a kid, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year in high school where I took a more serious interest in it. This was the year I joined a program called the “Humanitas Academy.” The whole program was really great. When we learned about a time period in history, we’d also learn about the literature of that time, and then we looked at the artwork that was being created. It was perfect for me, because I’m such a visual learner. It helped me understand history, literature and art on their own, and how they can tie in together to work off of each other. I was really lucky enough to be a part of this program and have the great teachers that made it happen. 

I’m encouraged to hear that, because you hear so much about the arts getting cut all the time in schools, and that may be the case generally, but every once in a while there must be some kind of a program that gets funded.

I think the Art, Literature, History, and Economics teachers (Koch, Wilson, Navarro and Austin)  at Sylmar High were just starting it. I believe I was the second class to go through it. When I saw that they were taking students, and that it incorporated art into the curriculum, that was that

Oh, so it was like a voluntary kind of thing.

Yeah, it was voluntary. You had to sign up, and then you had teachers vouch for you to say that you were good for the program

You’ve really only been out of school for two years. I see what you’ve accomplished in just the short time that you’ve been out of school and it’s a lot. It’s pretty impressive.

Looking back it’s just been one project at a time made possible through my community of artists, networking, and meeting people. Oftentimes I have an idea for an exhibition or someone tells me theirs, and I’m like, “yeah let’s do it.

You just kind of make it happen.

Because you have to. Sometimes you just have to make it happen. You can’t wait for the gallery to discover you, or to get that museum show, or…

You’re absolutely right! So you got this space right after you got out of school. While you were in school were you thinking about getting a space like this? Was that one of the goals?

It was definitely a goal, but I didn’t think it was going to happen so soon. I thought it was going to take a few years, but it was definitely something I was thinking about when I was working on my BFA. I wanted a space—specifically a storefront—where I could have my gallery in the front and my studio in the back. That way I could have shows, invite my friends, and keep the work momentum of school going.

How did you come to be in this space?

I came across this space through a coworker at the time, at the Arts Council. When I was doing my internship I had expressed my studio storefront dream. We ended up having similar goals, and about a year later when the artist next door moved out, we took over the studio space. So we were initially next door for the first month, and were going to alternate using the space, so it was going to be a lot of moving in and out. Fortunately this space became available, so we decided to come over here. The back part became my studio and [my friend] had her studio in the front. For exhibitions, she’d have to move her stuff to the back during the first 14 months we shared the space. 

Flatline Gallery

So while an exhibition was up, she basically didn’t have a work space. How did that work? How long would you go between exhibitions?

That’s why the exhibitions were really short in the beginning. Opening days were on Saturdays, and the closings were on Thursdays. So it was only up for five days, we did a similar schedule as the galleries at Cal State Long Beach. 

What’s your exhibition schedule like now?

Now that it’s just me in the space, I have more flexibility. I work with the artists’ availability, so far they’ve been 3-4 weeks. 

Flatline Gallery

You mentioned that you used to work for the Arts Council, but you stopped pretty recently. What was your experience with that like? 

I coordinated arts education programs at the Arts Council, so I learned a lot of arts administration. The admin part has helped me organize myself, with exhibition documentation, the logistics of coordinating, and marketing. It also gave me some hanging, and handling  experience. Also, I met a lot of people, too. 

I’m sure most people know that arts funding is pretty limited and a lot of cities have very little to go on. As visual artists we’re always looking for exhibition space and all that, but for a city as big as Long Beach I really feel like there aren’t that many places as there could be. 

I think when it comes to gallery spaces, or general art spaces, maybe not so much. But artists are starting to create their own spaces. Say they want to do a pop-up—they rent a space. In Long Beach, there are a lot of empty storefronts, so it’s just about being creative. Some people have had exhibitions in their home, or in their garage, and it’s cool to see how everything is evolving so exhibiting can be more inclusive and artists make their own opportunities to get out there, especially if [the traditional gallery spaces] isn’t the right fit for an artist.

That’s kind of like the whole Long Beach Open Studio Tour. That is a really good opportunity for so many artists in Long Beach to show their work that would otherwise never get seen, because they’re not in one of the designated art spaces around town. Have you ever participated in the Long Beach Open Studio?

No, I haven’t. I’ve been curious about it—it doesn’t come up here.

OK, that brings me to the other subject, which is where this space is. You had mentioned that there are other artist spaces around here? 

There were some printers up here, and honestly I don’t know. There’s a photographer that is from the area, but yeah, it would be really cool to start a North Long Beach open art studios. 

Now that this is your full time project, how do you make money to keep it going?

Before, I was fully funding it through my job at the Arts Council. I would budget my income for the space. I am now doing odd jobs, like art handling, art marketing, and admin work. I am also generating income from teaching workshops here, and short term studio rentals which gives artists a work space for their projects at a low rate. From talking to people I realized that many artists don’t have a dedicated studio space, and are trying to make it work at home. That’s when I decided to offer up the space for other artists to use. So, when I don’t have an exhibition or workshop I schedule studio time for others. 

You’re living the artistic dream: you’re supporting yourself with art and all art-related stuff. You’re working hard, obviously, so that’s really commendable and kind of amazing.

I’m really sad I left the Arts Council, but I also felt like I needed to quit now that I can, and felt that I can make it work in this space, so I can live out my artistic dream. I now have more time to be here, and plan out programing. I also have the time to meet and collaborate with people because sometimes what would happen is I’ll miss opportunities because my schedule wouldn’t match up with somebody else’s’.

Flatline Gallery
Elizabeth’s work in progress.

You come from a fine art and art marketing background, and that’s enabled you to see what is possible, that you don’t need that traditional gallerist/artist relationship to make an art career work, and that’s really amazing to me. 

With e-commerce and Instagram, people are making a lot of money off of random stuff, and I feel that right now is the time to take advantage of those platforms. I really want to create income from this space, but I also want to create an economy within this space for all people involved. I want artists to come here and sell their work, and I also want people to know that when they come and look at the work that it’s for sale, and by buying it they are supporting the artist and the space. 

Probably a lot of people’s experience with art is in museums. You go on a school field trip, or maybe you’ll go like on a free museum day. You’re never thinking oh, I could actually afford something that’s hanging on a wall that’s an original piece of art, that hasn’t been mass-produced, like a poster. So, that is a really valuable education. So people are just randomly walking down the street, and they happen to see your space—what’s the general reaction?

If I am working in here, the curtains are usually shut, so people that pass by probably don’t even notice the space. Or if they’re open they might see a table and me walking around an empty space and wonder what the space is. But when they see the door open, the lights on, the curtains drawn, and that they can come in here for an exhibition, they’re like, “Oh I didn’t know this was here, is this a gallery?” So I invite them in, and they’re in culture shock. “Wow, this is a real gallery?”, “I can’t believe it’s here, it almost feels like it shouldn’t be here.” It’s really cool to see them come in, have a good time, especially if it’s an opening reception, and there’s people and the artists having a good time. I have food and drinks and so they come and hang out. It’s cool giving that experience to people in the neighborhood, especially to the younger people, like high school or young college kids that are interested in art but maybe don’t know that art could be a career. They’re like, “Oh I paint and draw all the time, I didn’t know I could do this.”

It’s all about education and familiarity. I did not grow up in a very art-educated household; my parents didn’t know anything about art, as we know it, and they knew I was talented, but they didn’t really know how to encourage that. They just thought, oh well, there’s nothing you can do with that. 

Yeah, same with me. My dad was like, [you’re] so good, what could you do? Well you’re going to be an architect. That’s the only thing he could think of. They were always supportive, though— “ as long as you’re in school you’ll figure it out. ”

Are your parents first generation immigrants?

Yeah.

Mine too. Growing up, you’re finding out all this stuff at school, but your parents have no clue. So you really have to figure out a lot and take care of a lot of stuff on your own. 

Yeah, I feel like my parents were like “I did my job, you’re in school, you’re doing good.” 

I think having that kind of background is actually kind of beneficial in a lot of ways, because it makes you really self-reliant and adaptable and resilient. Let kids do some stuff on their own. I think that spirit of self-reliance and doing things on your own probably has also helped you in addition to your art training. 

I never thought about it that way.

Absolutely. Considering all that you’ve accomplished in such a short amount of time, it’s a lot. You should give yourself more credit. 

Sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. When I was in school I was very self-conscious. I was like, oh they’re better than me. I was in class, stressing out, drawing around other people. Now that I’m out, I’m just like why did I even think that way? I feel like everybody does though, and they don’t share it with other people. We might get through some art blocks a lot faster if we all did. 

It’s a very understandable self-defense mechanism. That whole competition thing—I’m sure when you were little, like in your class, or your whole school, even, you might have been like the best artist, but then you go to middle school, and then high school and then college, and you meet these other kids that are like, whoa, they’re really good! 

It’s really competitive out there. 

We humans compare ourselves to others all the time. But now, it’s more important to think about how you can support each other and do things together. You’re definitely in the spirit of that. You’re doing stuff for yourself, but you’re also doing things for your friends, for the community, and I think we need more of that. 

So, this area—you’re kind of out here on your own, and you’re thinking it’d be kind of nice to have other spaces, other artists in the area that could kind of make this a hub on its own. 

Yeah, that would be awesome.

So can I ask you how much the rent is in this space?

This space is $970. 

And does it include utilities, and all that kind of stuff?

Yeah, that includes utilities.  So that’s why I moved here, it’s pretty cheap compared to other spaces. 

Maybe more artists should find out, hey, the rents up here are very reasonable, like what about all those empty storefronts right there (on Atlantic).

That’s what I say all the time. Because people are like, oh your space is so cool. Well, just drive around, call. If you look online, the prices are usually inflated. They’re managed by bigger companies, but if you drive around, and you call the for rent signs, usually an older landlord or mom and pop own the space and you get it for way less than if you research online. 

It’d be good to spread the word, and see about growing this end of town. It’s kind of exciting. 

Yeah, definitely, and since it is my studio space, that’s the way I justify paying the rent. I think some people sometimes start a space, but then they see that they’re not getting too much use of it, or income coming in. You see places come up and close down. So not only is it a gallery, it’s also my storage space too—since I’m an oil painter working on canvases, I need this space to store everything. I used to work from home and I looked into renting a storage unit, just the basic standard size, and I think it was between $400 to $600, the ones I was looking at. At that price I could just have my studio and not only store my stuff there, but also work there. 

The idea of having a work space that can double up and do so much more is really great. What further expectations do you have for this space? Do you have any other plans to do more with it than you’ve already been doing? 

This year was the first time that I used the whole space as an exhibition space. I put my stuff in the back room so that was fun to see how I could use the whole space as an exhibition space. I think I’m going to do that this [coming] year. I think I would like to see more full artist takeovers. If I’m truly here for the artist, then I truly believe in handing over the space so that they can realize their ideas. More of that would be awesome. 

And I’m still figuring out the workshops. Just figuring out what days, what times work for this part of town, and for people that work during the week or the weekends. It’s been trial and error—I’ve had workshops where nobody shows up. I’ve had workshops where people do show up but it’s not as much as I expected. But if one person shows up, I’m happy. Worst case scenario I sit here and I do the lesson plan myself. It’s always good to go back to the basics; I’ve been teaching intro to oil painting. For next year, I want to get other artists in here to teach the workshops. Having them come up with the lesson, taking what they do as an artist, and making a workshop.

Flatline Gallery
Examples from Elizabeth’s Intro to Oil Painting Workshop

I’m sure when you were envisioning this space, you had some ideas of what it might be like. How have your actual experiences meshed with your ideas?

I was like, oh it’s going to be awesome, I’ll just put some stuff on the walls and hang out (laughs). And then I realized that if I have gallery hours and somebody comes in here and is asking me questions, I really need to know the artist’s process, and know what the work is about. I can’t just be, oh I think it’s so cool, just put it up. I realized I had a lot of responsibility when it comes to representing artists. So, I’ve been learning to become a better curator and gallerist for artists. Basically just educating myself on that, how to properly represent somebody’s work so I do them justice. 

So you kind of went into it not really thinking about all the details, because it’s so hard to do, even if someone gave you a sheet of all these things you should be thinking about. The actual reality is probably so different. But that’s the only way you can really learn. 

Maybe that’s the best way for me to learn, because if I had a “you need to do it this way” example then I would have psyched myself out. I’d think “that’s the way I have to do it,” and I’d be more self conscious. I would question a lot of things; did I do that right or did I mess up? If I knew exactly the whole scope of the work, maybe I wouldn’t have actually done it. Maybe it just worked out for the better. 

At the beginning it’s all been my friends, really—my friends from work, my friends from school, and the people I met through them, so we’re all learning together. And if I don’t know something I’m just really honest, I don’t want to lie or feel like I’m keeping something from somebody. I’m just like, “I really don’t know” let me figure this out, and I think it makes the other person more comfortable too, so we figure it out together. 

Yeah, absolutely. And anybody who says they know everything, they’re lying, because nobody knows everything. Or, they might specifically know how they’ve done things in the past, but it doesn’t always translate into a different space, or part of town, or whatever. There’s always variables.

It’s different for everybody. Every exhibition is different, every artist is different, so there’s really no right way of doing something.

So how do you handle programming for the gallery right now? Do you have a lot of stuff lined up for a while?

I had the summer workshops, and the culmination for those were in September, so I had something going on every weekend in September. After the summer workshops I introduced the Oil Painting workshops, so while I worked out those details I decided to take a break from the exhibitions, also so that I had some time to work on my own artwork and just have a break. I wanted to figure out the workshops, so when I do get a guest artist in here I have a better idea of how to schedule them, how many people to expect, how much to charge, and how much material to provide, if providing materials—all the logistics to that. So, I am slowly lining up workshops for next year and brainstorming exhibition ideas. 

So you have your space, the flexibility and the freedom to decide what you want to do. You’re not beholden to somebody or something, so that must be nice. 

Luckily everybody that’s stopped by is really nice, very supportive. I’ve invited some artists for the month of January, and I’m just straight up with them: I’m still working it out, but I really want you to come over. Sure enough, they’re like “okay I’ll work it out with you.” If [they’re] going to come do a workshop I’d want them to get paid, and I’d want it to be worth their time. Luckily everyone’s understanding and willing to work it out. I want to provide affordable workshops for the community, and I want a variety of them—different techniques and different forms of art. I want it to be super-accessible to everybody. 

That’s great. One final question before we wrap things up. I really like the “flatline” neon sign. Did you get that made? 

Yeah, I did, from a neon shop in downtown LA called Signograph USA. One of my friends from high school, her mom works in their neon shop. She’s the one who blows the glass and does the twisting of it, so she’d always post part of the process, showing off her work. She does really cool stuff. She tagged the company, so I bookmarked a post thinking I needed a sign and had it made at the end of last year.

Flatline Gallery
T-shirts

You can find Elizabeth at: 

Website: https://www.flatlinegallery.com/

Instagram: @__flatline

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/flatlinegallery/

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