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Alt|Space: a new spot for art, performance and ideas in Mar Vista

September 24, 2010 |  7:00 am

“What’s happening in there?” "What is that place?”

That’s the effect Dean Harada is going for with Alt|Space at Top Tomato Market, a new, “fringy” art space and “curated ideas emporium” in the heart of Mar Vista that opens Friday. 

Harada is hoping to keep things mysterious to build suspense and avoid being pigeon-holed.  Depending on the evening, he may use the abandoned grocery store as a walk-in piano bar, a curated monthlong video rental shop (“50 films you need to see before you die,” for instance) with accompanying lecture, a more traditional exhibition of modern photographs, a retail art installation, or a free, one-off dinner party, bringing together strangers from the community he feels “share the same creative vibe and vision.” 

He says Alt|Space is unlike anything in L.A. at the moment, but if pressed, he says it’s closest cousin might be Machine Projects in Echo Park

Toptomato Harada is a bit of a hyphenate himself. Primarily a music composer for TV commercials, the self-described entrepreneur also owns Earl’s Gourmet Grub down the street from Alt|Space.  He’d been searching for a place large enough to build a private music studio when, last year, he stumbled on the abandoned Top Tomato Market’s kitschy crimson and banana yellow sign. The building, which was a plumbing business for 50 years, then a furniture store in the '90s, was being converted into a grocery store in 2008 when the store owner died of a heart attack.

By the time Harada stumbled on it, it had been vacant for a year, but its tomato sign was by then an iconic neighborhood landmark.  

Harada and architect Lukas Peter constructed Harada’s dream studio inside (now sporting both state-of-the art mixing equipment and a handcrafted “DIY Marimba” made from clay flowerpots).  But although the little studio was teeming with activity, its surrounding interior space – approximately 900 square feet of stained concrete floors and exposed wood beams – was  empty. 

Harada decided to turn the rest of the space over to the community as a center of sorts for “communication and collaboration,” without, he says, any pointed financial agenda.

“It’s just a really interesting way to not necessarily transform but reveal the neighborhood," he says. "Mar Vista is such a driving neighborhood, and no one thinks much about it.  But there are so many interesting creative people who live here.”    

He likens Mar Vista to Silver Lake and is toying with the idea of a "Freaky Friday"-like weekend for the sister ‘hoods:  “I want to do a city swap with Silver Lake – we have Time Warp Music that could turn into Silver Lake Lounge, we’ve got L.A. Breakless that could be another Bicycle Kitchen” he says.  

While Alt|Space is not a bona-fide nonprofit, it has no resident dealer going after (and trying to satisfy) a collector base. So that gives Harada some additional creative freedom. Harada will get a cut of sales from shows but at 25%, less than the 50% that galleries typically take. 

Altspacesketches Brooklyn-based artist Alessandra Olanow for example, who’s doing an unpaid “residency” at Alt|Space, didn’t contribute anything to Harada’s bottom line — the space was free to her and her drawings, now the only thing hanging at Alt|Space. (They are not for sale.)  For a week in mid-August, she lured people in from the street for 30-minute, deeply personal interviews — about everything from one woman’s writing aspirations to a man’s first sexual exploit with a prostitute in Portugal — while she sketched their portraits with colored pencils. The minimalist illustrations now hang beside the anonymous interviews, which Olanow transcribed by hand on poster board.

Harada most likely won’t turn away curious onlookers who might want to pop in and peruse Olanow’s display, but Alt|Space doesn’t officially open to the public until Friday. Its debut exhibition will be “Ladykillers,” a showing of Paris and L.A.-based artist Maya Mercer’s provocative photographs of scantily dressed men posing in lush, natural surroundings, curated by Delia Cabral and Peter Frank.

How will these somewhat racy “contemporary renaissance portraits” gel with the building’s quirky, Top Tomato exterior? For a while Harada thought about painting over the tomato sign. But then he thought better of it. “It’s great. It’s what, I think, this place can be — this funny, nonsensical thing. Top Tomato — is that even a phrase? There’s this playful, surreal quality to it.”

— Deborah Vankin