Lean as a razor, Mark Shunney has the eye of an architect and the energy of a community organizer. He is, in fact, both. As the entrepreneur of the newly refreshed Art Research Office (ARO) Gallery in the heart of downtown Santa Cruz, Shunney has applied his tireless expertise to creating a space for “artist-driven experiments.”
Launched in early February with a riveting exhibition of 260 computer-enhanced drawings—“Audiographa,” by web graphic designer Erik Zwierzynski—ARO invites “exhibits, experiments, and salons” in conjunction with the new Sentinel Printers headquarters.
Zwierzynski, a webware designer, “was interested in seeing how his work fit in with the idea of fine art,” says Shunney. His boldly colored drawings are graphic manifestations of specific musical tracks—data-visualizations of songs, from Sonic Youth to Bob Dylan, Talking Heads to Nina Simone—created in a year-long project in which Zwierzynski produced a drawing a day. Gallery text sheets devised by Shunney explain the origins of each artwork in the show, which stays up until March 31.
“Artists we’ve worked with in the past are the first ones we will be showcasing,” he says, showing me through the suite of workspaces, which printing staff share with handsomely framed artwork.
Described by Shunney as a mid-century flatiron building, 1025 Center St. gleams with polished interiors and innovative conversation alcoves—constructed and designed by Shunney—and most appealingly, with acres of wall space for evolving displays.
“The entry room is all gallery,” he explains, grinning. “A white cube with track lighting. Plus there are various offshoot rooms with great wall space.”
The alliance Shunney formed with Sentinel Printers several years ago has traveled neatly into the new Center Street gallery, whose trapezoidal-shaped front salon serves as the main gallery and focal point of First Friday receptions.
Shunney is a native of Rhode Island and did graduate work at the renowned Rhode Island School of Design. He honed his genius for space transformation working in New York on interior restoration. He paid for his undergraduate schooling at University of Massachusetts Amherst by painting and restoring industrial, residential and commercial venues in the summers.
“As a kid in Rhode Island, I was also very taken with extreme cultural innovations—I did breakdancing and skateboarding,” says Shunney.
That East Coast fervor is still evident in his intensity and visual sophistication. For the past five years his day job as assistant gallery director and manager at UCSC’s Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery, has provided ample opportunities to demonstrate his array of skills. Longtime exhibition colleague Shelby Graham, director of the Sesnon Gallery, praises Shunney for his knack for mentoring. She notes that Shunney has created through ARO a place for art student alums to show their work locally and gain professional art world experience.
Shunney, an ace negotiator, prefers working side by side with student colleagues. “Many of my associates currently, and early adopters of ARO space, have been former students with whom I’ve built relationships,” he says.
Shunney’s ARO Gallery forges further alliances with the university by offering internships to History of Art & Visual Culture department students. The walls gleam with intriguing artworks, most of them framed oil paintings, digital prints, and lithographs by top UCSC art graduates.
“There are lots of blue-chip, mid-career artists with galleries,” Shunney says. “But my breakaway moment came when I decided to open a gallery for emerging artists.”
And not a gallery in the 20th-century sense, either. “My position is more of artist/curator producing shows. Historically I had been an installation artist, but now I feel like an environmental artist.”
The residential arena as art is another corollary to his current ARO workspace as gallery. “Now that I live downtown I have a fresh sense of the community,” he says.
Living in small confines, such as his current house, allows him to continue exploring “efficiency of space,” as an ongoing environmental artform. Yes, this man can make an artistic practice out of almost any spatial situation.
In addition to launching a broad concept gallery, Shunney is forming a set of rules for an artist-driven salon.
“Once a month,” he says. “My intention is to focus on the artist stepping outside his comfort zone and creating impromptu dialogue. A Fluxus kind of thing. The Salon Hour will be a project-driven encounter, as well as a great way to explore what people want.”
Even in a town full of art venues, ARO stands out in attracting outside and international perspectives. “I feel confident in my own taste as I’ve matured,” says Shunney. “I’m told I’m creating bridges between the campus and the community.”
ARO Gallery is at 1025 Center St., Santa Cruz. Open Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m., First Friday, and by appointment. 332-4142, artresearchoffice.com.