Gallery Nucleus celebrates 10 years in Alhambra

In 2014, Ian Dale wrote about Gallery Nucleus' 10 year anniversary. Dale, an artist and long-time admirer of the art gallery, said he still visits the space once or twice a month. "As an artist myself, Nucleus has been a constant source of inspiration and education that has been pivotal for my own development," Dale wrote to us in an email. Dale is wrapping up a two-year freelance illustration project for "The Bible App for Kids," an interactive storybook for mobile devices. "It's an interesting time period," Dale wrote. "I'm in my mid-thirties now and starting to make real progress on some goals and dreams I've had for years, but at times had wondered would ever be possible.”

A crowd gathered outside Gallery Nucleus on a Saturday afternoon in July, extending down Main Street, around the corner onto Monterey Street, and into parking lots south of the Alhambra gallery. Men, women, and children dressed up in green outfits and colorful bandanas—some even wielding plastic ninja weaponry—waited to see art inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Crowds lined up for an art exhibit based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are greeted by the heroes.The TMNT fan event was just one of the many exhibitions and industry events Nucleus has organized since opening in 2004. The gallery celebrated its 10-year anniversary in October, looking back on a decade of creating a space for accessible and affordable art, partnering with studios to deliver official fan pieces, and drawing artists and enthusiasts from around the region and world. Check out a timeline of their work below.

Nucleus founder Ben Zhu realized in the early 2000s that there was an abundance of concept art being produced in preliminary development of films, but the artwork wasn't available for most people to see. After speaking to fellow Art Center College of Design alumni, school connections who went on to work at major animation studios, Zhu wanted to create a place to showcase the work of entertainment artists in a more serious gallery setting.

A crowd gathers at the Nucleus space on Main and Monterey streets“There was no gallery showing concept art by Miyazaki, or drawings from Street Fighter,” Zhu said. “Basically stuff that I would love to see and a lot of my friends would love to see.”

At age 24, Zhu quit his job as a video game artist to open Gallery Nucleus, a move he attributes to “blind confidence.” “It was a weird pivotal moment in my life. I just knew that if I didn't try it [then], I would never try it,” Zhu said. “But I had no idea what I was about to get myself into.”

As an Alhambra resident, Zhu watched Main Street develop into a commercial draw for the region. He chose the street for his first location at Main and First streets. Nucleus’s premiere exhibit, “The Main Event,” opened on Oct. 9, 2004. It featured nine artists, many of whom still exhibit at Nucleus. Nucleus's "Spongebob Squarepants" show hangs at Universal Studios.

Nucleus moved a few blocks east in 2008 to its current location at Main and Monterey streets. With a larger exhibition area, a second gallery space upstairs, and a studio and production space, the new location enabled Nucleus to expand their exhibitions and customize the space for each event, according to Zhu.

Over time, Nucleus broadened its focus, featuring not only concept art but also works from the realms of children's literature, comics, and all forms of visual storytelling. The gallery has featured established veterans such as movie poster artist Drew Struzan—of Star Wars fame—as well as rising contemporary artists. Highly sought-after fine artist James Jean and Caldecott-winning children's illustrator Jon Klassen were both featured at Nucleus early in their careers.

Nucleus is known for an unusual approach to art shows. Gallery openings are often themed events that include games, food and drink, music, and giveaways. Past exhibits have featured children's book readings, hands-on crafts, arcade game battles, and costume contests. One exhibit of wildlife-themed artwork even included a petting zoo in the middle of the gallery. Final Fantasy Art Director Yusuke Naora greets fans after traveling from Japan to Alhambra.

The tribute exhibit to the “Adventure Time” animated television series in 2011 was a breakthrough for Nucleus—it was the first time the gallery worked directly with the show's creators for an event. Zhu and his staff featured not only fan artwork but also authentic production work straight from Cartoon Network vaults. The success of that exhibit has led to more partnerships with major studios like Warner Brothers, DreamWorks, and Nickelodeon.

These events are characteristics of Nucleus’s overall atmosphere: an approachable art gallery, Zhu said. “It's just the nature of our business,” Zhu said. “Illustrators and animators are the most down-to-earth people I know… I think it's nice to be more social, to be more engaging.”

Nucleus’s prices are accessible as well. The gallery offers over 1,000 prints in addition to originals, priced at $20-75, depending on size. “Decorate your walls,” Zhu said. “Art is actually a lot more affordable than you think. Especially original art. We probably sell the most affordable stuff that you can get.” 

Children's book illustrator Scott Campbell gives a live demonstration at an exhibit of his work.

With Nucleus’s website, Zhu and his team have pioneered innovative approaches to selling art. The gallery was one of the first and few galleries to post photos of all the artwork online for each exhibit. Nucleus’s comprehensive web presence has broadened its audience to fans and art collectors around the world, and artwork, prints, and books continue to sell for years after each exhibit has ended, according to Zhu.

Success has not come without difficulties, however. While many of the gallery’s neighbors closed their doors during the recession, Nucleus has faced their share of challenges to stay open. Zhu said he has grown as a businessperson as he and his team have re-evaluated and streamlined their services and offerings. “It's definitely not glamorous, owning a gallery,” Zhu said. During difficult seasons, he said, it takes “tightening our belts and working really hard to get big events…and hopefully the fans respond to what we're doing.”

Nucleus plans to celebrate its 10-year anniversary with a special exhibit in 2015. There's also a possibility of a crowdfunded retrospective book looking at the art of Nucleus over the first decade, Zhu said.

A line of visitors wait to enter Nucleus.As for the next 10 years, Zhu would like to continue working directly with film, animation, and game studios to put on official events. He and his team are also considering expanding with galleries in other cities. Zhu hopes to continue to improve the gallery’s online presence and to eventually become “the place to purchase illustrative and entertainment art,” he said.

“I wanted to bring exposure and make [concept art] recognized as an art form,” Zhu said. “I think I've reached that goal to some degree. It's definitely more recognized as an art form now.”

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