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Alexander Salazar takes big risk, sets up shop Downtown instead of in the gayborhood

SAN DIEGO -- If you love what you do, it will love you back. That’s something many of us have heard throughout our lives by those fortunate enough to make a decent living in a profession they’re truly passionate about.

But putting that old adage into practice reminds one of another less idealistic motto – easier said than done.

With two master’s degrees in art history (as well as theology and sociology) from Harvard and Boston College, respectively, along with two years studying art in London and Italy, it can be argued that Alexander Salazar set himself up for a lifetime of debt rather than a lucrative profession. However, the openly gay art dealer and owner of Alexander Salazar Fine Art in Downtown has found success in a field that brings him great fulfillment.

It hasn’t been a walk in the park though. Setting up shop on the corner of Seventh and Broadway, an area frequented more by drunken transients than art collectors, has brought many challenges since the grand opening in 2010. Alexander Salazar Fine Art will celebrate its one year anniversary on Saturday, April 2.

“Everybody told me to stay away from this area. It’s a very, very difficult area. I’m not in the Gaslamp; I’m on the other side. So it’s still sort of sketchy,” Salazar said, relaxing at his desk and dressed in jeans and a cozy flannel shirt, with his dirty blonde hair tied back in a messy ponytail. It’s as though he were lounging in his living room, which happened to be filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of art.

“People always complain about parking. But I always think those are excuses. If people want to go to an event or an art show, they’ll go. And all that has to do with the art.”

The economic slump has also proven to be a major challenge for Salazar’s gallery. He found it hard to believe anyone would be buying any art when they’re losing their home. In fact, some of his clients admitted to having their homes foreclosed so they had nowhere to put their recently purchased masterpieces.

Even with the odds piled against him, Salazar has managed to do well in his location. Within his first year, he has opened up two more spaces: a small artist-in-residence area and a huge 5,000-square-foot gallery, right next door. Though his long roster of clients accumulated over the 14 years he’s been dealing art has helped his business thrive, Salazar believes it’s the art itself that has been the key to his success.

“I’m fortunate to know a bunch of great artists, and I believe in their work,” Salazar said. “I can blow fire out of my mouth, do hoops, but it’s not gonna sell a painting. The painting sells itself. It’s easy actually.”

His plan is to turn the neighborhood into an art district and is challenging other galleries to open up spaces close by. Salazar also nurtures the local artists he takes under his wing by providing them his residency space for free so they can concentrate on creating their work. He later exhibits and sells their pieces out of one of his galleries.

There are “a lot of artists in San Diego, and a lot of galleries aren’t tapping into the market,” Salazar said, adding that he’s making the strides to change that.

Jordan Cantwell is his current artist-in-residence. The 25-year-old is a recent SDSU grad and got his big break thanks to Salazar’s program.

“It’s really an amazing opportunity,” said Cantwell, whose first solo exhibit featuring a series of abstract oil paintings will be premiering at Alexander Salazar Fine Art on April 13.

“It’s a platform for artists who are just starting out to get their stuff out. I was painting in my garage cooped up before. The space allows me to work on multiple pieces and find inspiration to paint every day,” Cantwell said.

So much is the potential in that area of Downtown that Salazar bought a place on the same block because he wants to truly invest in the neighborhood and build a community.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Cantwell said. “The area is kind of underdeveloped. But with all the buildings and the cool architecture, it can work. It will just take time.”

Although Seventh and Broadway was a risky move, Salazar wanted to go outside the safer confines of Hillcrest, even though it embraces gay-owned businesses and is pedestrian-friendly, in an effort to invest in an area begging for some culture. He’s found success outside the typical comfort zone as a gay business owner, but the LGBT community hasn’t seemed so eager to embrace his gallery. He’s making efforts to reach out though.

“I wish more people from Hillcrest would leave Hillcrest and come Downtown,” Salazar lamented. “I think it’ll happen eventually the more they know about [the gallery]. It’s still our first year. As time goes, people will know where I’m at.”

To get the welcome mat rolling, he’s planning to have a float and booth in the Gay Pride Parade and Festival in July, become more involved in LGBT events, and hold his own events that will benefit charities that deal with gay issues. If that fails, he jokes, an exhibition of male nudes should “get them here.”

In his personal life, Salazar chooses to stay away from the politics. He feels strongly about the issue of marriage equality because it’s something he says affects him personally. His main focus is art, which truly surrounds him in every way. Salazar collects works from famous and unknown artists, and admits that his “biggest problem” is keeping himself from buying another masterpiece.

“I have stacks of art. I have no business buying more art, but it’s the thing that I like. When you love something, you make it work. I won’t save for a bill,” Salazar said with little sense of genuine remorse.

His prized piece, created by a local artist, currently hangs over his bed and took six months to pay off.

When he’s not buying art, selling art, supporting artists, transforming his community, setting up auctions and exhibitions or hunting down a piece for a client (Phew! Busy week!), he takes his Sundays off to drink mimosas at Urban Moe’s or run errands. That sort of work week may seem like hell to most, but Salazar smiles with a shrug. “It’s easy for me.”