May 5 2014 06:18 PM

News comes amid a sea change for Little Italy's arts-and-design community

Tom Noel (left), Marianela de la Hoz and Larry Baza at the opening of Noel-Baza Fine Art

Larry Baza and Tom Noel opened Noel-Baza Fine Art on India Street in Little Italy more than six years ago. Since staging their first exhibition, they've turned the space into one of the most notable galleries in San Diego.

Baza recently told CityBeat that the building housing the small gallery has been sold, and rather than working with the new owners, the H.G. Fenton Company, the gallerist says they'll soon close their brick-and-mortar location.

"We had a sweetheart of a deal," Baza explained. "We were very fortunate to have a great landlady, but change is good. We're going to reinvent ourselves. We're going to do some pop-ups, art fairs, things like that. We have a loyal following of customers, so we'll see what happens."

While Noel-Baza Fine Art carried the work of some big hitters in the art world, the gallery also sought out some of San Diego's most interesting emerging artists, like Bhavna Mehta, Robert Nelson and Marianela de la Hoz, who was recently named a recipient of the 2014 San Diego Art Prize. Noel-Baza Fine Art believed so much in de la Hoz that they opened the gallery with an exhibition of her work.

"Since then, my relationship with Tom and Larry grew," de la Hoz wrote in an email. "We became good friends. I will miss the space, but I know that we will still be working together in different ways... I am very grateful; with them, I have become a better artist and a better person."

The closure comes amid a sea change for Little Italy's arts-and-design community. During the last few months, the Little Italy Association and its member businesses have been working on rebranding and ultimately replacing Kettner Nights, the Friday-night event that featured local businesses and galleries staying open late with special offerings.

"There's no more Kettner Nights," said Perry Meyer of Meyer Fine Art, a mainstay gallery located inside the arts building at 2400 Kettner Blvd. "Now it's NoLI Nights—short for North Little Italy—and it kicks off May 15... Kettner Nights suffered. It was just time to move on."

Meyer said that people never remembered when Kettner Nights was happening since it took place every other month. They made the event monthly, but then not all of the businesses wanted to participate. They eventually decided a fresh start was needed, in part because Little Italy is growing and participating businesses are no longer focused on Kettner Boulevard.

NoLI Nights is planned to be bigger than Kettner Nights. It'll also be held quarterly and moved from Friday to Thursday. The Little Italy Association has enlisted the help of a public-relations firm to get the word out.

Meyer said that while he's saddened to hear about Noel-Baza Fine Art's closure and laments the loss of other galleries and artists who've left the neighborhood lately, he's excited to see Little Italy change.

"Art and design are still here," he said. "We can rebound and reestablish that, but NoLI has to be more than just art and design. It has to be restaurants and all of that—that's how we'll make it work."

Baza said that he and Noel sat in on all the NoLI meetings and were onboard with most of the changes, but he said the rebrand on its own isn't enough to help art-focused businesses like his.

"For us, it's obviously a little late," he said. "But it won't do anyone any good unless all the businesses and galleries participate and people actually come out."

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