Downey nonprofit shapes student artists. Now it could close


Juliana Canty (left) and Gabriel Enamorado have worked together since 2019 to make Stay Gallery financially independent from the city. Photo courtesy of Stay Arts.

Gabriel Enamorado created his nonprofit art gallery in downtown Downey — with his teenage self in mind. Back then, he yearned for a space where he could explore his interest in drawing and photography despite his family’s lack of encouragement.

“I think as Latinos, which are the majority here [in Downey], it's not something that parents are urging you to go do,” says Enamorado, Stay Gallery’s executive director. 

Stay Gallery, in a storefront on Downey Avenue, has offered free and low-cost arts activities to the community for over 10 years. But now their future is uncertain. That’s because the gallery relies on the City of Downey to pay a majority of its approximately $36,000 annual rent, and with their lease up on May 31, the city hasn’t decided whether to renew the funding.

Stay Gallery has been filling the void left by the Downey Museum of Art when it closed in 2009, says Enamorado. He co-founded the nonprofit after he helped organize an art show in Downey in 2010 that drew a crowd of 800 people. 

Now Stay Gallery offers family art days, mentorship for high schoolers, and art shows for local students and professional artists alike. Enamorado says the gallery’s mission is about “giving people the opportunity to share their work, and giving kids the opportunity to experience the arts.”

When Stay Gallery opened in 2012, the city agreed to fully subsidize its rent in exchange for this valuable community programming. It was part of the city’s plan to revitalize its blighted downtown after the Great Recession.

Over time the agreement was that Stay Gallery would work to become a financially independent nonprofit. More than 10 years later, downtown Downey is a lively destination with shops and restaurants, but the gallery hasn’t found a way to sustain itself. 

Stay Gallery, in Downey, offers low-cost and free activities like family art days, mentorship for high schoolers, and art shows for local students and professional artists. Photo courtesy of Stay Arts.

Enamorado left the gallery’s staff in 2016, only to return in 2019 to try one more time to get the nonprofit on financially independent footing. He brought on Juliana Canty as programs director to help rethink their business plan. “There were a lot of limitations from the beginning that I just don't think anyone really noticed,” says Canty.

Canty quickly saw that typical income streams like selling art or tickets to exhibits just didn’t work in Downey. Through the gallery’s parent organization Stay Arts, they did pick up graphic design work for the city and local newspaper. They also rent out the space for events. And during the pandemic they effectively stopped taking personal stipends in order to funnel that money toward the general budget. But it hasn’t been enough.

Enamorado says they are willing to find a compromise with the city to continue their partnership, but he says the bottom line is: If the city stops supporting them, the gallery and its community program “goes away.”

Downey City Council members KCRW spoke with say that while they are committed to supporting the arts, they have questions about continuing the subsidy.

Councilmember Mario Trujillo describes the gallery as a great addition to downtown, but says he would like to settle the longstanding debate around whether or not it can ever be self-sustaining. “We should just either agree that we're always going to subsidize it, or [else] help them become self-sufficient, right?” he says. 

Downey Mayor Claudia Frometa raises the specter of  a potential recession. “We need to make sure that we protect, first and foremost, our financial obligations to public safety and the infrastructure improvements that we have already engaged with,” she says. 

When it’s prepared its 2023-2024 budget, the city could end up renewing Stay Gallery’s funding in full, reducing how much they fund the gallery or cutting funding altogether. Since the gallery is already operating at a deficit, it won’t take much of a cut in funding to force its doors to close downtown, says Enamorado. If that happens, the nonprofit will live on through an after-school arts program they currently run in Downey Unified School District. That’s because that project is state funded and run in partnership with the Downey Foundation for Educational Opportunities.

What would be lost, says Enamorado, is the nonprofit’s physical presence downtown. That would make it harder to fulfill his deeper mission: to make Downey a place where young people feel like they belong and want to stay after high school. That’s why he and his co-founders chose the name Stay Gallery.

“The whole purpose was: How do we create a space that encourages people, and inspires people to stay local, to stay in their community, to stay creative, to stay young?” says Enamorado. “How do we keep people here? Because everyone is leaving.”

With the thousands of students who have walked through their doors, Enamorado says, one of those kids is bound to be inspired to do something with art — becoming a professional or an art teacher.

cindy macias, a visual artist, teaches art to elementary school-aged children during an after-school program in Downey Unified School District. Photo courtesy of cindy macias.

That’s exactly what happened to cindy “cindita” macias. A high school senior in Downey in 2014, she was downtown working on a story for the school newspaper one day when she spotted the gallery for the first time. She followed her curiosity and went inside. “They were super welcoming, very friendly. And the rest is history,” says macias.

She spent a lot of senior year there, took photos of their events, and they allowed her to use the space for photo shoots. It’s also where her photography was shown professionally for the first time.

After college, macias saw Stay Gallery had a job opening for an afterschool arts teacher. She applied and got it. 

macias says the experience “felt full circle” because Stay Gallery empowered her as a young woman, showing her she had a place in the art world. Now as an art teacher, macias can pay it forward and shape the lives of Downey’s kids.

“I'm trying to really expand their minds on what being an artist really is,” says macias. “And if I can impact one student's life through art, then my job is done.”



Megan Jamerson