It was in the spring of 1962 that a group of local artists got together and did something crazy in the then-virtually-artless central San Joaquin Valley: they started a gallery. In search of a place to show their work and engage the public in discussion, they formed the Fig Tree Gallery, a cooperative of painters, potters, sculptors and free-thinking “outsiders.” Of the nine original members of this pioneering establishment, only one, Robert Ogata, is still involved with the cooperative today, carrying a legacy started more than 50 years ago into a new era.
Ogata has been with the gallery since its experimental days in the freewheeling Sixties, remaining dedicated through slumps in membership during the Seventies and Eighties and reinvigorating the co-op’s commitment to building the Fresno art scene by creating Art Hop in 1995. Where once it stood alone as the only operating co-op gallery in downtown, Fig Tree is now surrounded by other galleries and artist’s studios, including Ogata’s own, which is located around the corner in a converted transportation depot.
For much of his time with the co-op, Ogata was also an art teacher in the Valley, working at Fresno High School for a couple years, but dedicating the majority of his career in education to the students of Sierra High School. Now retired, Ogata is focused on his art. In 2013, a series of his recent paintings was shown in an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Artist Gallery.
He’s also fallen into the role of patriarch of the oldest continuously-operating cooperative in California, which currently has 24 members. And Ogata plans on being one of them for many years to come.
Here, he talks about the early days of the co-op, how the art scene has changed around the Fig Tree Gallery and the origins of downtown Fresno’s signature event, Art Hop.