"I'm the only for-profit emerging artist gallery in this area," said Chang Barrero, 49, who has pioneered art districts in Chicago and South Beach. His gallery is called ActivistArtistA.

"Now, nobody can take the risk because it's too expensive," he said. "They've started to view wall space as real estate."

Artists can buy space in "vanity galleries," merit not considered. They've cropped up along Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach and in downtown Lake Worth, he said, comparing the practice to self-publishing a book. Other galleries are "window dressing for the chamber of commerce."

"You can't pay your way into my gallery," Chang Barrero said.

His neighbors feel the same way. Rick Beau Lieu, 64, was the first to move in, in 1986. He said he runs the Neighborhood Gallery strictly on commission. Most of the others came in a wave last year with Chang Barrero.

The galleries and studios occupy a cluster of low concrete structures with bay doors covering each unit. The spaces go for about $450 a month, and Chang Barrero quickly leases them as they become available to 
keep the auto mechanics out.

That gets expensive. From his fringe outpost, at 422 W. Industrial Ave., west of Interstate 95, he can't piggy-back on restaurant and retail traffic. And he places no ads in newspapers. It's all guerrilla marketing (he studied marketing in college): Facebook, fliers, word of mouth.

Chang Barrero takes a 35 percent commission on sales in his gallery, less than most. He declined to give his annual overhead, but he was fortunate recently when he sold two large pieces that paid almost a year's rent.

The city has embraced the art district, working it into branding materials, and the Community Redevelopment Agency is planning to pump folks in once a month on a trolley tour.

"We need space," said Sibel Kocabasi, a local artist and freelance curator. "We really don't have contemporary galleries, but we have a lot of good potential artists."

She noted the annual exodus of Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts graduates away from West Palm Beach. There has never been a place for them, she said.

In fact, Chang Barrero said he's recruiting interns. He can't pay them, though. They'll work for art supplies.
bwolford@tribune.com or 561-243-6602 or Twitter @benwolford.