South Lake Tahoe’s Captivating Benko Gallery Celebrates Contemporary Art

By Natasha Bourlin

Yes, he earned a Bachelor of Arts from Kent State in Ohio. But his art career was truly born on the streets of San Francisco. There, he developed into a virtuoso of stylized contemporary art. Now, he owns the Benko Art Gallery in South Lake Tahoe, a locale that’s morphed into a launchpad for local artists.

John Benko is as colorful as his work.

After running a screen printing shop in his hometown of Cleveland for 12 years, Benko moved to San Francisco and spent about 6.5 years painting full time. “I was live painting at music events, and also doing a lot of live painting outside around The City in the parks and stuff, and accepting commissions,” Benko says. He found SF inspirational.

“It’s the grind. You have to paint all day, every day, to even keep your head a little bit above water, and it’s really, really hard to get into galleries in SF.” Longing for the mountains and a more slow-paced life in nature while raising his two kids, Benko, an avid skier, moved to South Lake in 2015. He began envisioning his own artistic Xanadu, eventually finding a place to give it life.

However, when his 1,500-square-foot Tahoe gallery first opened its doors in 2016, it was largely an homage to Bay Area artists. Then, a daily torrent of Tahoe talent began knocking on his doors — with portfolios in hand.

Now, the Benko Gallery exhibitions are all about the locals.

[My gallery] now mainly showcases artists that have never shown in galleries before, that have a lot of talent and a lot of potential moving forward in the future.

That’s what I’m mainly proud of,” Benko shares. “A lot of these artists wouldn’t have a platform here in Tahoe unless I was here, a lot of the other galleries have a different curating process. It’s real easy with me, if I like your art, I’ll give you a showcase.”

Exhibitions in Benko’s showroom focus on contemporary artists creating exquisite works in a multitude of mediums ranging from sculpture and ceramics to glass art and photography. Functional art, installation art and paintings comprise the rest. The showroom changes monthly, with at least one new artist adding their creations to the collection. To bring deserved attention to the approximately 30-50 local artists Benko features on the regular, he throws monthly parties featuring DJs and live art in front, or pre-COVID inside, of the gallery. Upon entering the gallery, it’s a nearly kaleidoscopic experience. Jaw-dropping sculptures. Triptychs. Vibrant contemporary works alongside nature radiating from the walls, captured on canvas by an artist’s hand or lens.

Benko Art Gallery in South Lake Tahoe - The Lone Pelican
Benko Art Gallery in South Lake Tahoe – The Lone Pelican

Owning this multi-award-winning gallery with goals of expanding into numerous physical locations eventually, Benko just finalized his global platform at Benkoartgallery.com. Now, art lovers don’t need to make the trip to see and purchase what’s in the space.

An artist who places a spotlight on many others through his venue, what can visitors expect of Benko’s own work?

“I collaborate on a lot of paintings,” Benko says. “I always keep it psychedelic and have a lot of movement and color, keep a dynamic flow, and try to have it look like the painting is moving, as if you’re on drugs.”

Visit Benko Art Gallery at 3979 Lake Tahoe Blvd. in South Lake Tahoe, or their captivating new website at Benkoartgallery.com.

Dragonfly Wall at Benko Art Gallery
Dragonfly Wall at Benko Art Gallery