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Is LA’s art scene growing too quickly?

29 May 2017

In 1960, the dealer Irving Blum used a photo of sculptor Ken Price on a surfboard to announce the artist’s first solo exhibition at Ferus Gallery, the space Walter Hopps had opened in LA in 1957. Blum, who joined the gallery in 1958, also had his roster of artists pose with motorcycles, equating the sleekness of their work – the term ‘finish fetish’ would come to describe the work of many Ferus artists – with a machismo and west-coast coolness that would remain associated with LA art long after the gallery folded, especially to those looking in from outside. But Ferus’s artists represented only a sliver of the experimentation happening in the city then and in years to follow: assemblage artist Noah Purifoy and conceptualists like Allen Ruppersberg were working here too. Still, they and Ferus’s artists arrived in much the same way, travelling cross-country from Oklahoma, Ohio or Mississippi to study at Chouinard Art Institute. This has been the most consistent pattern in LA’s art scene: artists come to study and stay because the city’s spaciousness and relative affordability makes working here feasible.

One evening in April 2016, three of us who had come to LA for art school years ago and hadn’t left sat at a bar in Highland Park, the once working-class neighbourhood that has now become self-consciously trendy. Orr Herz and Barak Zemer, both of whom moved here from Israel and graduated from the University of Southern California’s MFA programme, were helping me with an article I was writing about LA’s expanding art scene. We discussed the arrival of new international galleries and private museums with some trepidation. The Zurich-based Hauser & Wirth had recently opened its sprawling complex – a commercial space with the ambitions of a small museum – in downtown’s Arts District, while artists lost their studios in the surrounding buildings due to rent hikes and real estate development. Before losing her longtime studio on Anderson Street, artist Susan Silton staged an opera about greed and power. Audience members stood on the soon-to-be-demolished Sixth Street Bridge and gazed into the windows of Silton’s studio, where vocalists belted lines from Hollywood features like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Color of Money.

Also downtown stood billionaire Eli Broad’s imposing seven-month-old museum, with its honeycomb-like shell and lines of people perpetually extending from its entrance down the sidewalk. Rents were rising in other neighbourhoods too, as blue-chip galleries and additional private museums opened. Five years from now, we wondered, would young artists still be coming here? Herz pointed out optimistically that bigger structures – new galleries, new museums – could mean more employment opportunities for artists. Zemer half joked that some less marketable artists could be assistants to those catapulting toward success. ‘I feel weird, wishing this wasn’t happening,’ Zemer said of LA’s growth.

We meandered from the bar to nearby Chin’s Push, a small, experimental exhibition space run by young artist Lydia Glenn-Murray. A delightfully unwieldy ceramic fountain built by Herz and painter-sculptor Roni Shneior (Zemer’s wife) stood at the end of the driveway. A few feet away, Shneior had draped the lanky ceramic arms she sculpted over the branches of a tree, placing homemade pickles and lit cigarettes between their long, bent fingers. Three months later, Chin’s Push would pause its exhibition schedule. While typical of such spaces, this would still be unsettling for those of us already worried that low-budget experiments might soon get priced out of the scene. For years, LA seemed perpetually about to come into its own, always a soon-to-arrive international art city. Now that international attention and infrastructural shifts suggest it has arrived, the question becomes how to save some of the freedom that LA’s always-emerging state previously allowed it.

Over the past half century, Los Angeles has served mostly as the unruly alternative to the New York art world, a place where artists could live and teach but not a place with enough collectors and philanthropists to make it financially viable. Contemporary art galleries often opened with great aspirations, then closed after only a few years. PaceWildenstein, for instance, lasted in LA from 1995 to 1999, citing lack of public interest for its closure. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the city’s first museum to show modern art, did not become a solely art-focused institution until 1961 (before that, it also chronicled history and science). Most stories of post-war Los Angeles art over-emphasise the influence of Ferus Gallery, which gave Andy Warhol his first solo show and exhibited artists who worked with plastics and who were inspired by the city’s car culture.

In fact, a number of other galleries had weirder, more international programmes in the 1960s and early ’70s: Virginia Dwan’s gallery showed Yves Klein and hosted performances in which Niki de Saint Phalle shot from a rifle at her paintings; Riko Mizuno allowed Ed Moses to remove her gallery’s roof. The legacies of those programmes have deep resonance in studios in LA, but not as much in major museums and big galleries. This means the strange performances by James Lee Byars, or the Surrealism-influenced paintings by Luchita Hurtado get pushed aside in favour of a more streamlined narrative. When the Getty Research Institute funded Pacific Standard Time, its $10-million-dollar effort to bring attention to SoCal art history, the same old figures still got top billing. In its boosterism, the city sold its own diversity short, and given what we’ve seen so far, it’s possible that the scene’s growth will further sublimate its idiosyncrasies.

Over 50 galleries opened in Los Angeles between 2013 and 2016, a number of them decently-funded satellites or plants with European or east-coast bases. Three sizeable private museums opened, or prepared to open, each comparable or bigger in square footage than LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).

The Broad Museum. Photo: Iwan Baan

The Broad Museum. Photo: Iwan Baan

Eli Broad, the third richest man in LA County and a collector who has had his hand in local arts institutions since the late 1970s, put his museum right across from MOCA on Grand Avenue in the centre of downtown. Broad, who refers to himself as a venture philanthropist and prefers that his investments make a profit, spent $140 million on the 120,000 square-foot building. He wanted it next to both MOCA, established in 1979, and Frank Gehry’s ambitious 2003 Disney Concert Hall, two buildings to which he donated substantially and then strongly influenced – ‘Eli’s middle name is “Strings Attached”’, said LA Times art critic Christopher Knight. Since the early 2000s, Broad argued that Grand Avenue could become the Champs-Élysées of Los Angeles, insisting that his notoriously sprawling, centreless city should have a cultural thoroughfare just like Paris. Then in September 2015, two weeks before the Broad Museum opened, Broad adjusted his rhetoric. ‘At one point I misspoke and said that Grand Avenue was going to be the Champs-Élysées of Los Angeles,’ he told the New York Times, ‘which may have been an exaggeration.’

Other private contemporary art museums are opening, their founders matching and even outstripping Broad’s ambition. When completed, the Main Museum, founded by real-estate mogul Tom Gilmore and his partner Jerri Perrone, will take up 100,000 square feet of former bank and office buildings at the corner of 4th and Main, just a few blocks west of Skid Row. Renderings by architect Tom Wiscombe show a black, futuristic, swirling protrusion on the façade. While construction continues, the raw, half-finished lobby of a bank building currently hosts an exhibition of Alice Konitz’s modular circle and triangle chairs, usable sculptures that invite engagement in a way that the Broad’s Jeff Koons’ sculptures and Andy Warhol’s paintings can’t.

Paul and Maurice Marciano, brothers and co-founders of Guess jeans, opened their museum on Wilshire in the middle of the city on 25 May. With the help of local architect Kulapat Yantrasast, who has a minimal aesthetic and an art-world following, the brothers renovated a 110,000 square-foot former Masonic temple. Many of its once lavish rooms, which fell into disrepair after the Masons moved out in 1994, are now white-walled exhibition spaces, though some colour remains (mosaic murals, for instance). The debut exhibition, curated by former MOCA curator Philipp Kaiser will, purportedly, bring ‘together an international, multigenerational roster of artists who are among contemporary art’s leading creative and critical voices’, though all of these ‘voices’ will be extracted from the 1,500 works the Marcianos already own. Blogger William Poundstone, after doing an informal inventory of the Marciano collection, concluded that it has significant overlap with the Broad. Both museums own versions of the same sculpture, a sterling silver anime Buddha by Japanese maverick Takashi Murakami, and different works by Alex Israel, an LA native who always wears sunglasses and mines SoCal clichés with a deadpan sense of entitlement.

Maurice Marciano, the more public of the two brothers, gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in November, talking to journalist Kelly Crow in his Santa Monica living room, a painting by Israel hanging behind him. Israel had blown up a stock photograph of the California coast and superimposed white text on it by novelist Bret Easton Ellis about emptiness, and lyrics from the Eagles’ song, Hotel California. ‘You can’t be more classic L.A.,’ Marciano told Crow. True, if LA is a collection of Hollywood stereotypes and oceanscapes.

When critic Rhonda Lieberman wrote a rebuke of what she calls the ‘ego-seum’ for The Baffler in 2014, the Broad and the Marciano buildings remained under construction. Yet Lieberman already felt certain of what such institutions would bring, referring to the buying frenzies of blue-chip collectors like Broad as ‘gladiatorial shopping rivalries’. They fight to own what the art market has already determined as valuable and then make their acquisitions conspicuous, showing them off in expensive new buildings. Quoting the 19th-century sociologist Thorstein Veblen, Lieberman suggested that such rivalries lead to ‘a more or less thorough elimination of that considerable range of elements of beauty which do not happen to conform to the pecuniary requirement’. In other words, they invite homogeneity.

New York-based dealer Michele Maccarone introduced her warehouse-sized LA space in the downtown neighborhood of Boyle Heights in September 2015. She had herself moved to Bel-Air, the wealthy enclave on the city’s Westside, and she told me she wasn’t sure her Westside LA collectors would even visit her gallery space. With the help of art fairs and digital files, she could sell off-site; what mattered most was that she had a big space for her artists to make and show work, and that she and many non-local dealers had secured their leases and purchases on buildings they couldn’t afford in other art capitals right before real-estate speculation in LA warehouse districts peaked. Buildings that went for under $1 per square foot three years ago might now go for $4; the private members’ club Soho House and Google are moving in near downtown’s still-young gallery rows. 356 S. Mission, the space New York dealer Gavin Brown opened with the artist Laura Owens, is a block south of Maccarone, and just as large. Venus Over Los Angeles, the hot-pink west-coast sister of collector Adam Lindemann’s Venus Over New York, is a few blocks east. Hauser & Wirth is within walking distance.

The presence of artists in LA, more of whom have flocked here in the past decade, also fuelled the influx of international galleries, as journalist Jori Finkel pointed out last year in an article for The Art Newspaper. ‘Many galleries are fiercely, if discreetly, vying for market control over artists,’ she wrote. Sprüth Magers opened with an exhibition by then 85-year-old John Baldessari, an international artist who had been without an LA gallery since 2012, and it recently staged an exhibition of sculptural paintings by Llyn Foulkes, who has had major museum shows here but little gallery attention. Eccentric though he is, Foulkes no longer qualifies as a local discovery. These newly transplanted galleries seem more interested in laying claim to what’s already known than in embracing or giving voice to the city’s many fringes and experimenters.

That work will fall on smaller arts spaces and on artists themselves, and those without major gallery representation or lucrative institutional support will probably be most motivated to do it. Anti-gentrification activists marched in protest of the new galleries along Anderson and Mission Road in September 2016, at the start of the new exhibition season. The protestors issued hand-made eviction notices to Maccarone and Venus Over Los Angeles, asking them to leave rather than continue to contribute to the rising cost of living. Artist Carolina Caycedo, whose recent drawings and performances explore the control that transnational corporations exert over natural resources, aligned herself with the protesters, even though friends of hers work with the new galleries. ‘Basically, before a place to exhibit,’ she explained to me, ‘I need a place to live. It’s a question of what are the priorities and what are the basic things an artist needs to function’

From the June 2017 issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.