The Influx of International Galleries to L.A. Is More Complicated Than You Think

There’s nothing wrong with talking about the apparent progression of L.A.’s art scene, so long as you come to the conversation with tempered expectations. Yes, there’s ample space, but there’s also ample traffic—I cinnamon challenge you to try getting from Culver City to Downtown for openings that begin at 6 p.m. The best art schools are here, you might argue, but they’re often problematic, battling with students (n.b. USC’s MFA program). And the market itself? Certain art fairs have struggled to stay open here, evidenced by the recent news that Paris Photo won’t be coming back to the Paramount Studios lot for a fourth year, and FIAC L.A. was cancelled altogether. This all comes as the international art market faces what some have called a bubble, whose burst would certainly be felt in L.A.’s “burgeoning” scene.

Now, we watch as massive galleries like Hauser Wirth & Schimmel and Sprüth Magers join L.A.’s ranks, part of a wave of new galleries to the city. It’s become clear that the impetus driving galleries into L.A. is manifold, but their staying power is being put to the test. Can L.A. accommodate the recent transplantations?

  •  Exterior view, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, 2016. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joshua Targownik / targophoto.com.

Alas, it’s become an inside joke amongst Angelenos in the art world, that publications based outside of the city, like an embarrassing aunt, zealously tout L.A. as the country’s new creative capital. I guess we should feel flattered, but instead we worry that the more people that move here, the more the creative class gets priced out of affordable neighborhoods—not to mention the gentrification issues that have been cropping up in the artist zone of Boyle Heights, a traditionally Mexican neighborhood close to Downtown.

The hype machine has obviously worked, because there are more galleries now than ever. Seven years ago, when I first moved here, Culver City was where it was at. On Saturday nights, La Cienega and Washington would be hopping with people dipping in and out of Peres Projects, Kim Light/Lightbox, François Ghebaly, and David Kordansky. None of those galleries are there anymore (Ghebaly and Kordansky have since moved east), and now the throngs have to decide between Culver, Hollywood, Downtown/Boyle Heights, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, or Chinatown.

“When I first came to L.A., there were about 10 galleries and most of them were in Chinatown,” says Karolina Dankow, co-owner of Karma International, the Zürich-based gallery that just opened an outpost in a former doctor’s office in Beverly Hills. “Now it’s so different. There are all these newcomers, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop,” she notes. “People who have been in L.A. for a long time say that they’ve had these waves before, and that galleries will close again, and that it can’t be the next New York—it’s just not that kind of city. I have a feeling that this time it’s different, because honestly what’s going on in New York—the creative space is getting killed because it’s getting so expensive.”

Just two years ago the idea of waiting in line to get into any gallery show in L.A. would have seemed absurd.

Michele Maccarone, who opened a satellite space in Boyle Heights last fall, concurs. “The real estate in New York is really depressing,” she says when asked about why it seems like galleries are moving here. And there are more on the way. A representative at Reena Spaulings Fine Art confirmed they will open a space in conjunction with Mexico City gallery House of Gaga in L.A. at an undetermined date in the near future.

Legendary artist Peter Alexander has witnessed the art world expand and contract several times in L.A., but even he thinks that this time around it feels like it might stick; especially Downtown, where he witnessed the previous wave of galleries in the ’60s and ’70s come and go. “Riko Mizuno said, ‘Downtown—that’s where it’s going to be,’” the 77-year-old Light-and-Space artist tells me while gazing at a Ken Price sculpture in the recently opened Parrasch Heijnen Gallery in Boyle Heights. “And everybody said, ‘Okay.’ Al’s Bar was off Alameda. Jean Milant, who ran Cirrus, was one of the first. He had that huge building and got it for five cents a square foot, so he could not say no to that. He stayed when the wave was cancelled and everybody went back West. But this is a whole different thing—there’s a community now that was not here before.”

The growing community became apparent at Sprüth Magers at the end of February. Hundreds of gallery-goers queued in a snaking line in the courtyard of Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers’s new L.A. outpost on Wilshire—in a huge two-story space boldly positioned across from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—waiting to see a dozen or so new John Baldessari works at his first gallery show since L.A. stalwart Margo Leavin closed her gallery in 2012. (The show is presented courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery.) There was a line to get into Gagosian’s Alex Israel/Bret Easton Ellis show a few nights later. Just two years ago the idea of waiting in line to get into any gallery show in L.A. would have seemed absurd.

  • Left: Exterior view of Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles. Photo by Joshua White/JWPICTURES.com, courtesy of Sprüth Magers; Right: Exterior view of Karma International’s Beverly Hills space. Photo courtesy of Karma International.

Sprüth Magers and Hauser Wirth & Schimmel truly cut the ribbon on the influx of international galleries to L.A. Sure, Gagosian Beverly Hills has succeeded here for 20 years, and Matthew Marks hardly seems like an outsider anymore since opening his West Hollywood space in 2012, but Sprüth Magers, which is headquartered in Berlin, is the kind of mega-gallery that acts as a barometer. If they do well here, we can definitely expect more. Like Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, Sprüth Magers has deep ties to the city. Beyond Baldessari, they represent L.A. artists Kenneth Anger, Analia Saban, Ed Ruscha, Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin, and Andrea Zittel, while their directors, Anna Helwing and Sarah Watson, also have a strong footing here. “International galleries are welcome in Berlin,” Sprüth and Magers write to me in an email. “They enrich the discourse and internationalize the constantly growing scene. The city becomes more and more attractive to artists, curators and collectors.” As they’ve seen happen in Berlin, when outposts opened in a surge there in the 2000s, the gallerists believe moving to L.A. will not only bolster relationships with their artists, but will enrich the city.

Jori Finkel’s recent piece in The Art Newspaper acknowledged that the former reason—that galleries are moving to L.A. to strengthen ties with artists—is possibly the main impetus behind galleries rushing to sunny Los Angeles. While she states that Sprüth Magers’s move to L.A. was a way of vying for the market of John Baldessari (which has been cornered by Marian Goodman in New York), she quotes several L.A. gallerists who divulge that most, if not all, of their sales go to collectors outside of the city.

“I was like, ‘I need a gallery in L.A. like I need a hole in my head.’ But she made a good case for it.”

On the other hand, Philippe Vergne, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles since 2014, believes that as more galleries transplant here, they create a layer cake of market-driven spaces and younger and artist-run galleries, which benefits artists. “You have Hauser Wirth & Schimmel opening—they represent Dieter Roth,” he says, offering an example, in a phone interview. “A few weeks ago, a gallery called Reserve Ames, who operate from a barn in the back of a house in Koreatown, did an exhibition with Dieter Roth. What’s going to serve Dieter Roth the best (even though he’s dead), is that he can be represented by both of these galleries. He can have major representation, and still appeal to a different generation at a small gallery opening on a Sunday afternoon with cheap beer.”

Like many, Franklin Parrasch, who opened his Boyle Heights gallery with his former assistant Christopher Heijnen, points to the 1960s and ’70s as to why people are attracted to L.A. “I think a lot of it has to do with the history here of art,” he tells me in a meeting at his gallery. “People like Price, Ruscha, and Baldessari—all these people are the foundation of American art. So all these young artists that are relocating here, they’re gravitating towards something that was the germ that started all of this in the first place.”

But Maccarone and Paul Schimmel were both enticed by someone decidedly more contemporary: painter Laura Owens. Owens and New York dealer Gavin Brown run 356 Mission, the forerunner in the bloom of galleries in the warehouse district of Boyle Heights that now includes, among others, Maccarone and Venus. It’s a place with caché, and a wildly inventive program that feels like an artist is overseeing it.

  • Maccarone’s Boyle Heights space. Photo by Benny Chan. Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone New York/Los Angeles.

“I was hanging out with Laura Owens, and she said, ‘You should look at this space down the street,’” says Maccarone, whose L.A. program will feature longer shows in a decidedly bigger space than her Greenwich Village galleries; New York-based artist Keith Sonnier’s show of playful neon shapes will glow in the Boyle Heights space through May 7th. “I was like, ‘I need a gallery in L.A. like I need a hole in my head,’ but she made a good case for it. She was invested in the neighborhood, and she was interested in having someone that could complement her program and what they’re doing. My gallery and Gavin’s were neighbors in New York, so it seemed logical to ask me.”

Paul Schimmel, the former MOCA curator who will run Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, a remarkably large 100,000-square-foot former flour mill in the Arts District of Downtown, recalls a similar experience. “I should say, of all the things, my ‘a-ha moment’ was the lunch that Laura Owens gave for the opening of her space with Gavin,” he recalls over the phone. “It was an incredible Sunday, it was really the artist’s community. It had this do-it-yourself feeling, and a ‘this is my downtown’ [feeling]. It actually made me realize, in the best way, that the counterpoint to a more corporate [feeling] is, of course, how close can you get to what artists do?” (Owens could not be reached for comment for this article.)

It’s an indisputable fact that we are witnessing L.A. in the midst of something—whether it’s a revolution, a renaissance, or simply a fad.

It’s important to note that not everyone is ecstatic about the Boyle Heights art explosion. CALÓ YouthBuild, an area charter school, organized an exhibition called Ambularte outside Maccarone in November 2015, inviting local artists to participate in an informal protest of a New York Times article that touted the area’s artistic development without paying mind to the fact that it portends gentrification in the neighborhood. As the Boyle Heights industrial area becomes more desirable, the housing prices rise in the residential sections of Boyle Heights, pricing out families in the place of newcomers who want to be close to the action.

“It’s great when artists invest in a neighborhood, but it creates a wave of neighborhood development and gentrification,” concedes Vergne. “The Geffen might have done that to [Chinatown] at some point as well. Or look at the history of the Lower East Side.”

Preparing for an exhibition by L.A. artist Martine Syms, Karma International’s Dankow thinks the solution might lie in just thinking about where this type of commerce might organically succeed. “Nearly all of our collectors either live in Beverly Hills or have business there, so I thought, ‘Why not come to where they are?’” she says with a laugh. “There’s so much talk about gentrification, but Beverly Hills needs a different kind of gentrification from a younger side. It’s an adventure for everybody to come here.”

  • Installation view of “Ken Price: A Career Survey, 1961–2008” at Parrasch Heijnen Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo by Lindsay Comstock. Courtesy of Parrasch Heijnen Gallery.

As for the problem of getting around town, Vergne has an optimistic vision of the future. “The driverless car,” he says with a laugh. “I think that’s going to make a huge difference. And the development of public transportation. But I see the distance between the different pockets of art galleries or museums or studios in Los Angeles as a virtue rather than a vice. When I go to a gallery in Culver City, once I’m there, I’m going to take my time, because I know I’m not going to rush to go to Mission Road, because I would spend two hours in my car. And when I go somewhere with my wife, we also talk about the art that we see while we drive back, so it’s not bad.”

The first show at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel is an exhibition of abstract sculpture made by women from World War II until today, called “Revolution in the Making.” It’s an apropos title to open the mega-gallery, allowing for a second meaning to seep through. It’s an indisputable fact that we are witnessing L.A. in the midst of something—whether it’s a revolution, a renaissance, or simply a fad. It’s too early to tell if L.A. will be able to support galleries in a local way, with our own ecosystem of not just artists and schools, but collectors and fairs. But for now, the world’s arts community is creating a veritable traffic jam to join the fray. The value of this profusion is still to be determined.


—Maxwell Williams

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