City Report: Los Angeles

by Jonathan Griffin

Everybody thinks they know Los Angeles. It’s one of the most filmed, photographed and sung-about cities in the world. However, archetypes of gridlocked traffic, plastic surgery, Finish Fetish, smog and gang violence sell short the city’s many surprises. Originally a city of farmers, LA is spacious enough for everyone to tend their own patch without trampling their neighbours’ crops. It’s also elemental; flanked by mountains and ocean, its steep hills attest to its energetic seismic geology. And it teems with wildlife: mountain lions and bobcats prowl the foothills of Hollywood and bears are regularly rescued from Beverly Hills swimming pools.

I moved to LA three months ago. Looking for a map to help me get my bearings, the best I could find covers approximately a quarter of the city; above, below and to the east of the map stretch conurbations equally as big as itself. That Los Angeles has no centre is a commonplace. That it does, in fact, have multiple and distinct centres is less widely observed.

If one were to try and chart the tides of LA’s contemporary art world, it would be necessary to mark two opposing currents – a current and a rip-tide. One of these is the direction of civic energies towards my map’s eastern edge, where Downtown, a bundle of high-rises lashed together with congested freeways, has struggled for decades to free itself from dilapidation. The second is a natural undertow that carries commercial interests towards the private capital on the city’s Westside (which includes Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood).

When billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, on the eve of the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA in 2008, announced that he would not, as had been widely assumed, also be donating his impressive art collection to the museum, his perceived capriciousness prompted both local and international brouhaha. Two years on, he has just announced something long suspected: that he will build his own museum to showcase the collection on a Downtown site directly adjacent both to Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall (2003) and Arata Isosaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art (1986). Broad’s chosen architects are Diller Scofidio + Renfro with whom, it is hoped, he will develop a better relationship than he did with Renzo Piano during the design of the underwhelming BCAM.

The move is part of Broad’s ongoing commitment to an area of Downtown known as Bunker Hill. When the area’s Walt Disney Concert Hall encountered budget problems mid-construction in 1996, Broad stepped up to lead fundraising for its rescue. Similarly, when MOCA found itself in financial trouble in 2008, he offered a $30 million package of matched funding, with conditions attached that the museum remain independent (it was considering a merger with LACMA at the time) and that its leadership be reinvigorated. New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch was appointed director in January 2010.

Whatever the ethics of a (former) gallerist, collector and art advisor occupying the head office of a public museum, or of an unelected billionaire using endowments to shape a civic landscape, Deitch and Broad are working hard in areas in which the hamstrung State of California is unable. Broad may currently be the biggest fish in the pond, but he is not the only one. Lynda and Stewart Resnick, who made their fortune in Fiji Water and POM Wonderful soft drinks, have put their names to the new Piano-designed Resnick Pavilion at LACMA, opening this October. The vast, open-plan structure will provide extra exhibition space for the museum. Media mogul David Geffen contributed to MOCA’s annexe, the Geffen Contemporary, in 1996; the building has just hosted a hubristic but populist retrospective for Dennis Hopper, who died from cancer just before the show opened. (Critics accused Deitch of opportunism in his timing of the exhibition, his first for MOCA.)

In Westwood, The Hammer Museum exists due to the generosity of tycoon Armand Hammer in the late 1980s. Now the university museum of UCLA, the institution has been most active in developing its contemporary programmes under the curatorial appointments in 2009 of Douglas Fogle and Anne Ellegood. The Getty Center is an exquisite Olympian retreat on a hill overlooking the north of the city. This geographical and intellectual elevation however has given it a reputation for insularity, and the museum caters mainly to tourists prepared to fork out for $15 parking. More or less at the centre of my map, LACMA remains the force to beat. Michael Govan, its well-liked director, has found innovative ways of presenting the museum’s sprawling collection – such as commissioning artists Jorge Pardo and Franz West to design displays of, respectively, historical Hispanic and Pacific art.

Chinatown still offers spaces affordable for young commercial and artist-run spaces. Although the emphasis has now dispersed somewhat from Chung King Road itself, here Pepin Moore, The Company, Thomas Solomon, The Box and Human Resources all contribute to that rarest of things in LA: a ‘scene’. Many of Chinatown’s more established galleries, however, have moved westwards either through expansionism, opportunism, ambition or financial desperation (depending on who you talk to). David Kordansky, Parker Jones and, most recently, China Art Objects and Francois Ghebaly have all defected to Culver City. This increasingly dense hub of galleries (including the first to open there, Blum & Poe, as well as the public arts initiatives LAXART and LAND) is located almost exactly half way between Chinatown and the ocean: just close enough to the affluent Westside to benefit from its walk-in custom.

Other galleries, such those gathered in the Bergamot Station development, have set up shop directly in Santa Monica. The LA branch of the New York dealership L&M Arts, when it opens this September with a show by Angeleno Paul McCarthy, will also be located in the west of the city – in Venice, once the centre of the LA art scene, but now home only to its most august figures, including John Baldessari, Ken Price, Larry Bell and Ed Moses. Many of these artists were associated with the Ferus Gallery (1957–66), credited with first staking out LA’s identity as an art capital autonomous from New York. The site of that gallery, in West Hollywood, was temporarily reoccupied earlier this year for an exhibition of works by many of its original artists. Now ‘WeHo’ is home to upscale premises such as Regen Projects. Matthew Marks is due to open a West Coast outpost of his gallery there next year. A little to the west, Gagosian Gallery languishes (with its new Richard Meier-designed extension) amongst the boutiques of Beverly Hills; to the east lies a handful of younger outfits including Overduin & Kite, Khastoo and Michael Benevento. The non-profit organization West of Rome, run by Emi Fontana, eschews a permanent exhibition space altogether, cropping up instead in such unexpected locations such as Mike Kelley’s cavernous Eagle Rock studio (for this summer’s collaborative project ‘A Voyage of Growth and Discovery’, with Michael Smith).

None of which commercial landscape would thrive in quite the way it does without LA’s art schools. The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where Michael Asher famously taught his Post-Studio Art class, and UCLA, which counts Mary Kelly, Andrea Fraser and Charles Ray among its faculty and whose alumni make up a strong contingent of Wilshire Boulevard-based dealer Marc Foxx’s roster, have historically been leaders in the field, although more recently attention has shifted to the University of Southern California whose graduates include Elad Lassry and Amanda Ross-Ho. Art Center College of Design, located in Pasadena, has suffered somewhat from the loss of Mike Kelley whose teaching was particularly influential on a now-prominent all-male group of LA sculptors including Sterling Ruby, Steven G. Rhodes, Aaron Curry and Nathan Hylden. Nevertheless, young artists come from far and wide to study in LA, and then they stay, often to teach here themselves. The city persists with the line that it has sold to tourist-immigrants for decades, and which has caused its edges to spread further than a single map can contain: there is enough room for everyone.

First published: Frieze, Issue 134, October 2010