Los Angeles Hashtags

#Hashtags: The Quantum Leap to Something New, Part I

In the face of economic fluctuations, not to mention the whirlwind of popular taste, how do galleries survive, adapt, evolve, and thrive?

Big Geezers in Culver City, 2008, Ori. Courtesy Flickr / Creative Commons

The popular perception of the contemporary art gallery is one of inaccessibility and elitism.  By and large, the gallery’s reputation is one of isolated sanctity, an entity that sustains itself through a preserved set of conventions and a closed system of values. The walls shall be white, the prices shall be hidden, and the information shall be guarded by inhospitable staff; ideally, the formality of the visitor’s experience obfuscates all cues that suggest it is “art” on display, rather than the chamber and ritual itself. The fastidious effort to highlight the prowess of a gallery’s brand over its actual exhibitions oftentimes conceals the necessity of its inherently commercial aspects.  The sale of art must take place in order for the contemporary or fine art gallery to exist—a seemingly obvious notion that is often obscured behind a defensive shield of ceremoniousness—a behavior that projects the illusion of a higher pedagogical purpose.  However, the conventional art gallery is still subject to the realities of any commercial business model, that is, the inherent fluctuations of a global economy and demand-driven market.  Given this, and the notions of an industry reputably built upon an aristocratic character, how does the structure and purpose of the gallery survive, adapt, evolve, and thrive?  How does the historical trajectory of the gallery model affect its progress moving forward?

The business model of such galleries is based upon a popular “provincial”[1] gallery model first pioneered by New York gallerist Leo Castelli. Fleeing Nazi-occupied Paris, Castelli arrived in the United States along with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, entering a New York bustling with the kind of desperate art creation he had connected with in Europe. Hoping to rescue the American art market from its “impasse” of selling work, Castelli opened his first New York space in his home on February 3, 1957.  He needed no more than a few hours to reorganize his own apartment; emptying the L-shaped living room, Castelli designated his daughter’s bedroom (she was away at Radcliffe) as his showroom. This literal internalization of his gallery practice exemplifies Castelli’s most unique quality, an outward demonstration of his personal investment in the work he showed.

Frank Stella, installation at Leo Castelli Gallery, 1960

Perhaps more important, however, was Castelli’s highly progressive business model.  The need to present important ideas in a language understood by investors (derived from his banking experience), the need to forge collaborative efforts with like-minded peers (derived from his military experience), and the need to consider local idiosyncrasies, resources and trends (derived from his international living experience) were considerations not previously integrated into the traditional art gallery model. In fact, history reveals quite the opposite—American art dealers were driven to sell only the most well known of European artworks.[2] Most contemporary dealers offered only “a small stock of domestic works amid a preponderance of foreign art,” and were so tied to merchant-inspired practice that the mere idea of collaboration with competitors was unheard of.  The existing model was a “buy low, sell higher” method of resale, not the maintenance of a gallery “roster” or artist  “representation,” which Castelli started to do in the 1950s.

Along with the above, Castelli’s development of the provincial gallery model was, in his words, “the quantum leap to something new.”[3] While the crux of his program was museum-like in its purpose to expose important “movements” rather than sell singular works, Castelli was not so egocentric as to dismiss the commercial realities of the gallery. According to Castelli, an important consideration for an artist should be how well his dealer distributes the work, and that he/she is making sure it is shown in other parts of the country, not to mention Europe. In the early ‘60s, Castelli formed collaborative relationships with dealers outside New York, including Europe and California, despite the drastic cut in his commissions.

Poster for The Studs group exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, 1964

Here in Los Angeles, Ferus Gallery also engaged in many of Castelli’s practices. As William R. Hackman writes, “Just as important as the exposure Ferus gave these young Los Angeles artists was its role in bringing to L.A. New York and European artists known locally only by reputation, if at all.”[4] This bi-coastal cooperation proved eye opening and (eventually) lucrative for not only a new generation of dealers and collectors in Los Angeles, but also their collaborative counterparts in other locations. As curator Paul Schimmel writes, “[This was] a period in American art when modernism, characterized by a master narrative of progress and succession, reached a dead end, and a multiplicity of movements, forms, and genres began to take shape simultaneously.”[5] It can be argued that Los Angeles galleries in the ‘60s functioned more fluidly than in any other city in the United States during this time, and that this kind of collaborative spirit, shared between artist and dealer, artist and artist, and dealer and dealer, remained idiosyncratic to Los Angeles until recent years.

Nicholas Wilder, of Ferus’s rival gallery, Nelson and Wilder, recalls La Cienega Boulevard as a place built on enthusiasm and ambition, where “the agenda was to make an art scene, to be important.”[6] Wilder’s gallery was one of nearly three-dozen galleries along the “spread of five art-choked blocks from the north 900s to the 500s and now spilling southward.”[7] Revisiting Castelli’s notions of collaboration and provincial thinking, the gallerists of La Cienega, while certainly commercially competing for the few local collectors in Los Angeles, embraced unprecedented modes of cooperation to forge (in a sense) a branded geographic identity and survival strategy, practices that have been built upon by contemporary art galleries in Los Angeles and beyond.  It could be argued that in addition to borrowing the entertainment industry’s tactic of self-generated momentum, in which businesses create the allure of a “hot scene” or a “happening,” this version of a “Gallery Row” also adopted the Marxist “power in numbers” policy often championed by Castelli.

With increasing national and international attention being paid to art and artists in Los Angeles, the community that cohered around La Cienega developed a strong sense of group identity, though one that expressed a growing feeling of unease about the implications of this publicity and about art’s broader role in society. This situation would be intensified in the mid-1960s, when the art community was mobilized in the name of political action in the first artist-led protests against the war in Vietnam. Almost as quickly as it boomed, however, the community would feel the radical effects of the financial repercussions wrought by the collapse of the aerospace industry.  The art market practically dissolved by the mid-1970s, and the lively ‘60s gallery scene of La Cienega Boulevard was devastated.

After 1970, areas like Downtown, East Los Angeles, and Mid-City, where studio rent for young artists was most affordable, quickly became alternative space neighborhoods, such as LACE and Womanspace, and later, REDCAT and the Chinatown Gallery district. Conversely, Venice and Santa Monica, home to studios of seminal artists like Vija Celmins and John Baldessari, soon became orthodox destinations, as did commercial gallery complexes like Bergamot Station in the early 1990s.  With the two primary gallery districts flung to either far side of Los Angeles (LACMA acting as the primary center point), and the increasing obstacles of freeway congestion and mileage between them, there seemed yet again an opportunity for a centralized gallery community; perhaps even a gallery community that appealed to the “middle class” of art collectors in terms of programming content, making a compromise between the rigorous conceptualism of alternative spaces and the decorative reputation of the “gallery malls.” It was exactly these traits that were on art dealer Jeffrey Poe’s mind when he drove through Culver City on January 1, 2003.

A crowded opening for Damian Hirst's "The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011," Gagosian Gallery, 2012

Principals in the contemporary art gallery partnership of Blum & Poe, Jeffrey Poe and Timothy Blum are often credited as “the pioneers”[8] of the Culver City Art District. The partners were the first to move to the area in 2003, and occupied what is currently Angles Gallery for three years, before purchasing and renovating a two-story concrete manufacturing plant (built in 1968) with nearly triple the footprint of their previous location. Blum & Poe has since become Culver City’s preeminent gallery destination, both because of its roster of thirty-seven international artists (which currently includes Sharon Lockhart and Takashi Murakami), and the 21,000-square-foot mega-gallery now located on the corner of Washington Boulevard and La Cienega Avenue.

Thirty-eight galleries are strewn in either direction from the intersection of La Cienega and Washington Boulevard, all of which opened after Blum & Poe’s 2003 move. Collectively they fall under the umbrella designation of “Culver City,” despite the fact that not all of these galleries are technically located within the city’s actual limits. In fact, more than half of the galleries identified as “Culver City” galleries actually fall within the city of Los Angeles, but aligning with the invented community brand affords a sense of immediate industry understanding:  if your gallery is located in Culver City, you show ambitious work; you are in close proximity to a number of flagship galleries; and your sense of gallery culture is the most dynamic and navigable within the province of Los Angeles.

In fact, “Culver City” has fast become understood as L.A.’s “art capital,” due in part to its newness and invented persona.  The district’s brand is part of the marketing and business strategy employed by each gallery in the area, and its resulting stature is a large part of how international collectors, dealers, and curators understand Los Angeles gallery culture. With a capital again established, the art world in Los Angeles has seen an increase in momentum and recognition.  At the same time, the economic downturn of the last several years has forced these same galleries to invent new ways to sustain themselves, both in terms of finance and cultural relevance. So how are gallery communities like these moving forward?

Catlin Moore is currently the Director of Mark Moore Gallery in Culver City, CA. Some citations have been eliminated for the sake of brevity.

[1] Leo Castelli, quoted Laura deCoppet and Alan Jones, The Art Dealers (New York:  Clarkson N.  Potter, 1985), 89.

[2] Malcolm Goldstein, Landscape with Figures (New York: Oxford University, 2000), 9.

[3] Leo Castelli, quoted in Annie Cohen-Solal, Leo and His Circle (Paris:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 88.

[4] William R. Hackman,, “L.A.  Chronology,” in Sunshine and Noir (Copenhagen:  Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 1997), 15.

[5] Paul Schimmel, “California Pluralism and the Birth of the Postmodern Era,” in Under the Big Black Sun (Los Angeles:  Del Monico, 2011), 16.

[6] Nicholas Wilder, oral history interview by Ruth Bowman, July 18, 1988, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute.

[7] Helen Wurdemann,, “A Stroll on La Cienega,” Art in America 53, no.  5 (1965): 78.

[8] Lindsay Pollock, “Blum & Poe Update to New Digs,” Art Market View, August 28, 2009.