California: driving around LA with Orlagh Woods

Photograph by Roger W licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I arrived in Los Angeles in the sunshine and heat of August, and was struck immediately by the sheer size of the city, which sprawls in every direction along its network of freeways. It was quite a culture shock, even coming from another big city like London, and working out how to navigate the city, let alone how to understand where to find its art and artists was quite a challenge. There’s no one place where you can find information about spaces, organisations and people: the city itself has no centre, and there’s no ‘art world central’ either. It may be obvious, but it’s worth repeating anyway, that this is a city in which you’ll find it very hard to do anything without a car. Distances are long and public transport (buses and the Metro train system) is patchy and slow.

First Impressions

Los Angeles is not New York. It doesn’t feel as connected to Europe. There’s a west coast thing which seems to mean a more relaxed and informal scene and a less hierarchical culture. It’s also a city in which the film and TV industry dominates, and this influences the art world in various ways, not least by creating an economy and a social world in which art can be something that’s fun to buy, or to have hanging on a restaurant wall, but where it is maybe not taken as seriously as it is in London and New York.

I’ve been told that LA is a kind of ‘new frontier’ for art. A place where people can start up and make new things without the feeling of having to fit into existing structures. It does seem that artists are moving here from cities where it has become even more expensive to live (New York, San Francisco) because although rents in LA are certainly not cheap, artists have not been completely priced out yet. As in other cities, there are many neighbourhoods where artists have sought out affordable spaces to live and work (in LA, as we’ll see, most of these are on the East side), and as elsewhere, gentrification has led to social and political problems, most recently in Boyle Heights, where there have been protests against some of the most recent galleries opening there.

There’s a lot of money here, of course, and some pretty substantial investment (of largely private money) into the arts and the cultural sector. You can see this downtown where billionaire Eli Broad has not only funded a museum The Broad for displaying his own collection, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, but has also bankrolled the development of other arts buildings in Grand Avenue, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry and home of LA Phil. But just a few blocks away you’ll find yourself on Skid Row, block after block of downtown LA inhabited by thousands of homeless people. Private wealth houses glamorous art but neither private nor public money seems to be addressing the fact that LA has the country’s largest homeless population. Nor is public money doing very much for the arts either. Funding from Washington (the federal government) is tiny by European standards (and threatened directly by the new administration) and money from the state and the city is pretty limited: you don’t get the sense you get, even in London, still, that lots of small organisations can pick up bits of funding here and there. Philanthropy and gallery fundraisers are more common. And, of course, there’s lots of creative and DIY approaches from curators and artists, just as there is in London, though in LA the DIY culture also seems more focussed on informal networks.

Some networks are clearly connected to schools and colleges in the area, with people who’ve been students at places like the Roski School of Art and Design, California Institute for the Arts (CalArts) and Occidental College staying on in the city and putting together projects and sharing resources with each other. The schools and colleges themselves employ artists on their teaching staff, so they’re often part of these networks, too.

Commercial Galleries

Downtown LA has a designated ‘Arts District’. This is just down the hill from where the big downtown institutions like The Broad are on Grand Avenue. At first sight this looks like it might be just another phoney promotional initiative, and there’s no doubt a lot of classic LA boosterism around it, with Mayor Eric Garcetti a particularly prominent spokesman for ‘creative LA’ with all the usual rhetoric. But there has been a genuine explosion of activity downtown, some of it artist-led, but increasingly, now, as rents spiral upwards, involving commercial galleries. The biggest of these is the recently opened Hauser Wirth and Schimmel, a collaboration between the well-known international gallery Hauser & Wirth and fomer chief curator at Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Paul Schimmel. This is a beautiful former flour mill, with large gallery spaces, high profile shows (Isa Gentzken, Jason Rhoades) and good wine at its public openings, as well as a fancy new restaurant. It’s worth noting that openings in LA are not the kind of exclusive event for which you need to be on the guest list.

Arts District Los Angeles photograph by chris.alcoran licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Other commercial galleries are clustered around the city’s neighbourhoods (Beverley Hills, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Culver City, Downtown etc). An example is Culver City, where you could easily run or saunter between seven or eight shows in an evening. My experience is that there’s a wide range of work being shown, from the serious and interesting to the flimsy and hopeless. It’s probably a matter of getting a sense of which galleries show the kind of work that interests you.

There are also one-off shows, some of which turn out to be driven by the commerical scene, too: there was a big show in an abandoned hospital recently, which had a few famous names and a lot of mediocre work. The space itself was amazing: in London you could imagine it as the kind of place Artangel would commission someone to do something genuinely site-specific.

It doesn’t make sense to compare neighbourhoods in LA with neighbourhoods in London: the culture and the geography is just so different. So although fashions in clothes and coffee in ‘hipster’ neighbourhoods on the East Side, like Silverlake and Echo Park, will be familiar enough to anyone who’s set foot in Shoreditch, Hoxton or Chatsworth Road, the way actual art works in the city’s geography is very different. Culver City’s galleries are lined up along wide streets, and there’s not a great sense, at least when you first visit, that there’s the kind of scene with bars and cafés clustered around in the way you might expect to find in London. Again, a lot of this has to do with the fact that no one walks anywhere.

One commercial space, not in Culver City, that represents a lot of major international artists is Regen Projects, whose exhitions have included Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin, Toba Khedoori, Gillian Wearing, Wolfgang Tillmans and, most recently, Theaster Gates. It’s a beautiful, spacious set of galleries, in a building on a fairly busy through street – Santa Monica Boulevard. Again, nothing much around it. You drive there. And then you drive somewhere else.

Artist-run spaces

The energy of the LA art scene is most obvious in its artist-led spaces and initiatives, some of which have been around for some time, while others emerge, mutate, move spaces and then disappear, according to the desires and ideas of the artists and curators who make them happen. It’s a robust DIY culture, with a strong social element, and most of the people working in it are doing it for free, while earning their money in portfolio careers or full-time work either in the art world or elsewhere. This is where the informality and the absence of hierarchies is really noticeable. As in other cities, these projects find their spaces and often build their communities in the less expensive neighbourhoods, using former industrial spaces, storefronts and creating live/work and community social spaces. Here are a few examples.

The Sound We See: A Los Angeles City Symphony from Echo Park Film Center on Vimeo.

The Underground Museum (UM) is a collaboration between its creators and the MOCA, which is one of the big art institutions,with two museum spaces downtown (in LA lots of places you’d normally call galleries in London are called museums, even if they are showing completely new work. UM is in Arlington Heights, a working-class neighbourhood with a largely African-American and Latin population. The Underground Museum is a 6000 square foot storefront that has been developed into an exhibition space, an outdoor film screening area and a small kitchen and office space. It was founded by Noah and Karon Davis as an homage to Noah’s father, Keven, to provide museum-quality exhibitions to innercity residents and diverse communities for free. The UM upholds the belief that art is an essential part of a vibrant, just, and healthy society. Partners include LAXART and Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation.

Human Resources is a space at the edge of Chinatown hosting exhibitions and one-off events, ranging from concerts of experimental music to discussions of radical politics. It gets some financial support from foundations and Los Angeles County, it’s run entirely by volunteers as a ‘not-for-profit’ organisation (this is a specific, tax-related legal status used by many arts organisations) and events are always free.

Machine Project is a storefront in Echo Park which runs a range of activities like poetry readings, participatory workshops on sewing pockets or investigative journalism, talks, films, political hacking, and music evenings. It’s next door to the Echo Park Film Center (EPFC) which offers occasional screenings alongside its programme of practical courses and workshops in film and video techniques. There’s an eclectic feel to both these places, and a sense that the artists see themselves as people experimenting with social life as well as making art.

BBQLA is a shifting installation with a headquarters at a live/work space in the Boyle Heights / Arts District margins, started by a group of artists who had met at art school in Kansas City before moving to LA, and who decided to turn their BBQ evenings in Silverlake into gallery shows. Initially they curated shows which included some of their own work, but they now present group shows of other artists curated either by them or guest curators. A commission from sales goes towards the upkeep of the space and future exhibitions. Community is at the heart of this space and it’s the kind of place where people end up after an evening at other openings, enjoying the meat, the free beer and the company. The artists each show their own work elsewhere, including at commercial spaces like the nearby Boyle Heights gallery, IBID which has spaces in both London and Los Angeles.

Commonwealth & Council (C&C) was founded by Young Chung who started showing work in his living room before moving to Koreatown. Young works with a community of six artists whose work is diverse and who together feed into and develop the space and its exhibitions. Chung is interested in developing a dialogue with the artists and many of them show work at the space multiple times. By exhibiting their own work alongside other artists, they seek to generate a sense of collectivity for themselves and the people they work with. Each member also shows work at galleries elsewhere, and since opening in its current space in 2011 C&C has presented work that has already been taken up by more established institutions, by being included, for example, in the Hammer Museum‘s Made in LA 2016 show.

DIY Culture

The networks and the resources that come with the LA artscene are much less like a regular infrastructure than they are in London, probably because they have to be, in a largely DIY culture with very little long term public funding.

There are some residency programmes, at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, for example, or at the Otis College of Art and Design. LA artists themselves are also always looking for residencies and opportunities to show outside LA: the city is not cut off from the rest of the country.

There don’t seem to be the kind of studio spaces you’d find in London, for example, subsidised and run by arts organisations (Space, ACME, ACAVA etc), so a group of artists finding a building and sharing studio spaces are more common. There are also many live/work spaces. Being LA there is plenty of space and many unused buildings.

There are a number of publications many of which seem to be produced on a voluntary basis, like X-tra Contemporary Art Quarterly which has been published since 1997 and which aims to provoke critical dialogue about contemporary art, Contemporary Art Review LA, Artillery Magazine, artblitzla as well as many others. There’s a radio station, KCHUNG, which hosts a wide range of programming by and about artists, of the kind that wouldn’t find a home on conventional radio stations. There are also several ways to find out about what’s happening. Art Scene, a monthly digest to art in Southern California as well as several websites, for example, For Your Art, Curate LA and Artsy.

Curate LA is an app designed by Shelley Halcombe and Alex Benzer (an artist/curator and a tech developer/programmer). It’s based on an app Alex had developed to allow tech people to visualise via a map what people in their community were doing and where, and they decided it would work well as a way of showing what was happening in the LA art world every week. They currently have over 30,000 followers for an app that presents an entirely non-hierarchical platform for the art and spaces it presents. In using the platform to highlight must-see work as a weekly digest, Shelley tries to ensure an emphasis on risk-taking shows that are attentive to questions of diversity and gender.

Looking Ahead

Get a car, or get someone who has a car, and be prepared to explore behind the anonymous storefronts and unmarked industrial spaces, and you’ll find that there is an art scene, or a set of interconnected art scenes in LA. There’s a relaxed and informal side to it, but also, especially now, a strong sense of political purpose. The Women’s March anti-Trump protests in LA were the largest in the country; LA is home to politically-engaged communities involved in, among other things, migrant worker struggles, queer and trans activism, and these influence the art scene; at the state government level, California has promised to resist the federal government on a range of key issues. Interesting times.

Article by Orlagh Woods, curator, creative programmer and producer. The author expresses special thanks to BBQLA, Commonwealth & Council, Laura Creed, Karen Dunbar, Shelley Halcolme, Justen Leroy and Nicholas Ridout for their time and generosity.


Featured project

Artquest activity during the covid-19 pandemic

Artquest and covid-19 / coronavirus

Resources and artist-led projects responding to the coronavirus / Covid-19 pandemic This page is no longer being updated: for the latest links, advice and information, see our temporary new home page.… Continue Reading Artquest and covid-19 / coronavirus

Read more