Downtown Los Angeles has been a hub of creativity for decades, but only more recently has it become a destination for art lovers. In addition to institutions like the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Grammy Museum, clusters of galleries have sprouted in the area.
And the area is getting even more crowded with the One Santa Fe project, a mixed-housing complex with a public art space opening in September in the Arts District. The Los Angeles Downtown Arts District has just signed a lease at the complex to create the Arts District Center for the Arts, a space with a gallery, theater and studio. The venue is set to open in March with an installation by Paul McCarthy.
“The geographical spread of Los Angeles is very intimidating for a lot of people. If you're not willing to travel and hunt things out, you're going to be very disappointed,” said art writer Mario Muller, who maintains the art blog Truffle Hunting.
For the past nine years, Muller has seen the L.A. art scene explode, so much so he said even New York is buzzing about it. People are now recognizing that not only are there creative people in L.A., but art commerce as well, Muller said.
He believes the future of art in the Downtown Los Angeles area is up to the artists and curators, who have strength in numbers, but is financially dependent on a client base for support. The influx of large galleries from around the globe coming to L.A. is based on marketing, rather than sales, he said. While artists are looking to extend their brand, viability remains to be seen.
“The critical thing about the L.A. art scene that's probably different from anywhere else in the United States is that there's a diversity here on all levels,” said Mat Gleason, a prominent art writer, curator and owner of Coagula Curatorial in Chinatown.
Gleason's gallery has been open two years, specializing in L.A. artists and featuring experimental shows and independent curators.
“I reflect the diversity of L.A. The unique thing about my program is that the worst thing anybody said about me — I took it as a compliment — was that I had no coherent aesthetic,” Gleason said. “I do think that sums up L.A. There is no L.A. look.”
In the 1960s, L.A. had a certain style that was disconnected from the international art world, Gleason said. Now everyone has an independent voice — and the more independent you are, the more L.A. rewards you.
Gleason sees L.A. finally coming into its own as a place for world-class collectors to purchase art. In turn, many prominent New York galleries now feature one or two L.A. artists on their rotating rosters.
Charlie James, owner of Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown, agrees and sees more and more galleries moving into Los Angeles “at a spectacular rate.”
In Little Tokyo, the art scene is gradually growing. But what it may lack in space it more than makes up with nontraditional venues. For example, there's the funky, pop-culture Q Pop Shop and the serene Japanese Village.
For 15 years, fashion designer and costumer Peter Lai has been an avid collector of all things Japanese. While acquiring his many treasures, Lai came up with the idea of opening a place where others could see them on display, but was unable to pursue his dream until his retirement. He opened Japanese Village in June.
“Most of the Arts District is modern art and contemporary, but this is antique and old style — another view of art,” Lai said of Japanese Village. “Many people come here and they're very surprised. They say it's like another world.”
One huge room is divided into sections, with one section full of toys, stationery, fans, lanterns, lacquerware, paintings, kimonos and more. There is also a temple, a tea and sake room, a kitchen and a restaurant. But the most impressive area is Lai's Kabuki theater where Lai intends to put on performances, fashion shows, parties and other events. It boasts a stage and seating for 30 people, as well as a backstage dressing room complete with makeup, wigs and costumes.
Completing Lai's vision at the shop is a Chinese section with costumes and some of his own designs.
Lai notes that there has been a growing interest in the L.A. art scene as a tourist destination, but he worries this will lead to a rise in rent and hopes that the government will step in with rent control.
“I read an article about downtown and it said sooner or later most of the artists will have to move out of downtown because they cannot afford it,” Lai said. “I hope not. But on the other hand, artists struggle, that's why their artwork is so special. Artists always know the way to survive.”
Working to keep artists in Downtown L.A. is Art Share L.A., a 14,000-square-foot space in the Arts District featuring 30 subsidized housing/work lofts with tenants who are all artists in some way.
“It's important to make sure that the reason why this neighborhood is so cool and so vital stays, and that's the hardest,” said Cheyanne Sauter, Art Share L.A. executive director.
Art Share's program also has evolved since it began in 1997 with a focus on art classes for at-risk youth. Over time there were less children in the neighborhood, so two years ago the facility changed directions to better serve the community. It now features galleries, performance spaces, classrooms and art studios.
“It's there for artists to perform and share their work with the community at a very subsidized rate. They pay back Art Share a little bit to use the space, but it's all affordable and doable,” Sauter said. “What we're trying to create is a cyclical evolution of artwork. People can come in to create and develop it, and then share and perform it.”
While Sauter admits she's unsure of the area's future because of its rapid gentrification, she remains optimistic.
“I feel emerging artists are getting more access and more play, and I hope that stays,” Sauter said. “Our job is to be a mirror to our community. We need to reflect what's happening outside our streets. If the climate changes out in the streets, we're going to have to change with it, but we'll always stay true to emerging artists.”
Los Angeles has been a tastemaker for years and art advocates believe that will continue to ring true for the evolving scene as long as residents and visitors alike get out and enjoy what L.A. has to offer along its bustling streets.
“We sample music all the time and we build our playlists. We sample books, we read. We go to movies not always expecting to see the best thing ever each time, but we go and we sample. We build our hierarchy of taste that way. People need to do the same thing with art,” Muller said.
“The more you see, the more you know what you like and the more you are exposed, the more intelligent and, ultimately, more sophisticated you become.”
Recommended Art Galleries
Downtown Los Angeles has a wealth of galleries, museums and murals to explore. Here are some places to visit to get you started.
Art Share L.A.: Hours, 1-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. 801 E. Fourth Place. 213-687-4278,www.artsharela.org
Angel City Brewery: Hours, 4-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 4 p.m.-midnight Thursday and Friday, noon-midnight Saturday and noon-10 p.m. Sunday. 216 S. Alameda St. 213-622-1261,www.angelcitybrewery.com
Box Gallery: Hours, noon-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and by appointment. 805 Traction Ave. 213-625-1747,www.theboxla.com
District Gallery: Hours, noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 740 E. Third St. 213-814-7164,www.districtgallery.com
Francois Ghebaly Gallery: Hours, noon-7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment. 2245 E. Washington Blvd. 323-282-5187, www.ghebaly.com
The Mistake Room: Hours, noon-7 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. 1811 E. 20th St. 213-749-1200, www.tmr.la
Night Gallery: Hours, noon-7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 2276 E. 16th St. 323-589-1135,www.nightgallery.ca
Arts District murals
Chipmunk, dinosaur bones and gnome-man: Jesse and Imperial streets.
President Obama and assorted small murals: Seventh Place and Mateo Street.
Fairy: Third Street and Traction Avenue.
I-10 Freeway sunglasses guy, wolves, fairy and more: Fourth Place and Hewitt Street.
Mr. Clown, spaceship and lady, dragons vs. police helicopter: Third and Garey streets.
Charlie James Gallery: Hours, noon-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. 969 Chung King Road. 213-687-0877,www.cjamesgallery.com
Coagula Curatorial: Hours, noon-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and by appointment. 974 Chung King Road. 424-226-2485,www.coagulacuratorial.com
Good Luck Gallery: Hours, noon-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. 945 Chung King Road. 213-625-0935,www.thegoodluckgallery.com
Jancar Jones Gallery: Hours, 4-7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday. 1031 N. Broadway. 213-259-3770,www.jancarjones.com
Redpipe Gallery: Hours, noon-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and by appointment. 978 Chung King Road. 310-829-0770,www.redpipegallery.com
Thomas Solomon Gallery: Hours, noon-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. 427 Bernard St. 323-275-1687,www.thomassolomongallery.com
356 Mission: Hours, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. 356 S. Mission Road. 323-609-3162,www.356mission.com
The Hive Gallery & Studios: 1-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and by appointment. 729 S. Spring St. 213-955-9051,www.hivegallery.com
Lovejoy's Contraption Emporium: Hours, noon-6 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and by appointment. 453 S. Spring St., above The Last Bookstore. 213-392-2611, www.lovejoyart.com
Morono Kiang Gallery: Hours, noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. 218 W. Third St., Bradbury Building. 213-628-8208,www.moronokiang.com
Robert Reynolds: Hours, by appointment. 408 S. Spring St. #100. 213-308-8896,www.roberthreynolds.com
Japanese Village: Hours, by appointment. Private gallery near Japanese American National Museum. 626-375-2040, email@example.com
Q Pop Shop: Hours, noon-9 p.m. daily. 128 Astronaut E.S. Onizuka St. 213-687-7767,www.qpopshop.com