The art scene takes off in LA with a star studded cast including Gagosian and PaceWildenstein

Tinseltown tunes into art as money and movies draw New York dealers, creating new collectors out of Hollywood royalty - though no one will kiss and tell


The LA art scene over the last couple of years shows two trends: steady expansion and the increasing presence of Hollywood at both the commercial gallery and civic museum levels.

As to the first, in 1996 PaceWildenstein opened a Beverly Hills branch just one half block from the pricey Rodeo Drive shopping area in an airy two-storey space of clean contours and expert lighting designed by Robert Gwathmey, renovator of the Guggenheim.

When Pace opened here, Larry Gagosian, another blue chip New York dealer opened his LA satellite also in the heart of posh Beverly Hills, while in Santa Monica, a small beach community with the highest concentration of art galleries in the area, Begamot Station was built as a kind of outdoor art mall. At Bergamot, some two dozen of this city’s oldest and strongest galleries (Shoshana Wayne, Rosamund Felson, Burnett Miller) and up-and-coming spaces (Track 16 Gallery, Gallery of Contemporary Photography) line a historic cul-de-sac once an early-1900s train station.

On the non-commercial front, the last two years have seen the construction of the unfathomably expensive Getty Center in the Malibu Hills, a conservation, exhibition and research facility of global scope now set to open in the winter of 1998, as well as the renovation of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Temporary Contemporary, an avant-garde adjunct space for performance and other conceptual art designed by Frank Gehry.

The hand of Hollywood is stamped all over much of this new art activity. For starters, the head of PaceWildenstein worldwide is Arnold Glimcher, a New Yorker whose art credentials include the near exclusive selling rights to Julian Schnabel, Alexander Calder, Claes Oldenberg and the estate of Pablo Picasso.

In the 1980s Mr Glimcher turned producer/director with movie credits like “The Mambo Kings,” and “Gorillas in the mist.” Mr Glimcher’s longtime ties to Michael Ovitz, head of Disney, are common knowledge; Mr Ovitz’s hosted an ultra A-list bash at his home for the opening of PaceWildenstein in LA. Though no one will openly discuss what is bought by whom or where, it is common knowledge that Mr Ovitz built a museum-quality collection from Pace’s stable of artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, who ended a career-long tie to Leo Castelli to join PaceWildenstein, and New York painter Elizabeth Murray, who left Paula Cooper to join Pace.

Similarly, Larry Gagosian enjoys strong personal and professional ties to Hollywood’s other powerhouses, music mogul David Geffen and director Steven Spielberg. Mr Geffen and Mr Spielberg have joined forces and capital to form Dreamworks, a huge production company with assets and connections able to compete with media giant Disney. Mr Geffen’s renowned art collection, well publicised by the art savvy Geffen Foundation, contains pieces by modern and contemporary artists such as Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly and was built with Gagosian’s guidance.

The Pace and Gagosian expansions from their East Coast bastions to the typically more risky and less art responsive West Coast must have relied upon the ability of these two galleries to tap a waiting clientele of Hollywood patrons, folks with lots to spend, little time and even less art know-how.

But not so fast, says Robert Shapazian, director of the Gagosian in LA.

“The notion of some philistine breed of new Hollywood buyers taking their lead from us and buying what’s ‘in’ just doesn’t reflect reality,” he notes. “Our Hollywood collectors are astute businessmen, successful people tuned to visual culture who typically know what they are looking at, and if they don’t they certainly know what moves them. Pace and Gagosian provide access and stimulation, but no more than the Getty’s expansion or education activities by other good galleries and museums here.”

There is something to be said for this. Billy Wilder, Douglas Cramer, Irving Lazar, Edward G. Robinson, Lew Wasserman, Hal Wallace were sponsoring and collecting fine art in LA well before Mr Spielberg hit grad school, but they did so with little fanfare. The degree of crossover between film and art circles now underway indicates that Hollywood is just realising the media cachet of public art patronage, while museums are capitalising on the financial benefits of lending cultural clout to Hollywood.

Art dealers with Hollywood ties disdain the “Oprah” mentality of selling and telling, and bristle when asked to discuss which Hollywood personalities purchase their wares. However, the very much on-the-record Schnabel opening at Pace last month drew a crowd of some 300 including top film execs, agents and the stars they represent: Dennis Hopper (an avid collector and one of the stars of Julian Schnabel’s recent film “Basquiat”), Sean Penn, John Cusack and others.

David Geffen’s $5,000,000 gift to MOCA turned its Temporary Contemporary space into the “Geffen Contemporary”. And, in what can only be seen as an unabashed mix of culture, cash and celluloid, last month the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held a star-studded gala honouring of all things, those movies that made one hundred million dollars or more.

On a more down to earth level, the Bergamot Station arts complex is backed by Tom Patchett, long time TV producer and writer who made this stash inventing the alien sit com “Alf,” but left Hollywood to become a conceptual art dealer and art publisher.

Mr Patchett’s Track 16 Gallery and Smart Art Press located at Bergamot are booming, bringing a subversive and grassroots aspect to LA’s Hollywood/arts mix. Mr Patchett’s survey of works by surrealist Man Ray (who had strong movie ties himself) drew national press accolades and a hipper, group of younger Hollywood collectors, as did his show of original anti-war posters dating from the 1970s. His Smart Art Press puts out catalogues and monographs on young American conceptual artists like Burt Payne.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Tinseltown tunes into art'