Dealers look to LA future as blue-chip galleries move west

Galleries such as Gagosian and Matthew Marks see opportunities, despite small collector base


Los Angeles lacks a Manhattan-sized collecting community, but that isn’t stopping east coast dealers from betting the town can support a bevy of big-ticket players. Blue-chip traders L&M Arts and Matthew Marks have both announced plans for LA outposts in 2010, while major established galleries are investing millions to expand their facilities.

Gagosian is doubling the size of its Beverly Hills branch, and will open the 11,600 sq. ft Richard Meier design next year. LA veterans Blum & Poe, who celebrated their 15th anniversary this year, recently opened an expansive 21,000 sq. ft gallery in the Culver City district, a lavish upgrade from their former quarters. “People were questioning the logic of opening [such] a venue at this time,” said co-founder Tim Blum. “I’ve been flabbergasted by the first month here. Everyone stepped up to the plate.” Blum sold works by a range of artists, including Mark Grotjahn, Carroll Dunham and Takashi Murakami’s $1.5m silver Oval Buddha Silver, 2008.

“The 800-pound gorillas seem to be taking advantage of a down market, while the smaller guys are struggling,” said Rick Wolf, Los Angeles-based art adviser and former west coast head of Sotheby’s. While some dealers are expanding, the budget-cutting auction houses have pulled back their LA operations. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s have slashed jobs and reduced their regional activities.

Yet the city still lags in the development of a broad collector base—beyond the well-known die-hards like Eli Broad and Michael Ovitz. “There is so much money on a per capita basis, and there is not nearly the collecting sensibility that one would see in New York, Boston or Philadelphia,” said Wolf. Some dealers, like David Kordansky, do a minority of their sales at home. He makes an estimated 70-80% of his sales out of town, cultivating collectors at international art fairs, or selling to buyers who live outside LA, but who periodically sweep through town.

Yet Kordansky relishes the freedom of operating in LA. “Because we are seemingly removed from New York as the epicentre, there can be these kinds of idiosyncratic positions that you can take,” he said. “There’s still the open and free terrain, and room to make interesting statements. You can make real artist statements, without paying exorbitant rents. It’s still, even for me, this weirdly exotic terrain.”

From the start, Kordansky—a native east coaster—chose to focus on LA artists. “Early on, one of my main objectives was to show young artists who had little or no representation or recognition in LA,” he said. Some of his artists, including sculptors Aaron Curry, Thomas Houseago and mixed-media artist Elad Lassry, have secured international reputations.

LA boasts no shortage of art merchants. Some 600 “showcases” present art in the city, according to a July article in the Los Angeles Times, citing local web-based guide ArtScene. About 20 have folded this year, according to the article, ­including Black Dragon and Mesler & Hug.

Over the years, a string of east coast galleries have opened LA branches, hoping to tap into the great movie industry money. Most times, these experiments have flopped. Dealers who have opened and closed include Luhring Augustine, Michele Maccarone, Elizabeth Dee and Zach Feuer. One dealer said the expansion was futile: New York collectors would buy from LA shows, trying to get a first crack at new work. Meanwhile, LA collectors preferred buying from New York. The net result: higher shipping costs and an unsubstantial bump in sales.

Nevertheless, New York dealers keep coming. “LA is on the map now,” said art adviser Helen Alameda Lewis. Today’s gallery geography is as diffuse and diverse as LA’s multicultural population. “It’s a sprawling landscape,” said Kordansky. “It’s an eclectic group of galleries in all of these areas.” A clutch of scrappy galleries popped up in the low-rent Chinatown district, focusing mainly on new, younger art. But the Chinatown area is in flux, say dealers, as some of the energy has gravitated to the industrial Culver City, where Blum & Poe first moved in 2003, attracting others, like Kordansky, Peres Projects and Acme.

Another set of dealers, on the hunt for cheap rent, set up in storefront spaces around gritty downtown Hollywood. Two-and-a-half year old Overduin and Kite are located here. The galley represents six or seven artists including Dianna Molzan, Barry Johnston and Scott Olson. “Collectors are starting to cool off,” said Kite, who has noticed a new reluctance to purchase from digital images. Prices at the gallery range from $2,000 to $200,000 and the clientele spans “young collectors who are eager to collect artists of their own generation to Ovitz-types who are also collecting young”.

For a town with a small locus of around 50 to 100 serious collectors—according to dealers—there are no shortage of art fairs. Tim Fleming, the former director of Art LA, launches Art Los Angeles Contemporary with about 45 exhibitors at the Pacific Design Center from 28-31 January. Dealers include New York’s Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, LA’s Regen Projects and Berlin’s Klosterfelde. Fleming is aiming to attract 9,000 visitors, which he says is about 500 more than attended Art LA in 2008. Art LA’s sixth edition is slated to run from 21-24 January, according to dealer and fair founder Stephen Cohen, who also runs a photography fair, Photo LA. The more traditional Los Angeles Art Show runs from 20-24 January at the LA convention centre. Starting a new fair in this environment is not easy. Attracting collectors willing to wing in from Europe and New York is an uphill battle. “All of us are working hard to bring people to the fair,” said Fleming. “It’s tough to get people to come all the way out here.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Dealers look to LA future'