“LA is tricky, slippery, invisible”: Interview with dealer Shaun Caley Regen

…but that didn’t stop the contemporary dealer opening Regen Projects’ biggest ever space with a first-class show last month


The hulking new home of Regen Projects opened for business last month with an exhibition of intent. The line-up for the group show (until 27 October) reads like a “who’s hot” roll-call of international talent. There are works by Matthew Barney and Raymond Pettibon, both of whom were propelled onto the international stage by the gallery in the 1990s. Lawrence Weiner, who was the first artist to show with the gallery in 1989, has created a site-specific piece for the new rooftop sculpture deck. Critically respected artists such as the American conceptualists Glenn Ligon and Andrea Zittel rub shoulders with market darlings including Elizabeth Peyton and Anish Kapoor, while a sprawling installation by recent recruits Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch points to the gallery’s next generation. The exhibition takes over the first building the gallery has bought in its 23-year history, by far its largest space at around 200,000 sq. ft.

The gallery was founded after Shaun Caley (now Caley Regen) met Stuart Regen, the son of Manhattan art dealer Barbara Gladstone, shortly after she moved to Los Angeles in 1989. “Stuart was planning to open a gallery and we decided to work together. He hired me as the director and we got married about a year and a half later,” Caley Regen says.

Her career in the art world was accidental—she initially wanted to be a writer. “I always thought I would be a novelist, maybe a poet, or write the great American novel,” she laughs. However, after graduating in 1984, Caley Regen stumbled into Manhattan’s art world. By chance, she was asked to write a review for Flash Art magazine, and so began a career as an art critic for publications including Interview, Elle and the Financial Times.

After a brief period working as an assistant to George Condo in Paris in 1987, Caley Regen moved to Milan to become the managing editor of Flash Art, an experience that would later make its mark on the gallery’s programme. “Things would come across my desk from all over the place, so I had a lot of international information. Stuart did too; he’d worked for Rudolf Zwirner in Cologne.”

The gallery, then called Stuart Regen, opened just before the depths of the 1990s recession, during which time “only one person would come into the gallery each day, and that was the mailman”. The couple downsized the rechristened Regen Projects in 1993. “The gallery actually got stronger when we moved into a smaller place. We realised that we could never guess what would sell, and the programme got a lot better because we started to build it around all these amazing emerging artists who started appearing in the early 1990s.” They started to “do what we wanted, like a beautiful Sol LeWitt installation that didn’t sell for several years—the market wasn’t what it is now. [Neither] of us ever expected that the gallery could actually make money.”

When Stuart Regen died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1998, the Los Angeles Times lamented the passing of a “guiding force”. The gallery continued with Caley Regen steering the ship alone, facing expectations that she would fail without her partner. “Lots of people thought she was going to run the gallery into the ground. Mean things were said. But, in fact, she has made it more successful than it ever was before,” said the artist Liz Larner in a 2004 interview in W Magazine. The gallery expanded in 2003 and again in 2007.

The latest space looms large on a busy intersection in the media district near Hollywood. It has been renovated by the architect Michael Maltzan, best known for the Hammer Museum’s airy 2001 redesign, and is one of the more pristine sights on a block otherwise dominated by pawn shops, pharmacies and takeaway taco restaurants. “This neighbourhood is so LA,” Caley Regen says. “It feels like an area that is just on the verge of becoming. It has been very down in the dumps, but things are changing fast.”

Some in the trade perceive the expansion as a defensive strategy against major New York dealers who have recently set up shop on the West Coast, but Caley Regen says she started the search for a space in 1995. “We always wanted to own a gallery, but it took a long time to find the right one. I’ve probably wound up with more room than I expected or needed, but that’s great. However much space you have, you fill it all.”

Location matters less than it did

in the past because business has become “so much more global” thanks to the rise of art fairs and technological developments, she says. “When we started, we didn’t even have a fax machine or a computer—can you imagine?”

All businesses are somewhat reliant on their local constituents, however, and Los Angeles has long suffered from an inferiority complex. Stereotyped as the scrappy sister to New York, the city has struggled to find a cultural centre amid its endemic sprawl, and has a reputation for being a terrific home for artistic talent but a terrible one for dealers trying to sell to serious collectors. “Los Angeles is so tricky. It’s slippery. It’s invisible,” Caley Regen says. “But every time I blink, there is another person buying art that I didn’t know about. There is a lot of expendable income here, and there are tremendous collections, some of which are very private.” She says the scene is always growing, but adds that “half of the people we sold art to 23 years ago have disappeared—I’ve got no idea where they went”.

She is drawn to Los Angeles for its “sense of becoming” and says her five-year plan might include foreign expansions. “I am tempted, but I’m only one person and I’d only do it in places I like. Mexico City is so exciting—there are great artists and galleries there. Paris doesn’t necessarily make any sense, with the big taxes and the complicated labour laws, but it’s a city I enjoy so much. And why not be somewhere you really like to spend time?”

As for the great American novel, Caley Regen burned the book she started in the 1980s. “The best thing about Stuart hiring me is that I realised I didn’t need to be a writer. It was such a relief—writing is so hard.”