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A strong local identity in the LA market

Twentieth-century design, Western and Latin American art, movie memorabilia and jewellery dominate the auctions

Long considered America’s second city for art, the City of Angels is now poised to become an international capital for fine art. In 1997, after nearly a decade of recession, as analysts grow optimistic about Southern California’s overall health, the art market is stabilising and even expanding. Most of the evidence suggests that Los Angeles is coming back, says Howard Roth, director of regional economics in Los Angeles for Bank of America. There is economic momentum. People are getting jobs and keeping them.

Certainly the economic outlook for the art industry is rosier, says Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, which helps promote the group of eighty-one cities that make up Los Angeles County (Los Angeles, the city, is by far the largest, with a population exceeding 3 million).

Earlier this year, after spending more than $1 million to renovate an 8,000-square-foot building in Beverley Hills, Christie’s opened a new West Coast headquarters (see interview this page). Its first two sales, this June, of entertainment memorabilia and photographs, pointed to a target market: younger, Hollywood-orientated collectors. Christie’s has maintained limited local offices in Los Angeles for several decades. In 1995, Sotheby’s opened a new 13,000-square-foot premises in Beverley Hills, more than a decade after closing down on the West Coast.

The global auction houses have joined an already active auction scene. Butterfield & Butterfield, founded in San Francisco in 1865, opened a Los Angeles sales gallery in 1988. Abell Auctions has held sales since 1916, handling local estate properties as well as finer paintings and decorative arts on a quarterly basis. Pasadena-based John Moran Auctioneers makes a market in regional California paintings, primarily plein-air works from the first part of this century. LA Modern Auctions, specialists in twentieth-century masters of design such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Breuer and Charles Eames, recently announced its move to Bergamot Station, a popular Santa Monica arts complex. Another resident, Santa Monica Auctions, bills itself as LA’s “guerrilla auction house” and claims its sales, once held in nightclubs and parking lots, are “a place to party”. On 7 December it is holding a mixed sale of modern and contemporary art.

The local gallery scene is also seeing signs of life. Bergamot Station, with twenty galleries at present, is poised for expansion, with eight or ten additional galleries planned, including two Asian specialists. West Hollywood’s sixteen-member Galleries Group sponsor joint openings and participate in a marketing and redevelopment effort to bring tourism and business improvement to their community.

Beverly Hills now sponsors a weekly “arts & architecture trolley”, and a monthly “art at night” event, introducing visitors to fine art galleries such as Gagosian and PaceWildenstein as well as the more commercial Rodeo Drive dealers.

Los Angeles museums and cultural institutions are also broadening their scope. The new Museum of Latin American Art, displaying contemporary art from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South America, opened its doors a year ago and hosted an important exhibition of Diego Rivera’s easel paintings, seldom seen in this country. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Downtown Los Angeles received a major gift this year from the Lannan Foundation, comprising 105 works by fifty-three artists. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which extended its hours this year to stay open evenings in order to accommodate working people, received an important gift of Mexican masters from art dealers Bernard and Edith Lewin. The first display of the new collection opened last month.

With the Getty Center opening, out-of-town museums and other cultural institutions from across the country are arranging tours to Los Angeles, to visit not just the new complex but also other arts attractions, reports Laura Maslon of Sotheby’s. “The Getty will have an important impact on art businesses generally,” she says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A strong local identity'