On the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard opposite the Los Angeles County Museum of Art there sits a large slab of the Berlin Wall. Contrary to that old Missing Persons song—“nobody walks in L.A.!”—people were bustling about in front of it on an afternoon in September. High above them, on the sixth floor of 5900 Wilshire, a recently renovated 1960s International Style skyscraper, the art dealers Sarah Watson and Anna Helwing were hard at work at desks in a temporary office, Helwing’s rambunctious dachshund, Benno, darting around at their feet. The following day, construction was to begin on the interior of the two-story, 14,000-square-foot building next door, part of the skyscraper’s iconic modernist complex—the future Los Angeles branch of Sprüth Magers gallery, where the two women will serve as directors.
That section of the Berlin Wall—the longest in the United States, it was installed in 2009 by L.A.’s Wende Museum of the Cold War—is a happy coincidence, or perhaps a kind of prophecy. Watson and Helwing’s bosses, the German art dealers Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers, are fond of comparing Los Angeles, with its vibrant culture of contemporary artists, to Berlin, where they’ve run a gallery for the past seven years. Their Los Angeles outpost, which is set to open early next year, is part of a new wave of galleries coming to Los Angeles that includes New York’s Maccarone, and Hauser & Wirth, which already operates locations in Zurich, London, and New York.
Sprüth Magers was founded in 1998 when the two Cologne-based dealers merged their businesses. They opened a London gallery in 2003, and one in Berlin in 2008. The Los Angeles branch, they told me on the phone, is motivated by the many L.A.-based artists they represent, including Sterling Ruby, Ed Ruscha, and John Baldessari.
Some of their artists already have relationships with L.A. galleries, but others lack representation in their hometown. Baldessari, for instance, lost his hometown gallery of 20 years three years ago when Margo Leavin, who had been in business since 1970, shut her doors.
Sprüth and Magers met Watson in 2011, when she was running the now-closed L.A. branch of New York’s L&M Gallery in Venice Beach. The Swiss-born Helwing, who joined Sprüth Magers last spring, ran her own gallery in Culver City from 2003 to 2008.
What drew Sprüth and Magers to the Wilshire Boulevard building was its quintessential L.A. architecture, but Watson also looks at the gallery’s location pragmatically; for her it fit “the formula you look for in L.A.: location, location, location—and parking.” (There’s a four-floor garage below ground.) L.A.’s galleries can be short on foot traffic. (“Sometimes you go two or three days without anyone coming in,” Hannah Hoffman, whose gallery is in Hollywood, told the New York Times recently. “And then all the curators from the Hammer Museum come in, and it’s totally worth it.”) But between her proximity to LACMA, that parking garage, and a station on the subway’s purple-line extension set to open nearby, Watson is intent on visitors. “The gallery is a public space at a perfect location,” Watson said. “We are looking forward to making great exhibitions with our artists available to everyone.”
In September, when I spoke with Watson, the art world had its eyes on another L.A. location, downtown, where billionaire art collector Eli Broad was opening his new private museum. The scruffy area just east of the Broad has lately seen an explosion of galleries, both ones moving there from elsewhere in L.A., and newcomers from outside the city. Maccarone’s huge space is there and Hauser & Wirth’s even bigger one (a whopping 100,000 square feet in a former flour mill, called Hauser Wirth & Schimmel in partnership with former Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, curator Paul Schimmel) will open there in the spring.
Sprüth Magers is closer to a different Broad museum, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, part of LACMA, across the street. Its closest gallery neighbors are in the complex at 6150 Wilshire that includes Marc Foxx and ACME. Miracle Mile is currently in transition, but Sprüth Magers is playing a long game in opening there. The city reportedly is pushing for the subway’s purple-line extension to open by 2024, in time for the Olympics. LACMA’s proposed unification of its campus, with a $650 million exhibition hall by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor that would straddle Wilshire Boulevard, will not open before 2019, but when it does, part of the new museum will be just across Spaulding Avenue from Sprüth Magers. LACMA would effectively hug the gallery. Two miles east on Wilshire, the brothers Maurice and Paul Marciano, founders of the Guess fashion label, plan to open a private museum for their vast collection of contemporary art in a 90,000-plus-square-foot Millard Sheets–designed former Masonic temple.
And while the thrust of L.A.’s gallery scene has lately been east, galleries have set up shop throughout the city. Three miles south of Sprüth Magers is the cluster of galleries in Culver City. Three miles north is the newer cluster in Hollywood pioneered by a second branch of established L.A. gallery Regen Projects. David Kordansky, who moved from Culver City to South La Brea, is a mile and a half southeast.
“Sarah sees that the art scene has pushed to the east where the young galleries are going,” said Watson’s new neighbor, LACMA director Michael Govan. “She’s watching how people are splitting the difference—Culver City, Highland Avenue—so she drew a line between them, and the X lands on LACMA.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 32 under the title “Berlin on the Pacific.”