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Everybody Loves the Sunshine: But Can L.A. Sustain Its Booming Art Scene?

Valeria Sorci and Pierpaolo Barzan photographed by Stefan Simchowitz at the Depart Foundation. STEFAN SIMCHOWITZ

Valeria Sorci and Pierpaolo Barzan of the Depart Foundation.

STEFAN SIMCHOWITZ

‘Art is a revelation. It’s like an oracle,” said Juliet McIver, an art collector and consultant who currently has two Mary Corse paintings hanging in her Los Angeles home. They’re made with small glass microspheres, so they glimmer more or less depending on the time of day. Nearby sits a fiberglass love seat, called Love Forever, made by artist Rosha Yaghmai. Multiple works by Analia Saban, Ryan Sluggett, and Liz Glynn hang or sit around the kitchen and living room. Most of the artists McIver collects live and work in L.A. Some are established figures—Corse was one of the few female members of California’s Light and Space movement of the 1960s—while others, including Yaghmai, Saban, Sluggett, and Glynn, are young. McIver collects in depth, so her mid-size Hollywood loft feels familial, populated by a small group of artists she considers friends.

In 1974, soon after moving to L.A., McIver took a job at Sotheby’s, joining a staff that included a Proust expert and a man who’d worked at galleries on Savile Row. Their expertise often didn’t help much with their tasks. “We had leftovers from The Price Is Right,” McIver recalled. “We would be trying to figure out how to price a Jacuzzi.”

“There were little snippets of good things,” she added. Sometimes a Jasper Johns print, or something else precious, would land in Sotheby’s L.A. branch, but these were exceptions. McIver saw an opening for someone who cared about fine art, and knew how to find it and talk about it. “I realized around then that I could be a collector.”

McIver was sitting on her couch with her friend Tom Peters, who started collecting on a barely-there budget not long after she did. The two met only three years ago, but they’re a specific breed—people who became collectors before they had any real means, and kept at it—and they became fast friends. Peters had been catering museum events in the early 1980s when he saw an Ad Reinhardt painting. At first it stumped him, then it seduced him. “It was art because he said it was art,” said Peters, who still meets artists through his catering business and owns work by Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon, Marilyn Minter, Mark Grotjahn, and others.

“I was getting involved when it was easy to get involved,” added Peters, trying to put his finger on exactly what’s changed in L.A.’s collecting scene in recent years. “We just lived in such a small little realm,” McIver said of the early years, when L.A. had a handful of galleries and hardly any committed collectors. “You have to go to the young ones to be able to afford art now,” she added.

Ryan Sluggett, Lotion, 2011, part of Juliet McIver’s L.A. collection. RUBEN DIAZ/COURTESY JULIET MCIVER

Ryan Sluggett, Lotion, 2011, part of Juliet McIver’s L.A. collection.

RUBEN DIAZ/COURTESY JULIET MCIVER

One of the biggest changes to the local market is the interest in L.A. from outside dealers and collectors, which has prompted an explosion of new galleries around the city. The gallery scene here has expanded before—notably in the 1990s—but this time the expansion has an internationalist, big-money feel. In the past three years, London’s Ibid and New York’s Maccarone, as well as global chains like Sprueth Magers and Hauser & Wirth, among others, have opened branches in L.A.

Collectors, too, are opening new spaces. The Depart Foundation, founded by Italian husband-and-wife collectors Pierpaolo Barzan and Valeria Sorci, and for which Los Angeles–based art adviser Stefan Simchowitz consults, relocated to West Hollywood in 2014. Brothers Paul and Maurice Marciano, founders of the Guess? clothing line, are turning a former Masonic temple on Wilshire Boulevard into a private museum. And mega-collector Eli Broad’s $140 million Broad Museum opened downtown last September.

The question—posed frequently by gallerists, artists, and journalists—is whether this growth can support itself in a city long known for its scarcity of serious collectors. The “urgent question,” wrote journalist Jori Finkel in the Art Newspaper this past March, is not whether these new galleries will appeal to L.A.’s collector base but “whether they will be able to grow that base sufficiently.” Said gallerist Susanne Vielmetter in a January 2014 interview with Artinfo, “I am . . . 100 percent sure that the collector base in L.A. alone is not strong enough or big enough to support a gallery.”

“Right now, there’s a light shining on L.A.,” Alex Couri told me. She’s development director of Art Los Angeles Contemporary, L.A.’s seven-year-old fair. “There’s a lot happening here. But ultimately, it’s very difficult to get a concrete sense of something that isn’t really measurable.” What isn’t measurable is support and patronage, which in L.A. has always been weak. It’s also hard, Couri suggested, to define strategies for increasing that support. The boosterism surrounding the West Coast scene doesn’t help. It tends to encourage speculation in art rather than long-term investment.

In 2004, Guy Trebay wrote about L.A.’s growing collector base for the New York Times, quoting Jane Nathanson as saying, “The life and soul of this city now is art.” Entertainment mogul David Geffen was, according to Trebay, the most committed of the bunch. Advertising executive Cliff Einstein, who with his wife, Mandy, had installed a Turrell skyspace in their backyard and private galleries where once they had tennis courts, suggested art would replace Disneyland as a local draw. Broad was omnipresent. Bill and Maria Bell had given up Picasso in favor of Jeff Koons.

The story and players hadn’t changed much since 1995, when Vanity Fair’s Bob Colacello wrote about booming connoisseurship in L.A. The Einsteins, Nathansons, Geffen, and Broad all made appearances. So did Steve Tisch, scion of the Tisch family of New York and billionaire movie producer, who just this year also converted his tennis court into a private museum. No matter that in 1995, galleries were already closing for financial reasons, just as they’re starting to close again now.

“There hasn’t been enough variety of collectors,” gallerist Harmony Murphy observed. In the two years since she opened, she’s seen speculation skyrocket and downtown gallery real estate go from dirt cheap to overpriced. “I don’t think the arts anywhere can sustain that amount of change.”

Tim Blum co-founded Blum & Poe gallery in 1994. By the early 2000s, it had become one of L.A.’s few indigenous blue-chip spaces, but the city alone has never supported the program. “Of course it would be great if more people collected art in general,” he told me. But you have to “define yourself much more open-endedly—seek a global art audience.” Blum & Poe has added outposts in Tokyo and New York, and participates in the world’s major art fairs. Blum continued, “You don’t have an immediate, readymade collector base in L.A., but there are tons of people passing through. People come to see the new.”

As Blum spoke, Alberto Chehebar walked by with gallery director Michael Smoler. Chehebar, who began collecting in the early 1990s but moved to L.A. just two years ago, had just had an inspiring studio visit with gallery artist Henry Taylor. “I do five to seven studio visits per week,” Chehebar said over the phone a few weeks later. “I don’t buy at every studio visit.” He also discovers artists via Instagram. “You never know what’s going to happen. I’m flexible that way.” Chehebar, who’s from Bogotá, is the founder of Stilotex, S.A., a Colombia-based textile distribution company. He lived in Miami before moving to Los Angeles, and the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair there helped him establish his taste.

“I was buying Jonas Wood”—an L.A. painter whose hometown gallery is David Kordansky—“before I moved to L.A., but I understand the work differently now,” Chehebar explained. “The creative capacity right now in L.A. . . .” He trailed off. “I would say this is the creative capital of the world.” Chehebar sells and advises, too. “The trade is part of it, in my opinion,” he said.

Film and television producer David Hoberman started buying art in the 1980s, then stopped. “[The art] was so edgy, it didn’t appeal,” he remembered. He took up collecting again in the mid-1990s, buying work from the 1970s and earlier by such artists as Milton Avery and Alex Katz. He didn’t frequent L.A. galleries much. Then, in the early 2000s, he wanted to buy a Diebenkorn painting, realized he couldn’t afford it, sold everything, and started over with contemporary art.

“I went everywhere, getting to know people” Hoberman told me. “Mark Grotjahn, Jonas Wood, Murakami. Lots of Blum & Poe artists in the early days.” He had friends—media mogul Dean Valentine and entertainment attorney Craig Jacobson—who shared his taste, and he started going to fairs in the early 2000s. “It’s easy to lose your soul and chase the heat,” he said.

For a while, he got caught up in the thrill of speculation. “I had to find my way back,” he said. He did so by buying a Philip Guston drawing, and starting a drawing collection of small works without inflated price points. Now he goes downtown almost every weekend, but he’s not yet sure that less committed collectors outside his “small community” will do the same. “Historically, there’s an assumption that collectors won’t come to galleries downtown. It will be interesting to see what happens. Something’s going to change.”

Takashi Murakami, Spiral, 2014, part of David Hoberman’s collection. COURTESY DAVID HOBERMAN

Takashi Murakami, Spiral, 2014, part of David Hoberman’s collection.

COURTESY DAVID HOBERMAN

“I love driving all over and seeing the new spaces,” said Beth Rudin DeWoody, who has been bicoastal for years but now says she’s “sort of based” in L.A. “You visit studios and all sorts of galleries. You kind of go where the art is.” She’s been collecting since the 1970s, contemporary artists from both coasts, including Sol Lewitt, John McLaughlin, and DeWain Valentine. Since her mother and stepfather collected in L.A. in the 1970s, she knows its history well.

“I came out more and more the last few years,” she said, “and breathed a sigh of relief.” Partly it was the weather and the West Coast pace, but it might have been an attitude, too. “I think maybe the artists are happier,” she suggested. She’s gotten to know old-timers as well as younger artists over the past few years. “They take advantage of the environment; there’s less angst.” It may not be on the scale of New York’s, but she already feels like she’s part of a community. “Maybe the collector base is smaller here, maybe not. I seem to have met a lot of people who are collecting.”

Thao Nguyen, an agent at Creative Artists Agency, is less optimistic, though she’s seen L.A.’s art scene change significantly over the past decade. The day before she was due to go on maternity leave, she sat in a conference room at CAA, where she used to helm the agency’s art collection and now manages artists. She mentioned the works by Jim Isermann and Craig Kauffman visible just outside the conference room. Nguyen also collects art herself and serves on the board of a local nonprofit, Los Angeles Nomadic Division, a commitment she calls “my own, though there’s always crossover.”

“It’s important for a city our size to have more than a few main players,” said Nguyen, referring to Broad, Geffen, and Mexican-born fruit juice heir Eugenio Lopez, who sits on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. She has found the recent wave of speculation in L.A., mostly in the work of young male painters, disheartening, the wrong way to go about building sustainable patronage. “There needs to be a stronger education and cultivation. Instead of the conversation about appreciation and speculation, we need to say, this is an important artist because of x, y, and z ideas.” She describes herself as a translator, helping Hollywood business people understand the seemingly esoteric rules of the art world.

“There’s a slow transformation happening. We just need more Michael Govans,” Ngyuen continued, citing the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s charismatic director, who has raised $10 million for a single Michael Heizer installation, started funding a new building, and joined forces with the Motion Picture Academy since arriving at the museum nine years ago. “He knows how to speak to Hollywood people. If we could just clone a few Michael Govans. . .” If more Govan types fail to materialize, Nguyen noted, it won’t be the deep-pocketed newcomers—Hauser & Wirth, Sprueth Magers—that fail. It will be the smaller spaces and the nonprofits.

Harmony Murphy knows this. So do other gallerists with recently opened spaces, like Adam Moskowitz and Meredith Bayse of year-old Moskowitz Bayse. “Changing things, that takes a lot of patience, time,” Moskowitz said. But they also have affection for the city’s resistance to valuing culture in any consistent way, and the Lone Ranger sensibility that L.A. engenders in its artists and potential patrons alike. “That’s why we like it here,” said Murphy.

Catherine G. Wagley writes about art and visual culture in Los Angeles.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 106 under the title “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.”

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