The first time that Young Chung, director and founder of L.A.’s Commonwealth and Council gallery, saw his artist Beatriz Cortez’s Piercing Garden—a kinetic sculpture from 2018 described as a sort of indigenous “garden in motion”—he had a pressing question: could plants feel pain? In the artwork, seedlings grew inside a row of metal cups perched atop slender motorized steel rods that were made to rattle against one another and cause an appropriately ear-piercing cacophony. Chung, ever the mindful gallerist, was worried that the plants might experience the sound as a sort of assault. So he inquired.
“How do we know what plants like and what they don’t like?” the artist answered in response.
In some ways, it was a very circa-now conversation between an artist and a gallerist. In others, it followed in a lineage of similar conversations going back in time through Leo Castelli and Jasper Johns, to Pierre Matisse and Marc Chagall, or even Theo Van Gogh and his brother, Vincent. As Peter Schjeldahl wrote in a 2004 New Yorker profile of Marian Goodman, gallerists’ relationships with their artists are complex: “agent and manager in one, publicist, archivist, sometimes assistant producer, and perhaps social director and lay psychotherapist.” Gallerists are often the first to see new artworks, the first to critique them, and the first to imagine questions that will be asked by others down the line. Like an editor locked into a bond with a writer, they can stand between an artist and the rest of the world.
A gallery’s success is measured by the success of its artists, and success for artists is determined by intricate measures of endorsement: Which important museum exhibitions have they been in? Which biennials? Have the right collectors caught on? By those standards, Commonwealth and Council has an extraordinary track record, especially given that it has been in operation for only nine years.
Shortly after her exchange with Chung, Cortez exhibited Piercing Garden (along with another work titled Tzolk’in, 2018) in the 2018 edition of the Hammer Museum’s prestigious “Made in L.A.” biennial. More recently, she won a sculpture prize at Frieze London this past fall that came with a commission for a work to be installed in the middle of Midtown Manhattan, at Rockefeller Center, in spring 2020.
You can go down the roster of Commonwealth and Council and find similar success stories: Gala Porras-Kim and rafa esparza (in the Whitney Biennial), Carmen Argote (a New Museum solo show), Clarissa Tossin (in the Whitney’s first exhibition on contemporary Latinx art, “Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay,” in 2018). Then there are other laurels for variously emerging and established names such as EJ Hill, Carolina Caycedo, Young Joon Kwak, Julie Tolentino, Olga Koumoundouros, Alice Könitz, Cayetano Ferrer, Jennifer Moon, Jen Smith, and Nikita Gale.
“It’s been remarkable to see how it’s grown to become this place that defines an art family in L.A.,” said Pilar Tompkins Rivas, director of the Vincent Price Art Museum in Monterey Park, California. “One of the strengths is that you have a POC [people of color] network that has been built around the gallery, and it’s driven by passion and appreciation for the artists.”
This past September, a sort of team photograph circulated on Instagram that very much captured the collaborative and familial spirit of the enterprise. All but five of the gallery’s 26 artists pose together in a leisurely fashion on an idyllic hillside in L.A.’s Elysian Park, with some of them holding portraits of colleagues who couldn’t be present for the group shot. Overseeing them all are Chung, standing proud in a flowing poncho and holding a staff, and his codirector, Kibum Kim, a more modest steward who looks no less wise in a geometrically patterned jacket.
Altogether, the image captures a discrete moment for a group of artists and organizers who have joined together to create a space where many new ways of thinking and being are possible. At a time when global mega-galleries are relentlessly expanding while mid-tier enterprises struggle to stay alive, Commonwealth and Council is charting an artist-centric path forward—and one that might just be sustainable.
Like many galleries—Jack Shainman, and even, in a certain way, Gagosian, to name a couple—Commonwealth and Council started in a modest setting: an apartment. In 2010, when artist Gala Porras-Kim returned to L.A. from a residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Maine, the person renting her home wouldn’t be leaving for a while, so she needed a place to stay. Chung, her friend at the time and an artist working for a psychoanalyst during the day, offered his apartment in Koreatown, at the corner of North Commonwealth Avenue and Council Street.
“Young said I could crash on the couch,” Porras-Kim recalled, “and joked about how I’d have to make work and do a show in his living room.”
When the laughter subsided, the two considered the prospect in earnest—and Porras-Kim got to work, taking the neighborhood as inspiration. A lively enclave west of L.A.’s downtown and just northeast of its Mid-City district, Koreatown overlaps with the heavily Latinx-concentrated area of Pico-Union. And MacArthur Park, the commercial and cultural center for Central American immigrants, is just a stroll away. “K-Town felt so familiar and foreign at the same time,” said Porras-Kim, who is half-Korean and was born and raised in Colombia.
The artist was attracted to the ways that Latinx and Asian communities shared space and how immigrants hybridized their cultures, and Chung himself also played a role in the art she created: a series of works in many mediums titled “I Want to Prepare to Learn Something I Don’t Know.” “The drive for the project was to learn about the neighborhood from Young,” Porras-Kim said. “We went all up and down Koreatown together and mapped out places where he had personal connections.”
During her stay, Porras-Kim began to study Korean after developing a fascination with business signs that used Korean characters to spell out English words that in turn had to be translated back again for non-Korean speakers. Such complications appealed to her nascent interest in the codes and structures of language that would lay the foundation for future work, including Prospecting Notes About Sounds (2012), about the Zapotec language, and her “La Mojarra Stela” series—which attracted a lot of attention at the 2019 Whitney Biennial—devoted to translations and mistranslations of early Mesoamerican script on a monument in Mexico.
As an outside observer, Tompkins Rivas called Chung’s working relationship with Porras-Kim “the origin point” for Commonwealth and Council as it has come to be known. “Moving out from that in a generous way has been a natural evolution that’s been built over time,” she said. “The growth of the gallery has paralleled the growth of the artists.”
Porras-Kim’s time with Chung also marked the beginning of an informal sort of artist residency program. Over the next four months, Chung’s living room became a workspace and studio for emerging artists; on weekends, his dining room would transform into a gallery for exhibitions, complete with opening receptions for artists and followers to gather.
Luckily for Chung, the landlord living downstairs was a patient man who tolerated the unexplained foot traffic that thundered overhead. But eventually his patience ran out—owing to too much toilet-flushing through an outdated plumbing system. When the landlord looked online, he discovered that his building was suddenly home to one of L.A.’s more interesting emerging art hubs—and the fledgling project was put to a stop. So Chung and Porras-Kim went looking for space that could be amenable to shows and other projects they had in mind.
In 2011 Commonwealth and Council reopened in a fuller fashion in a second-floor space on West 7th Street, about a mile north of Chung’s former apartment. The layout spanned two rooms—the same format as the apartment. Each show cycle would feature an artist’s solo presentation in one of the rooms and a different artist in the other—allowing for interactions between artists working with disparate backgrounds and different aesthetic approaches. “We pair artists even when it doesn’t make sense,” Chung said of a practice that remains in force today. “Eventually they find that they have a lot in common. It becomes a dialogue.”
The operation retained the name that derived from the former location as a reminder of its roots—but also because it represented what they wanted to become. The first part resonated with Commonwealth, a post-Marxist text by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that theorizes a world in which capitalism is replaced by the “common.” The second part suggested a sense of assembly. “We liked the idea of art for everyone, and the idea of a council of elders that would guide us along in our careers,” Porras-Kim said. “We ended up being a council for each other. Now we are the elders.”
Chung and Porras-Kim felt there were not enough spaces in L.A. that embraced a sufficiently wide array of artists, and they wanted to create a space where artists of color, queer artists, women artists, and those with intersecting identities could show their work and build community. They wanted to reimagine what a gallery could be.
“It was never about making money,” Chung said. “Commonwealth and Council was always about creating a new platform for voices that weren’t being included in big galleries. The goal was never to become something that already existed.”
Instead of shaping artists to meet the interests and demands of the market, which can be especially pernicious for artists at the start of their career, the mission was instead to build a community that would meet the needs of artists. “Our conversations may seem crazy, but we take them seriously,” said Cortez, the creator of Piercing Garden. “We look at the world in ways that are not just about us. We care about other ways of thinking. This is what artists at Commonwealth and Council do.”
In 1993, Patricia Fernández, who moved from Spain to study art at the University of California, Los Angeles, was looking for a way to stage a yearslong project that galleries had discouraged her from undertaking. She envisioned an iterative work that would evolve over 10 years, during which a wooden box that looks like a small piece of furniture would be exhibited with repurposed fragments of drawings, paintings, writings, and sculptural elements that would take on new forms each year.
Sometimes the box could grow and feature prominently within an installation, while other times its presence could be more subtle among other elaborate components. “Early on, people told me that this would be foolish, a risk, because [they] weren’t sure what it would be worth in the long run,” Fernández said of a project that would later take the title Box (a proposition for ten years).
By thinking beyond discrete artworks toward collaborative and open-ended interactions with buyers of her work, Fernández wanted to change the relationship between artist and collector into something more flexible and meaningful. When she mentioned the project to Chung, she got an answer that had proven elusive: “Let’s do it.” As Fernández recalled, “It wasn’t based on a contract. It was a promise that the project would grow during the 10 years.”
Chung purchased the work in 2011 and, together, he and Fernández have exhibited it every year since 2013 at Commonwealth and Council. They placed four other boxes from an edition of five with collectors. “That’s four other ongoing relationships,” Fernández said, “rather than four objects that are sold and released into the world.”
“Patricia’s work is an example of how many of our artists approach their work in expansive ways—that’s something we are committed to,” said Kibum Kim, who started working with Commonwealth and Council later, in 2016, and attributed his interest in part to the box project’s focus on unconventional camaraderie rather than business as usual.
But however committed they were to the art in the early years, the first time a collector came knocking, Commonwealth and Council wasn’t quite ready. By 2014, several of its artists had been in career-making institutional shows, including the first two editions of Made in L.A. But when a collector visited the space that year with the desire to buy a piece by Jennifer Moon, Chung had to scramble to get a business license to sell it. “It was a stressful and manic filing, but we did it,” Chung said. “Not much changed though.”
Slowly, Commonwealth and Council professionalized. In 2016 a group of six artists, including Porras-Kim, Alice Könitz, and Danielle Dean, approached Chung about taking a new step together. Reaffirming their belief in his vision, they told him collectively that they wanted Commonwealth and Council to represent them formally as a gallery. “We were growing career-wise and found it difficult to find a space that suited us,” said Porras-Kim.
More than just representation, the group that helped make Commonwealth and Council official wanted a space that represented the values they had cultivated together. “The artists felt empowered to choose this space and to choose me,” Chung said.
Chung might have had more difficulty accommodating this request if Kim hadn’t come along. An art lawyer by training, Kim had moved to L.A. from New York and opened his own art space, Skibum MacArthur. Shortly after, he met Chung and learned about what was happening at Commonwealth and Council.
“I joined because I have to believe that despite the hyper-accelerated, luxury-invested art world, there is still space like this for artists to determine what kind of gallery they want to grow with,” Kim said. “I saw this community and this rigorous program and a collegiality that was really special. It was unique in how it was fostered by dynamics of the L.A. arts scene, and I wanted others outside of L.A. to know about it.”
Kim closed his gallery in 2018 and went into partnership with Chung, and his business skills proved crucial. While he embraces the enterprise’s collective spirit and its championing of artists’ visions over market demands, he also helps pay the bills and keep the doors open so that visitors can come and see what’s going on inside.
While Commonwealth and Council has been a presence for a while behind the scenes at biennials and exhibitions of different kinds, it participated in its first art fair, Art Basel Hong Kong, in 2018. Since then, the gallery has exhibited at seven art fairs in total, including Art Basel in Switzerland, Art Basel Miami Beach, Frieze London, and Frieze Los Angeles. “At art fairs, people see us as a very new gallery because we have been representing artists for only a few years,” Kim said. “But already we have 26 artists on our roster.”
Kim said one reason that Commonwealth and Council is now generating so much attention is the art world’s rising interest in artists of color, indigenous artists, and other voices that have long been marginalized. “We are dealing with an interesting moment in that everyone is hungry for what Young has championed for 10 years,” Kim said. “We are in such a politically fraught moment, but the arc of history is going our way.”
As Commonwealth and Council has ventured well beyond Koreatown, the gallery has also worked to remain part of its local community, and it’s still a place where artists go just to hang out. “The neighborhood is home to Young and, now, to all of us,” said Cortez. “There’s always something going on, and we all end up there, in that area of Koreatown that is also Pico-Union. If the system had its way, there’d be a division between Asian and Latino communities—but we can be family with common goals.”
Tompkins Rivas, the museum director, said such a distinctive ethos is integral to how the gallery has been received. “It’s grounded in the curatorial rigor of the gallerist but also in this idea of being a place of nurturing. The kind of openness and dialogue that they bring to the way they work with people—artists, curators, collectors, institutions—is very earnest and humble. It’s about a particular moment in the L.A. art scene that we’re experiencing now. We’re diversity-driven, and the market is catching up to that conversation.”
These days, the area around Commonwealth and Council, like so much of L.A., is rapidly changing. Koreatown is dotted with construction projects, with old buildings coming down to be replaced by luxury apartments and shopping centers. “We survive now because the rent is cheap,” Chung said, “but we always ask ourselves: where do we go if we have to move? Where would we belong?”
One has a sense Commonwealth and Council will figure it out, as its advantage to date has been to stay nimble. “It’s a never-ending process, but it’s not a linear narrative,” Chung said. “We are continuously evolving, changing with new challenges we have to confront.”
They are continuously working for their artists, too, toward a kind of solidarity that can help make them more resilient. “When you’re alone, it’s hard,” Porras-Kim said. “But together—and with a little bit of infrastructure—it’s easier to stay strong.”