Relocation Is Innovation (+ Innovation Isn't for Everyone)
This morning Rozalia Jovanovic of artnet posted an excellent piece on the eastward-aimed buckshot spread of LA galleries formerly concentrated in Santa Monica, Culver City, Beverly Hills, and West Hollywood. It raises a lot of interesting points worth discussing. I just want to spotlight one in particular since I’ve already got a longer piece on a related topic in progress.
Near the end of the story, Tyler Stonebreaker, the owner of LA/SF-based arts-and-artisans real estate firm Creative Space, makes the following point about the types of disused industrial properties now magnetizing some gallerists and dealers to the east side:
“If you want a pedestrian-oriented gallery experience,” Stonebreaker explained, “where people in a particular area happen to be going to a restaurant or going shopping, and stumble upon a gallery—that’s a totally different mindset and experience than ‘You’ve got to get in your car, you’ve got to get off some weird road, go down a weird street, and there’s some vacant-looking warehouse building, non-descript with no signage and no parking or anything around it. All of a sudden you walk in and see this amazing Laura Owens exhibit, which was 356 Mission Road for her painting opening, and you go, holy crap, this is really cool.’ And you find out it was Liberace’s piano storage building.” While he notes that the appeal of such experiences is lost on people who find that type of space “weird and dirty and doesn’t really conjure buying million dollar pieces of art,” to others, including certain buyers, he says, “that’s really cool.”
Stonebreaker is on point about this - perhaps even more so than he realizes. There’s a deeper truth about strategy gliding underneath the surface of his words: Any gallerist making a move to terra incognita must first ask themselves whether their brand and their clientele harmonize with a bold relocation. I tend to think it’s only a good idea for two distinct classes of galleries at completely opposite ends of the market. One is the blue chip powerhouse with a collector base who will follow them anywhere; the other is the rebel startup looking to cement themselves as bleeding-edge counter-programming to the art world’s status quo.
Jovanovic correctly points out earlier in her piece that any potential new gallery district first needs a major “anchor” to make the area viable; she cites Blum & Poe’s 2003 move to Culver City and Regen Projects’ 2012 move to Hollywood as examples. I would add that the whole reason there can even be an eastward boomerang at all is that James Corcoran Gallery first led a charge to the west side in 1986, leaving WeHo to become the first respected commercial arts enterprise to plant its flag in Santa Monica.
All of the above cases follow the same template: a major brand in the industry leverages its success into an opportunity to do what its competitors can’t or won’t, i.e. to innovate. Trust, relationships, and notoriety are all leashes; they have the power to drag others into territories they would never otherwise go near. It’s as true of a gallery’s geography as it is of the actual work being shown inside. If Larry Gagosian transformed a former crack house in South Central into a gleaming contemporary art palace, his clientele would still clamor to be seen at every opening reception and filter in on off-days to buy work because, hey, it’s Gagosian. They can’t not go.
On the other side of the spectrum, there’s an entire category of galleries whose brands are built on iconoclasm. Their appeal to collectors and enthusiasts alike stems from a kind of challenge, albeit one that’s often carefully constructed: Get on board or get out, because we don’t need you anyway. From the artists they represent to the tone of their marketing (or their total rejection of it), these galleries are the aloof heartthrobs of the art world - all the more attractive because of their apparent pathological inability to give a damn. Location can be just as much a part of cultivating this mystique as any other aspect of their brands. Lighting out for an unexplored, roughneck sector of the city may seem self-defeating at first, but since these galleries serve a clientele who is actually seduced by barriers and transgressions, doing so only adds to their allure.
However, the galleries in the middle are the ones who would be wise to stay on the bench in this game - at least until any new colony of high culture becomes self-sustaining. It’s all a matter of who can set trends and who can’t. Think of it like high school: No one cares if the B student who writes for the school paper suddenly starts wearing ripped jeans again… but if the varsity quarterback or the volatile beauty on the verge of expulsion does, suddenly every nondescript classmate is rushing for an X-Acto Knife. Mid-tier, moderately successful galleries can only draft off their peers at the industry’s poles; they have neither the irresistible gravity to vacuum their clients along en masse into a new orbit, nor a style of programming that would even fit with trying. In the arts, location is simply another area where innovation is driven by the brands at the extremes - and that won’t change whether the nucleus in question is on the west side, downtown, or anywhere else in the world.