What’s behind Los Angeles’s surprising artistic evolution?

Decades ago, like in many North American cities, Los Angeles’s suburban sprawl and lure of new builds drew people out of the downtown core. An extraordinary collection of empty beaux art and art nouveau buildings remained, leaving the area looking more zombie apocalypse then heritage centre. But that has begun to change. Downtown Los Angeles is currently enjoying one of the world’s great urban transformations.

When the Broad Museum opened beside the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2015, it generated buzz around a new art scene in Los Angles. The private museum, opened by collectors and philanthropists Edith and Eli Broad, invites the world (free of charge) to see their tour de force collection of contemporary American art. The year before say the arrival of the Ace Hotel in the neighbourhood. The Ace Hotel chain, which now has nine locations worldwide, builds its brand on investing in raw, unpopulated neighbourhoods (including New Orlean’s Warehouse District in spring 2016 and London’s Shoreditch in 2013). In downtown L.A., it gave the creative aesthete somewhere to sleep, and with a rooftop bar and vintage concert hall next door — hosting everything from Patti Smith concerts to Korean karaoke nights — in it took care of the night’s entertainment, too.

Meanwhile, across the country, artists were being priced out of Brooklyn, and seeing what was happening on the other side of the country, many chose to make the move to sunny, more affordable climes. Gallery owners followed, opening spaces in abandoned warehouses in downtown L.A., bringing an east coast edginess with them.

To help explore the Arts District, I enlist Cindy Schwartzstein of Cartwheel Art tours, although not before I squeeze in a carrot dog (18 hours in sous-vide) from chef Neal Fraser’s new downtown joint Fritzi. On my way, I encounter mural artist Erica Weitz, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Chicago. ”There’s a creative energy, here,” she says. “So many people willing to work on projects.”

My first stop with Schwartzstein is a preview of the now-open mega-gallery Hauser Wirth & Schimmel. Its inaugural exhibit, Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016, celebrated female sculptors with works by icons of the genre such as Ruth Asawa, Louise Bourgeois, Claire Falkenstein and Louise Nevelson. The show is being set up in the soaring contemporary art space, which was once a flour mill.

Broad Museum, Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Eric Garcetti

The Broad Museum is just one gem in downtown L.A.’s rejuvenation. • Photo courtesy Eric Garcetti

Next, we hit the Wilding Cran Gallery. In a warehouse next to an abandoned railway track, it was opened in 2014 by Anthony Cran and Naomi Deluce Wilding (a granddaughter of Elizabeth Taylor), who were among the first art dealers in the area. A Christian Eckhart exhibit leaves me inspired and I continue to take in Venus Over Los Angeles in a pair of converted warehouses. Then there’s Night Gallery, started by artist Davida Nemeroff soon after she arrived in L.A. by bus after obtaining an MFA from Columbia in New York. Known for its late-night art happenings, the vibe here is exhilarating, much like the neighbourhood as a whole, which feels both upscale and grungy like New York’s SoHo in its art-fuelled 1980s heydey.

At the nearby Mama Gallery, co-owner Eli Consilvio’s passion for fostering young artists, like Ariana Papademetropoulos, is palpable. An exhibit of work from the American artist Cole Sternberg stems from a 22-day journey he took on a shipping vessel from Japan’s Shin Kasado to Portland, Ore. While aboard, he exposed his paintings to storms, wind and rain, and dragged them in the sea. Consilvio tells me about some of the great parties he has hosted and walks us to the back of the gallery, opening a garage door to reveal a cluster of old warehouses, which house an indoor shooting range, espresso bar and climbing wall. “That place is killing it,” Consilvio says.

The Maccarone Gallery, another big-name New York outpost follows in Boyle Heights, a section east of downtown. This cavernous Los Angeles branch of the gold-chip New York Gallery opened in 2015, bringing the Maccarone’s reputation as a breeding ground for new-dealer talent to the west coast.

A few blocks northwest, sits Gallery Row, which should be seen not for galleries, but magnificent historical buildings of fine neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture. Some were once grand bank buildings, abandoned then later made available to artists as inexpensive loft spaces in a City Council initiative to revitalize the area of the city that had become mostly synonymous with Skid Row. The project, which began in 2003, was designed to “promote the concentration of art galleries along Main street and Spring Street and to create a thriving, pedestrian-friendly culturally abundant, urban neighbourhood,” according to a Los Angeles city spokesperson.

I turn a corner and through the giant windows of a ground-floor building, spot painter Miguel Osuna working in his studio in a converted office building on West 4th Street. Osuna was an early adopter of downtown Los Angeles and has been living and working here since 2001. “L.A. is a city of many faces,” he says. “Downtown is just one of them. Of all the places I’ve lived in in L.A., this feels the most community-driven, like we are pioneers.”

Farago gallery. Photo courtesy Farago

Farago gallery is a new art home converted from three former jewellery shops. • Photo courtesy Farago

On West 8th Street, among jewellery repair shops, I find another gallery, Farago. New York transplant and photographer Max Farago opened this illuminated gallery, converted from three consecutive former jewellery shops, last year and he shows works by emerging and established artists including Leigh Johnson, William Crawford and John K. Farago, who is both an artist and gallerist, says his options expanded on relocating: “I felt like I could do more than one thing in L.A. For me, that wasn’t a possibility in New York.” 

A trip to what’s known as Culture Corner on Grand Avenue, yields the Broad Museum, a great piece of starchitecture by DIller Scofidio + Renfro that’s representative of today’s trend for organic, nature-inspired buildings. Inside Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room is one of the museum’s buzziest installations, and elsewhere 20th-century modern American art includes Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, Joseph Beuys and Cindy Sherman and, my favourite, Cy Twomblys. The lineups here last all day, but across the street you can walk into the older Museum of Contemporary Art. A room full of Rothkos make it worth a visit.

With art spaces that span classic to contemporary work dotting the city, the creativity is leaking into other fields, too. Cool concept stores like Guerilla Atelier, whose owner ran a Prada shop in Beverly Hills, brings labels like Suits by Cesare Attolini from the Costes hotel in Paris, and handmade leather shoes by Saint Crispin, to a gallery-like space downtown. Alchemy Works is another gallery-ready retail space selling brands like Warby Parker, Heidi Merrick silk dresses, art from fashion photographer Mikael Kennedy, Faribault Swiss Army blankets and cool vintage cars like a rare 1959 Fiat Abarth Spyder.

Resident is a brand new music venture in a converted space in a couple’s apartment. And the Grand Central Market is another delicious must visit. A bustling symbol of downtown’s popularity, the historic market opened a century ago, but today its offerings are a mix of old-school and edgy, from the splendid gorditas at Roast to Go to the much-hyped Eggslut, every hipster’s favourite hangover breakfast place.

In this burgeoning artists’ community, creativity is waiting to be consumed in many ways, around every corner. 

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