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Downtown--is The Lease Up On A Dream?

September 01, 1985|WILLIAM WILSON

For some five years downtown L.A. has developed patchily as a cradle of new art, a nouveau SoHo, a yankee Montmartre. Things seem to blossom apace, but there are distressing signs of a dream eroding.

As noted last week in these columns, the good news remains bracing. The Museum of Contemporary Art is chugging along in its informally grand Temporary Contemporary quarters while Arata Isozaki's intriguing permanent building takes palpable shape amid the California Plaza redevelopment on Bunker Hill. Wonderful.

The Japanese American and Cultural and Community Center presents exhibitions and provides a handsome oasis for Little Tokyo with its plaza by Isamu Noguchi. There is art to be seen in the towers of Security Pacific, ARCO, Wells Fargo and Crocker Center representing such important names as Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero and our own Robert Graham. Splendid.

Much of the credit for these cultural amenities can be traced to the city's rule that developers use 1% of their costs to purchase art or comparable appurtenances such as the MOCA building.

Recently, the administering Community Redevelopment Agency adopted a plan retooling the rule. Revised, it will raise more money divided more liberally, with 60% continuing to go for on-site artworks. The rest will funnel into a trust fund split to fuel a biennial Downtown Arts Festival and other activities such as performing and visual arts projects and the cost of buildings and maintenance. The plan was applauded by merchants and culturati, artists and dilettanti alike. It all seems so liberal, enlightened, benign and logical. Who could object?

A plan like this can only enhance art's assured role downtown. At the same time the urban art-watcher is troubled by nagging anxieties. Some are amorphous and philosophical; others are immediate and tangible.

An incipient downtown art boom imposed the idea of itself in a purely informal and casual way. One kept hearing that young artists were no longer searching for studio space in gentrified Venice but were braving the wilds of the industrial district east of Spring Street, where they found spacious lofts on the cheap. There they set to living and creating despite discomfort, inconvenience and violation of zoning laws.

The trend took on a public face when art dealers whiffed the wave of the future and located galleries downtown. By 1981 it was possible to report that there were more than 20 art showplaces of one kind or another. Among the commercial galleries the most professional and aesthetically interesting were undoubtedly Cirrus, Ovsey, Riko Mizuno, Stella Polaris, Adrian Simard, Simon Lowinsky and Kirk De Gooyer galleries.

Today it is rather sobering to contemplate the fact that all but two have either gone belly-up or relocated outside the area, as have such entry-level outposts as the Oranges and Sardines, Downtown and Traction galleries. Of the remaining two--Ovsey and Cirrus--Ovsey is contemplating a move because its lease is up. Gallery partner Alice Ovsey admits they have been searching outside downtown parameters.

"If we move it's not because we are down on downtown," she said. "The area has been good to us. We have never had a drop in sales but it is no longer possible to find good, secure lease agreements here. The area is less and less commercial and more taken over by artists co-op galleries and nonprofit institutions. Private people can't compete with all the government and city loans and grants they are getting. There is not the influx of either new galleries or artists we expected. There is a higher proportion of arts-related people like architects and commercial photographers taking over loft spaces. It's a kind of gentrification forcing some artists further south and east. There is another kind of attrition where the more successful artists are moving to New York. Judy Simonian who showed with us has just moved back there."

Jean Milant, director of Cirrus, was among the first serious dealers to relocate downtown. His combination gallery and lithographic workshop now commands an entire industrial building on Alameda Street.

"I'm staying," he asserts firmly. "My business increases by 20% a year. I began by thinking this was a powerful potential center and I still believe it. But there is this ingrained negativity about downtown. L.A. is a fickle, faddish place. People make big noises about supporting a downtown art scene but it turns out they have big voices and small pocketbooks.

"This may just be a quiet period of weeding out over-optimistic galleries that opened with no backing and nothing to fall back on. It could all come back in three years. Or five. Anyway I am staying."

Two galleries that decided to decamp offer various reasons for shaking downtown dust from their heels but none of their reasons are as eloquent as their new addresses.

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