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Bigger Canvas for L.A. Art : Current Gallery Scene More Vigorous Than Ever; Record Number of Openings Reported; Impact of Stock Market Plunge Still Uncertain

October 20, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

The Los Angeles area art gallery scene declared itself with unprecedented vigor when the fall season opened with a record number of new exhibitions--52 in one week.

It's too soon to tell if the plunge in the stock market will knock the steam out of the local gallery boom, but Los Angeles dealers are sharply attuned to the market vibrations. "I don't foresee (a crash)," said Peter Goulds, who has weathered previous recessions during 12 years as owner of L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice.

Goulds said he primarily represents artists and sells their work to people whose financial interests are diversified and do not buy art for its speculative value. "But I do think that people heavily involved with the resale market will be affected by this," he said. "There's a lot of funny money out there, and auction prices have become unbelievably inflated in the wake of recent publicity about art as investment."

"I think prices of tried-and-true artists may suffer," said Joni Gordon, owner of Newspace Gallery in Hollywood, "but I'm in a pretty good position" because of concentrating on "young, fresh talent" that sells at relatively low prices. "I do think a time of attrition is at hand" for the high end of the market, she added. "And it will probably affect art consultants (who often sell to corporations). If I were a bank president, I don't think I'd be building a company collection right now," she said, "but it's a wonderful time to buy the work of artists who are just getting established."

Exploding less than a year after the inauguration of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the County Museum of Art's Robert O. Anderson Building had brought worldwide attention to Los Angeles, the recent surge of new and enlarged galleries seemed to crystallize the city's growth as a contemporary art center.

As the season has progressed, the number of openings has dropped off to an average of about 25 per week, but that is a 10% increase over last year, when a proliferation of galleries was already obvious.

Numbers of galleries are up, and so is competition, according to Robert Halff, who began collecting art nearly 30 years ago. "What has changed is that you used to be able to take a painting home--whether it was a Francis Bacon or a Willem de Kooning--and think about it for a week or two. Now, if you are interested in something by a young, so-called hot artist, you have to make a quick decision," he said in a telephone interview.

Another sign of the times, according to Halff, is that a collector currently wanting to buy the work of an artist in demand must not only have a friendly relationship with the Los Angeles dealer who handles the work but also with the artist's New York dealer.

Successful artists and dealers try to "place" artworks in prestigious collections and to ensure that they will eventually be given to museums. Collectors can find themselves being interviewed by artists and dealers for the privilege of paying a five-, six- or seven-figure price tag.

"One artist has been to my house three times to see if he approves of my collection," Halff said. "Fortunately he does, but I'm still waiting for a (promised) painting."

Relatively few artists and galleries can afford to be so discriminating, however. The city still teems with artists struggling to find gallery representation and collectors to buy their work. With clients who may base their decisions on an emotional reaction, change their minds and pay off their accounts over long periods of time, the gallery business is notoriously difficult.

But the growth of the scene and its increasingly competitive flavor are undeniable.

Aficionados may argue about whether the art is better or worse than it was in sleepier times, whether artists are more interested in career moves than aesthetics and whether the machinations of the marketplace have taken the joy out of collecting, but everyone agrees that commercial galleries have proliferated and that the fine visual arts have heightened their visibility in Los Angeles.

This impression is backed up by numbers. A survey of listings and reviews in The Times over the past 25 years shows that the volume of art galleries and museums has increased fairly steadily, except for a slight dip during the early '70s. Averaged over the 25-year period, the growth of show spaces for visual art works out to an annual increase of around 10%.

More striking comparisons can be made. In the mid-'60s, a legendary boom time for Los Angeles galleries, these pages listed about 35 commercial galleries and provided critical coverage of about 25 of them. Today, The Times regularly reviews about 60 of the nearly 100 galleries listed weekly.

Trying to keep up with Southern California's current gallery scene is roughly equivalent to running a perpetual marathon. No sooner do you catch up with one cycle of exhibitions than you approach another round of openings, not to mention new galleries.

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