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VISUAL ARTS : Sears Site Developers Show Intentions Are True by Giving Space to Artists

August 05, 1988|LEAH OLLMAN

You've got more than 12 acres of land, an urban tabula rasa, and you want to cook up a neighborhood from scratch. What do you throw in?

Well, the primary ingredient is people, so you build a few hundred town houses and apartments for them to live in. They need a place to shop, so you add a supermarket and a slew of specialty stores. They need a place to socialize and organize, so you build a community center, and you toss in a few restaurants to give them a place where they can relax and be catered to.

But once all the pieces are in place, what do you do to give the neighborhood flavor ? You invite artists and crafts people to make the place their home. You offer them specially designed lofts where they can work and live, and you welcome their presence in the community.

Believe it or not, it's true.

In perhaps the first development of its kind, housing made especially to accommodate the needs of artists will be included in the new "Uptown District," a $65 million project under construction on the former Sears site in Hillcrest.

Ted Odmark, whose Odmark Development Co. has joined forces with Oliver McMillan for the project, credits the community itself with the idea of artists' lofts. The developers have been meeting regularly with area planning groups and business associations since September to determine what should be included in the project.

"Concern arose about the homogeneous nature of the housing element," Odmark said. "Someone asked, 'Why isn't there room here for artists and craftsmen? Hillcrest has a real mix of people, and you're not accommodating that. You're making Yuppie-ville.' "

As a result of the round-table discussions, eight artists' units have been incorporated into the development. Each will measure about 1,100 square feet and occupy two floors above a ground-level commercial space.

What distinguishes the units from ordinary residences, of which there will be more than 300, is the amount of undefined space they contain, which can be handled individually by the tenant, Odmark said. Also, because they are zoned for commercial use, artists will be free to work and sell out of the same spot.

Odmark hopes that the presence of the arts will help make the neighborhood a vibrant, pedestrian-oriented place.

"It has to have the right emotional appeal, and that's hard to define in terms of bricks and mortar," he said. "What we've used as a model in our own minds is portions of San Francisco, places with charm and character, where mixed-use (development) has really worked."

The right mix of tenants will also be crucial to the development's success, Odmark said. Tenant profiles are just now being formed for the retail portions of the district, and residential profiles won't be decided upon for another three to four months. The Uptown District is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 1989.

The city, in choosing Odmark and McMillan over other developers bidding for the site, commended the team for its sensitivity to the community's needs. The plan to welcome artists to the neighborhood proves that quality to be genuine.

Keeping up with the Japanese has been enough of a challenge for American manufacturers of cars and electronics. Now department store owners are revealing that they, too, have something to learn from their counterparts across the sea.

In addition to the usual selection of clothing, cosmetics and housewares, more than a dozen major department stores in Tokyo also house art galleries. These feature top-notch shows of both traditional and modern art and crafts, and often play host to important international traveling exhibitions.

This summer, the Bullock's department store in Mission Valley gets into the act with the opening of its "Valley Art Gallery." It compares to its Japanese predecessors as favorably as a cold hamburger to a 30-course kaiseki banquet.

Tucked between the pillows and lamps on the store's ground floor, the gallery contains work by more than 20 local artists. "No Prints, All Originals," the invitation boasts, as if originality was simply a matter of technique.

Little in this dismal display of seascapes, cowboys and wildlife scenes possesses even the slightest spark of inspiration. Formulaic renditions abound, from saccharine beach scenes to painfully bland abstract works and mediocre ceramics.

Clearly, the gallery--whose director bills himself as a talent scout and gives his own work a prominent place in the show--values the functional over the credible. The work here promises only to do its job obediently, to hang over the family couch without challenging the guests or competing with the TV screen.

Bullock's wasted an opportunity to shine here by appealing only to the lowest common denominator of public taste. This in itself is hardly remarkable, however, since even much better potential lies dormant all around us in compromised architectural commissions and rejected public art proposals.

But the situation also contains a twist of irony. By showing art alongside mattresses and towels, the organizers of the Bullock's gallery take for granted the notion that art is a commodity, bought and sold like any other.

It is this very notion that many of today's hottest young artists have established careers upon by preaching as revelation. Art's legendary mystique, they sneer, is simply a strategy of the market. None of them, however, has been willing to shed that precious aura to sell in shopping centers.

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