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COVER STORY : Bergamot Is on the Fast Track : The former trolley station now offers galleries, a cafe and--soon--two Taper theater stages. It's the new arts center on the Westside. But will it endure?

August 27, 1995|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer. Times staff writer Don Shirley contributed to this story

Speed down the Santa Monica Freeway. Exit on Cloverfield. Drive north one block to Michigan Avenue. Turn east and continue to the end of the street. Proceed through the gate of the chain-link fence and grab a parking space.

You have arrived at Bergamot Station, Southern California's latest answer to an art scene perpetually in search of a center.

If the hub of the moment looks familiar--albeit rustic--it's not because it resembles clusters of galleries that have blossomed and faded in Los Angeles and Santa Monica during the last three decades. The model for Bergamot Station is closer to a shopping center--one of the few places that foster a sense of community in a region shaped by automobiles.

In most past attempts to create a cohesive art environment, the galleries have been scattered along city streets or throughout neighborhoods.

Monday night "Art Walks" brought crowds to La Cienega Boulevard in the 1960s, but the galleries eventually spread into a wider area of West Hollywood, where many prestigious showcases continue to operate. The founding of the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1979 sparked new gallery action downtown, only to die in the mid-1980s--the victim of rising rents and Westside collectors' reluctance to drive to scruffy areas. Dealer Jan Baum opened her building on La Brea Avenue in 1981, marking the arrival of another gallery row, which persists today but with fewer players. The next big move was to Santa Monica during the art market boom of the mid-1980s, but an exodus ensued in the early 1990s after the art market had crashed and the economy had soured.

Now there's Bergamot, where you can park your car once and take your choice of 20 art galleries--about double the number that formerly gathered along Santa Monica's Colorado Avenue--plus six architecture and design firms, a frame shop and a cafe.

And the concept seems to be working. Bergamot's opening celebration last Sept. 17 drew a crowd estimated at 20,000, and the abandoned trolley station has become a destination for the international art crowd. Recently revealed plans for the prestigious Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles' most prominent theater company, to establish a two-stage theater in a pair of vacant warehouses there have raised the professional profile of the project while sparking excitement about adding a first-rate performing arts component that will extend Bergamot's audience.

"I think Bergamot is wonderful," says Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, the Taper's parent company. "I love the atmosphere there--the openness, the unpretentiousness, the variety of the offerings there.

"When you go through the gates and see the whole space, it's pure California--an open space where people and art come together. Then, when you see the 26,000-square-foot warehouse space and the adjacent [8,000-square-foot] space, you say, 'Wow, this could be a theater of some originality and consequence.' Those warehouses say, 'Use me, use me.' "

The key factor in the Taper's planned expansion, Davidson says, is to "develop a sense of community space in Los Angeles."

"We tend to go to one place for one thing and to another place for another thing, except in movie malls and shopping centers," he says. "The promise of Bergamot is that not only are there art galleries, there's the possibility of involvement with music, film and television. Santa Monica is a very arts-friendly city, which makes it extraordinarily full of potential."

That potential is only beginning to be fulfilled, but Bergamot Station has come an astonishingly long way.

*

In the beginning, it was ridiculed as Wayne's World. And who could blame the detractors?

The complex was little more than a glint in contemporary art dealer Wayne Blank's eye. The 5.5-acre property he hoped to parlay into a thriving cultural center offered lots of space, ample parking and great freeway access, but it was hard-core ugly, the neighborhood was grim, and Bergamot's industrial buildings were little more than rusted hulks or leaky lean-tos.

The city of Santa Monica had bought the former trolley car station at the intersection of 26th Street and Olympic Boulevard for Metro Rail use in 1989. (Bergamot is the name of a flower, of the mint family, that flourished in the area.) City officials approached Blank about developing the site late in 1993, when transit plans didn't develop as expected. He had a city track record, having converted a vacant hangar at the Santa Monica Airport into artists' studios, but who knew if the city would make a long-term commitment to an arts center or yank the property out from under tenants after they had improved it?

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