If the plan worked, art dealers who moved their galleries to Bergamot would gain the desperately needed benefit of low rent--75 cents a square foot, less than half the going rate at the commercial locations they had been using, mostly in Hollywood and Santa Monica--but they would face the uncertainty of month-to-month leases. Signing onto the project required a considerable leap of faith, so believers were thought to be blind optimists, if not lunatics.
But now, even Blank's most persistent critics have to admit that he was onto something big. In a troubled economy and a conservative political climate that has devastated the arts community, Bergamot Station is a beacon of light. The collaborative venture, combining public and private resources with creative energy, has evolved as a viable alternative to more traditional arts enterprises.
Architect Frederick Fisher has converted many of the industrial buildings into functional art spaces, retaining what he calls their "down-and-dirty" look, while television writer-producer ("The Bob Newhart Show," "Alf") and art collector Tom Patchett has become the project's major benefactor--pumping more than $400,000 into improvements even as he has opened his own Track 16 Gallery for contemporary art and his vast holding of American collectibles.
The Taper's planned 350- and 99-seat theaters are expected to occupy two empty structures on a strip of private property adjacent to the city-owned land. Blank and Patchett bought part of the private property from American Appliance Co. several months ago. Escrow on the final parcel--including the two buildings to be converted to theaters and another warehouse--is scheduled to close Dec. 15. The addition of the entire strip of private property will increase Bergamot's original 5.5 acres to more than seven acres.
Los Angeles-based artist and philanthropist Hiro Yamagata has agreed to pay about $4.4 million for a package including the theater structures and a third warehouse, which he will use for related arts activities. Yamagata plans to lease the two theater buildings to the Center Theatre Group for $1 a year. The Taper is expected to spend at least $7 million to transform its two industrial structures into theaters. Most of the money will be raised by the Entertainment Council, a group of Taper supporters who work in the entertainment industry.
"It's going to take a lot of money, but it won't be more than a medium-budget movie costs, and [the theaters] will potentially have much more lasting value," says Sid Ganis, president of worldwide marketing for Columbia and TriStar studios, who heads the Entertainment Council.
Admittedly concerned about fund-raising, Davidson says that the donated buildings provide a big boost and that "the location brings potential funds that might not be accessible for the Music Center."
The Taper will retain its primary theater at the downtown Music Center, while using the Westside venue to complement its programming and expand its audience. Tentative plans call for developing new plays that might move to the Music Center, presenting educational programs and collaborating with film and television companies.
If all goes according to plan, the theaters will bring crowds to Bergamot at night, when the galleries are generally closed. Also in the works is an upscale restaurant, to be operated by well-known restaurateur Hans Rockenwagner and owned by Patchett, providing visitors with a stylish place to dine between afternoon gallery visits and evening theater sessions.
At present, however, Bergamot is still a work in progress with fledgling bamboo hedges, minimal signage and gaping holes where big projects are planned. But that hasn't stopped people from turning out in droves at special events there. An estimated 10,000 showed up July 14 at a reception for the L.A. International Biennial Invitational, making for shoulder-to-shoulder viewing in the galleries. A Museum of Contemporary Art fund-raiser Aug. 12 attracted 1,200 celebrants.
"Bergamot Station is a high-class CityWalk. It's fun," says Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, a collector of contemporary art who keeps a close watch on the art scene. "Its primary purpose is galleries for serious art-lookers, but people love to go there. The evening events are incredibly successful."
Parties rarely lead to sales of artworks, but dealers who operate galleries on the premises say they do more business and see more of the professional art crowd than in previous locations.
"Everyone comes here--critics, collectors, curators, artists, students," says veteran dealer Patricia Faure, who closed her West Hollywood gallery last year and chose a space at the east end of the Bergamot complex where she could add a walled patio to display sculpture. "In all the years I've been in business, since 1972, I've never seen so many serious art people from all over the world."