Brian Karl hit the ground running three months ago, when he arrived in Los Angeles as the new director of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. Leaving Harvestworks Media Arts, an artist resource center in New York, to direct the financially beleaguered, identity-challenged alternative arts space commonly known as LACE, he needed all the energy he could muster.
LACE--established in 1978 as an artists forum and exhibition space for cutting-edge visual, video and performance art--had a vigorous presence in the 1980s. But it declined into a state of near-death in the early 1990s, and relocating from a desolate, crime-infested downtown neighborhood to a tawdry section of Hollywood in 1994 did little to revive it. Meanwhile, moving expenses and a period of poor management--when grant monies were juggled to compensate for shrinking funds--escalated the organization's long-standing debt to $160,000.
The board of directors got a grip on the institution's finances after the January 1995 resignation of Gwen Darien, LACE's last director. They whittled the debt to about $30,000, partly by digging into their own pockets, and reduced the annual operating budget from $350,000 to $250,000 by cutting staff and public hours. When Karl signed on with LACE, he got a stripped-down operation--and a daunting challenge.
So what has he accomplished?
Rushing into LACE's gallery space after an early morning appointment, Karl is frazzled and suffering from the residue of a cold that laid him low the previous week. But he's up for the question.
"The space looks better and feels better," he says, looking around the gallery's display of contemporary artworks. "We had several hundred people here for the last opening, and it was hard to get them to leave. And our performances have been fantastic."
Continuing a mental checklist, he notes that trees have been trimmed in front of the building, at 6522 Hollywood Blvd., making LACE's sign more visible.
"The neighborhood isn't scary or undesirable, although there has been a long history of transients camping out in the neighborhood," Karl says. While their proximity remains a deterrent for visitors, homeless people are less inclined to lodge near LACE's entrances now that activities have increased. "It's a sensitive issue, but they have learned that we regard this as our neighborhood too," he says.
Financially, LACE isn't out of the woods. "I'm not worried about next six months, but after that I will have to prove that we can keep the resources going," he says. So far, LACE has depended mostly on funding from public agencies. Karl will look to add to the coffers with grants from private foundations, which are major supporters of alternative spaces in New York. He also hopes to increase membership, which has fallen to 300, partly because of a lack of solicitations and renewal notices.
And he's building the staff. Working with operations manager Brian Moss, plus volunteers and student interns, Karl will hire an administrator, a development associate and someone to handle public relations.
"It's amazing that the organization has been run as well as it has," he says. "It's been a little ad hoc."
Further afield, Karl has been all over town, meeting artists, learning about other local arts organizations and facilities and promoting "a wider awareness of LACE." Education and outreach are important for audience development but also as selling points to potential funders, he says.
Amid all this activity, Karl has developed a vision: "I want LACE to be a center of activity for people who are interested in art--a place [to go to] on its own, not just for a particular exhibition or activity. I want it to be a fun place, an interesting place where people can experience something different than they find at museums, galleries, movie theaters or pop music concerts."
If that sounds familiar, it's no accident.
"The old LACE was a center of activity, not just a gallery," he recalls. "It was a significant hangout, a place where people bumped into each other at the bookstore and at different programs, a place to visit when you were in L.A."
He would like to retrieve that spirit, but he knows all too well that several forces--including the lagging economy, shrinking support for the arts and the arrival of new galleries attuned to emerging artists--have made LACE's role questionable.
"There has been a lot of disaffection with LACE from people who think it's too inclusive or too insular or too elitist. That coupled with the relocation has created problems," Karl says. "LACE needs to be redefined so that artists do come and see it as a resource for a fuller range of media. LACE needs to stay close to the community of artists it represents."