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Fall Arts Preview

Something's happening in Culver City

Even Longtime Angelenos Are Surprised To Find Themselves In The Neighborhood As Galleries, Design Firms And Theaters Sprout Up.

September 19, 2004|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

They are neighbors here on Main Street, Culver City:

At 3850 Main is artist and architect Gregg Fleishman, creator of geometrical plywood constructions ranging from ergonomic chairs to structural scale models for geodesic buildings. Fleishman, a native Angeleno who has spent the better part of his 57 years in Culver City, has been working magic with birch wood at this address for more than 10 years.

Just a few doors away at 3830 Main is Cliff Benjamin, co-owner of the Western Project art gallery, a bright, airy space that opened less than a year ago. The gallery's most recent show, of work by Carole Caroompas and Tom Sanford, opened Saturday.

One Main Street business owner is a Culver City lifer, the other, new in town. But from their downtown vantage point, both Fleishman and Benjamin are aware that Culver City -- once known as an affordable bedroom community with movie industry connections and not much else -- is the L.A. area's newest haven for the visual and performing arts.

Benjamin, 49, formerly director of the Mark Moore Gallery at Santa Monica's Bergamot Station, has lived in Los Angeles since 1968 but acknowledges he was only vaguely aware of Culver City when he and Western Project co-owner Erin Kermanikian started looking for a place to open their own gallery.

"I was one of the first people to say, 'Oh, no one would ever come to Culver City," Benjamin admits. "I looked all over the city. I went from Chinatown to West Hollywood, from the beach to downtown. But then I drove up Washington Boulevard and ended up on Main Street and I said: 'Oh my God, this is it.' "

"It felt like Los Angeles 20, 25 years ago; it didn't feel congested," Benjamin continues. "The first time my partner and I came over here, walking down the street in the middle of summer, we said: 'This sort of feels like Palm Springs, it's so calm, and the streets are so wide.' " Benjamin also liked the idea of being near Culver City's internationally known landmark of weird science, the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

Possibly the best known Culver City arts venue is the 11-year-old Jazz Bakery, a nonprofit jazz theater in the Helms Bakery building. But with a recent influx of at least nine new or relocating contemporary art galleries, as well as the Nov. 7 opening of Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre, it's hard to deny that something new is happening when it comes to the arts.

Even the area's new Trader Joe's, open for less than a year on Culver Boulevard, has created a niche to display works by local artists. "We think it's pretty cool," says store employee Alex Calder.

In terms of economics, the rarefied world of high-end art galleries and the ever-struggling community of nonprofit performing arts institutions, such as the Douglas Theater, couldn't be more different.


Gallery owners say they are moving to the Culver City area to take advantage of the large, relatively inexpensive warehouse spaces the city provides; they say their well-heeled, international clientele will find them wherever they go.

By contrast, Culver City performing arts institutions like the Douglas -- or the 6-year-old Culver City Public Theatre, which provides free, outdoor performances during the summer at Dr. Paul Carlson Memorial Park -- are often more dependent on the cooperation and financial support of city government. With the aid of the city, Kirk and Ann Douglas, son Michael and other private donors, Center Theatre Group, a resident company of downtown L.A.'s Music Center, has spent $10 million to turn the old Culver Theater movie house into a 300-seat playhouse, including an upper-level classroom and rehearsal space. The "adaptive reuse" project was done by Culver City's Steven Ehrlich Architects.

Still, both gallery owners and performing arts proponents say that a certain synergy has developed in town that fosters the arts as a whole. "There is definitely a symbiosis there; one creates a buzz for the other," says Kellee Fritzal, economic development manager for the Culver City Redevelopment Agency.

Says Gordon Davidson, Center Theatre Group's artistic director-producer: "One of the most amazing things has been the cooperation and participation of both the Culver City Redevelopment Agency and the City Council; without their willingness to participate, this wouldn't have happened. Plus they put in considerable money themselves, from various sources and pockets, and that pleased Kirk and Ann Douglas; they didn't feel like they had to do it all themselves."

Davidson also likes the central location. "It is very accessible to what one might think our regular audience is -- Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Santa Monica -- but it also has Baldwin Hills and Ladera Heights on the other side; that automatically expands the diversity of the audience.

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