THE crowd for the opening at Lightbox gallery was pretty impressive, for what is still an emerging space in a new part of town. The reception for painter and collagist Stefan Hirsig's pop-influenced exhibition, "There Is Water at the Bottom of the Ocean," was full of established L.A. art figures whom gallerists love to see. In the milling crowd were artists Chris Wilder, Rachel Lachowicz, Charles Gaines and George Stoll, rock 'n' roll designer Henry Duarte, actress Marisa Tomei, war photographer David Butow, art dealer Dan Hug and Artillery magazine editor Tulsa Kinney.
It was a stormy Saturday night, and owner Kim Light seemed pleased at the turnout, achieving a kind of rock-star vibe herself in jeans and a leather shirt. Hirsig's work and her reputation are part of the draw, but finally, so is the location. She is among several high-profile art dealers to have settled an industrialized stretch of South La Cienega, technically in the city of Los Angeles, but across the street from a piece of Culver City now officially designated as the Culver City Art District.
Since 2003, when art world heavyweights Blum & Poe relocated to La Cienega, only a few doors down from what would become Lightbox, more than 30 galleries have moved to the district. Why here? For starters: lots of big, empty spaces and cheap rent, in a locale just off the Santa Monica Freeway and adjacent to wealthy Westside neighborhoods where art collectors live. But it was also the chance to remake an entire area, organically, just for visual art, bringing a vitality and commonality of experience the art world can claim as its own.
Or maybe it was just the chance to party.
"On opening nights, it's like Westwood in the '80s," said BLK/ MRKT Gallery co-owner Jana DesForges. "People have their wine and wander down the street. It gets packed."
Seemingly overnight, the district has achieved the kind of critical mass that makes it chic to be in, say, Berlin, and mention how you were just in Culver City. Two years ago they would have asked you where that was. Now they've heard it enough times to pretend they know.
"You can't not go here anymore," said Tim Blum, one half of Blum & Poe. "It's definitely entrenched. It's a real community being promoted extensively all over the world."
And there's a nice dividend: Locals are getting turned onto art. There's the collectors swinging by at all hours, the museum curators sniffing around, but plenty of the Saturday patrons are newbies -- people from the neighborhood, often out with their kids -- and they're not only gawking. They're buying.
Like a magnet
The spot on La Cienega that is now Mandrake has always been a bar -- a gay bar before this, a series of delightful dives -- but never exactly trendy.
At 10 on the night of Light's opening, Mandrake is packed with hipsters and pretty young things who've spilled out of now-closed galleries looking for somewhere to go. Artist Frances Stark and Dot Dot Dot design magazine's Stuart Bailey are DJing; artist DJs, in fact, are a staple of the place. Patrons huddle in intense tete-a-tetes. Crowds push past the bright blue bar and a Raymond Pettibon drawing that laments, "I thought California would be different," and into a large exhibition/happening room hung with a collection of tote bags from art events -- a show assembled by Drew Heitzler, one of Mandrake's three co-owners.
"Justin [Beal], Drew and I are all artists. That's our world," said co-owner Flora Wiegmann, who is married to Heitzler. "So we have myriad events that go on here. It ranges from a very formalized film series that's happening every other week for an entire year, to a knitting group or whatever."
Mandrake opened in September and has been integral to the area's expansion, and that's no accident. The bar "was to serve as a sort of anchor for the neighborhood," said Wiegmann, who, along with Heitzler, used to run a space around the corner on Comey Avenue called Champion Fine Art. "We just felt like the street needed a place where people could convene and take a break."
Blum and Jeff Poe agreed, and became the principal investors in the space. "It's a great neighborhood bar," Poe said.
It's doubtful Culver City's Art District would have happened at all without Blum and Poe. In January 2003, the two were looking to move their gallery from a smaller, 1,200-square-foot space on Broadway in Santa Monica and couldn't find the right place. Other areas, from Santa Monica to Chinatown, were too expensive, too establishment or had too much of an art student vibe. They even tried to buy a building in Chinatown, but the deal fell through. For "some weird reason," Blum said, they looked at a stretch of commercial buildings on La Cienega just south of the 10 freeway, totally removed from other established gallery areas.