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For Margo Leavin Gallery, changing tastes mean it's time to close

A shift in the art market away from the gallery show experience prompts Los Angeles art doyenne Margo Leavin to draw up an exit plan for her venerable shop.

August 15, 2012|By David Ng, Los Angeles Times
  • Wendy Brandow, left, and Margo Leavin are planning to close the Margo Leavin Gallery in West Hollywood.
Wendy Brandow, left, and Margo Leavin are planning to close the Margo Leavin… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

When John Baldessari was looking for an L.A. gallery to show his work 20 years ago, he narrowed his choice to three and ultimately chose Margo Leavin.

"I thought she would be around for a long time," he said. "And it turned out to be true."

For more than four decades, Leavin has occupied a prominent perch in the Los Angeles contemporary art scene. Her gallery, which opened in 1970, is one of the most enduring and recognizable in the city, with a roster of top-tier artists that includes Jeffrey Vallance, Alexis Smith and William Leavitt as well as Baldessari.

With hardly a flourish, the sun has begun to set on the gallery. The art doyenne said Tuesday that she will be closing it, though she will continue to operate as a dealer for a period after that.

"It feels like the right moment for change," said Leavin in an interview at the Robertson Boulevard gallery with her longtime business associate Wendy Brandow, who joined in 1976 and became a partner in 1989.

The gallery will remain open through Sept. 30, and then will be open by appointment only through next year. Leavin and Brandow said the decision to close was motivated in large part by shifts in the art market.

More collectors and consumers of art are moving away from the gallery show experience, they said, and toward alternative art spaces and the Internet.

"People are approaching art differently today. They're not seeking out the thoughtful, complete statement that artists make when they create gallery exhibitions," said Brandow. "The exhibitions have been such an important part of what we do, and they are no longer valued as much by the public."

Leavin said she feels that the increasing importance of international art fairs — with their emphasis on flash and publicity — is a particularly unwelcome development. "It's not the way we like to do business. To produce works for an art fair is just not what our artists do."

Leavin and Brandow said their decision wasn't due to financial reasons. They said they will continue to work together as business partners, but they are still deciding what projects they will take on after the gallery closes.

The Margo Leavin Gallery opened in December 1970 at what was then the studio of designer Tony Duquette. Leavin later expanded to adjacent buildings along the block, including a former post office, which has served as an exhibition space in the past.

The gallery's main building is a two-story renovated structure that features exhibition space, offices and art storage. Some of the other buildings Leavin owns on the block are rented out.

Artists who have worked with Leavin described her as a blend of serious professionalism and personal warmth.

"Margo is very serious and a very good businesswoman, but you could also go over there and have lunch and just talk," said Smith, who has been represented by the gallery since 1980.

Leavin said she doesn't like talking about her private life. A New York native, she currently lives in Hollywood.

Over four decades, she has accumulated many memories in the art business.

She recalled a time in 1975 when Andy Warhol visited the gallery for a show of his portraits titled "Mao, My Mother, and Other Friends." At one point, the collector Marcia Weisman went across the street to Safeway — which is now a Pavilions — to buy cans of tomato soup for the artist to autograph.

Recent exhibitions at the gallery include solo shows by Baldessari and Leavitt, which ran earlier this year. The current group exhibition, "Arctic Summer," has extended its run through Sept. 30 and will be the gallery's final show.

Leavin said she is not planning to sell the gallery and the other buildings. "We may rent out part of it," she said. "But we will maintain offices here."

Leavin said when she first opened the gallery, "there was a feeling that L.A. was a pioneer territory" for artists. These days, she is concerned about the effect of problems at the Museum of Contemporary Art — which has seen a shake-up in leadership — on the larger art scene.

"Museums need knowledgeable people and it's not happening at MOCA," she said.

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