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Los Angeles Art Scene Comes Into Its Own
Monday, March 14, 2016
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LOS ANGELES — For art to flourish in a city, it helps to have well-off individuals and institutions with a desire to keep and exhibit it. Diverse, lively, colorful neighborhoods also come in handy, and if they have plenty of room for reasonably priced studio and gallery space, so much the better. 

You might not find Los Angeles near the top of a list of global art hotbeds, at least not yet. But it features all of these ingredients — plus nice weather — so there is growing appreciation of the cultural infrastructure, working environment and lifestyle of America’s second-largest city among artists, donors and collectors large and small. 

“Los Angeles is an incredibly important cultural city in the international context and within the United States,” said Noah Horowitz, director for the Americas for Art Basel. “There has been a huge amount of activity recently, a number of new galleries opening, important developments at museums. There’s a nice combination of cultural institutions focused on contemporary art in L.A.” 

Befitting a city noted for its car culture, oil has helped to foster the development of Big Art in Los Angeles. Three of its premier institutions — the Getty Center, Getty Villa and Hammer Museum — were founded on the eclectic private collections of petro-billionaires. A fourth, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is situated next to the La Brea Tar Pits, a dinosaur graveyard where the fossils keep fossil fuels bubbling up from the murky, viscous depths. 

Providing some geographical balance to those Westside facilities are the Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened downtown in 1983, and two new downtown venues: the Broad, a contemporary art museum founded by the billionaire industrialist Eli Broad, and the Mistake Room, billed as a billed as a hybrid between a museum and a gallery. 

These institutions have been joined lately by branches of large, international galleries. Most noteworthy, Sprueth Magers, which has spaces in London and Berlin, has opened near Lacma, and Hauser & Wirth, already in New York and Zurich, has teamed up with Paul Schimmel, a former MOCA curator, to open a gallery in an erstwhile flour mill downtown. 

Galleries are businesses, as well as cultural facilities, and if one recently reported transaction is anything to go by, there is plenty of business to be done with Los Angeles collectors. In what is believed to be the largest private art sale ever, Ken Griffin, founder of the Citadel hedge fund operation, was reported to have paid the Hollywood mogul David Geffen $500 million for two paintings, a De Kooning and a Pollock. 

Jeff Poe, co-owner of Blum & Poe, a gallery that opened in Santa Monica in 1994 and since 2003 has been in Culver City, an art enclave near Los Angeles International Airport, has seen Southern California rally as an art center a few times over the years, only for the flurry of interest to subside. He does not expect that to happen this time. “This one’s a little different because of the critical mass that’s happening,” he said. “It’s not just the galleries. It’s the Broad opening; that has created a lot of attention in the art world. The response to the Broad has been phenomenal. It’s a great collection and space.” 

The fact that the art world has become more diffuse has contributed to the ascendancy of Los Angeles as a cultural destination, Mr. Poe added. 

“The world is shifting,” he said. “It’s not just one place having all the energy, like New York or Paris or London. There’s no hot spot anymore; it’s all lukewarm, and I think Los Angeles is one of the warmest of those spots.” 

As strong as institutions have become in the city, Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer, finds it more useful to view developments from an alternative vantage point: bottom up. “What makes a city culturally exciting is not how many collectors, galleries or institutions there are,” she said. “It’s how many artists are working there. Artists create and energize an art scene. That has happened in this city over the last decade and a half." 

Since she took over in 1999, the Hammer has developed a reputation for showcasing the work of Los Angeles artists. Its “Made in L.A. 2016” exhibition opens June 12. 

One reason that there are so many artists in Los Angeles is that its cultural infrastructure sets the city up to produce more than its fair share of them, including highly regarded programs at the two main universities, U.C.L.A. and the University of Southern California, and at specialty schools like California Institute of the Arts. 

“There are incredibly strong art schools in Los Angeles,” Mr. Horowitz of Art Basel said. “They continue to be very vibrant places for teaching, criticism, studio practices. There’s a high level of support for art education.” 

Ms. Philbin first got to know the city around 20 years ago, when part of her job for the Drawing Center, an exhibition space in New York, entailed finding emerging artists. The “amazing group of art schools” in Los Angeles meant that there were many to find there, she said. 

While it was customary then for artists in the city, and elsewhere, to relocate to New York to try to kick-start their careers, “I started to notice that they were coming out of school and staying in Los Angeles,” Ms. Philbin recalled. “Artists started to realize that they couldn’t afford to move to New York, but they could afford great studios here and have a great lifestyle.” 

It wasn’t only the homegrown talent that figured that out. Just as so many in other walks of life have done, artists started migrating to California and they haven’t stopped. 

“All the millennials in the art world are moving from New York to Los Angeles,” said Suzanne Gyorgy, head of Citi Art Advisory, a service of Citigroup’s private bank. “There are a lot of mothers weeping on the East Coast.” 

One recent arrival is Michael Williams, a painter who left New York five months ago with his wife and two young children. 

“I moved out here mainly because I thought life would be easier raising children,” said Mr. Williams, who has a studio downtown and lives in Echo Park, a few miles west. “If you live in New York for a long time, there’s this sense that you can’t live anywhere else. In the first few months I had moments of extreme doubt, but at this point I’m starting to feel pretty content here.” 

He senses that he’s not alone. “In terms of the artist community out here, it seems more casual and laidback,” he said. “They’re not trying to make something happen here; they’re trying to work in peace. The art world is an international creature. My career is going well. At a certain point in your career, you can be anywhere.” 

Los Angeles has not taken as firm a hold on Jordan Wolfson, a sculptor and video artist who relocated from New York two and a half years ago to work on projects combining elements of film production and aerospace technology. 

“Being from New York and also traveling, I don’t feel like L.A. has culturally arrived yet,” said Mr. Wolfson, who is 35 and single. “It’s on its way but nowhere near where New York is. Art seems less important here than in London and New York.” 

He acknowledged that “the young-artist scene is thriving and it’s cheaper and easier to live” in Los Angeles, but he said he plans to move back to New York. 

Members of the Los Angeles art community probably wouldn’t quibble with “on its way but nowhere near where New York is.” Los Angeles, like many cities, is proud of its cultural heritage, but it also sees its comparative lack of history as an advantage. When there aren’t as many days behind you, it encourages you to believe that the best days lie ahead. 

“We’re really a young city culturally,” Ms. Philbin said. “There have been pockets of a thriving art world since the 1960s, so it’s not a new thing, but it has become a much bigger thing. What’s evident to people now is that it’s here to stay.”