One hundred and sixty years after the California Gold Rush lured thousands west with the promise of treasure, the droves are heading back to the Golden State. This time, though, the tools in their arsenals are not aluminium pans and wading pants, they are canvases and masters degrees in fine arts. “It’s explosive here,” says Jeff Poe, co-owner of the LA-based Blum & Poe gallery, who represents the likes of Takashi Murakami and Keith Tyson. “It’s an open-ended, international city where you can basically do anything you want.”
It’s precisely this air of freedom permeating the city that led to the January announcement that New York-based gallery owner and art dealer Jeffrey Deitch would become director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA). It’s the first time in the history of an American arts institution that a dealer has been placed at its helm. But if it were going to happen anywhere, muses Poe, California would be the place. The grand hope is that a maverick such as Deitch, who is also a Harvard MBA and former Citibank vice-president, can use his finesse and fundraising skills to pull MoCA up from the bootstraps and out of a dreadful 2008 that nearly saw it go belly-up.
Longing to make her mark outside a “static and closed” New York, former Whitney Biennial co-curator Shamim Momin headed west to launch the Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND). As the name implies, the non-profit, public art initiative has no official home, rather the entire city has become Momin’s playground. The first endeavour, Via, was launched three days ago and will hold numerous events throughout the year. From a Schindler house to three Videotrons normally used to screen advertisements on Sunset Boulevard— Momin displayed art and films from four Mexico-based artists. She equates the decision to choose LA as the site for her venture, “like that moment you know when an artist is ready to exhibit. It felt right. And I wanted a part of that.”
Lots of others want a part of it too. The blue chip, New York-based Matthew Marks Gallery has plans to open up a Los Angeles space at the end of 2010. And a slew of other New Yorkers have already marked their territory in one of the city’s newest arts district—Hollywood. In keeping with the neighbourhood’s seedy charm, these galleries, which include Michael Benevento and Eighth Veil, are located next to strip clubs, head shops and tattoo parlours.
This palpable upsurge lured 55 local and international galleries this past weekend for the first ever Art Los Angeles Contemporary art fair. Here on the second floor of the royal-blue, all-glass Pacific Design Center, small white cubes were erected in vacant spaces that were once showrooms for design companies. The whole event was small enough that a quick twirl took just a half hour. Compared to gargantuan fairs such as Art Basel Miami Beach, ALAC felt extremely intimate. And perhaps as a consequence of all the driving here –you simply can’t avoid it – gallerists seemed decidedly perky rather then groggy from nursing cataclysmic, daylong hangovers.
The city’s newfound promise enticed the likes of the Norway – based Standard (Oslo) gallery to get a booth at ALAC. “LA hasn’t been moulded,” says owner Eivind Furnesvik. “It has this infrastructure of infinite possibilities.” One of Furnesvik’s artists, Marius Engh, took photographs of Gulf Streams mid-air that were used by the CIA to transport terrorists. “I thought it would be fun to bring these to a city that can recognise private jets.”
Across the way was the Berlin-based Galerie Ben Kauffmann. At the centre of his booth was the German artist Bara’s concrete block pricked with pieces of white wood called “The two times ten feet of William Mulholland”. The clunky piece was an homage, according to Kauffmann, to the dam’s engineering miscalculations. It’s a long journey from Berlin but Kauffmann sees the connection between his hometown and LA as critical not just for business but emotionally. “Back in the day, if you wanted to avoid serving in the army you headed to Berlin. It’s the same in LA. If you want freedom this is the place to come.”