It’s no secret that luxury providers—from real estate to fashion to food—have been severely hit in this economy. You might expect art galleries to be among these. Yet despite the gloomy economic forecast and the closure of several local art spaces, a wave of Los Angeles–based galleries are expanding, driven by real estate opportunities or by the completion of plans envisioned when the economy was still booming.
The attitude among many galleries is that with property prices and construction costs dropping significantly, it’s a good time to expand. Gallerist Michael Kohn, who nearly doubled the square footage of his eponymous gallery in Beverly Grove recently, summed up the mood of many: “There was a confluence of factors where either I do it now, or I may never do it.”
Susanne Vielmetter, who operates the Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects in Culver City, recently signed a lease for a new space on Washington Boulevard. She commissioned architect Peter Zellner to give her a place with higher ceilings and better natural light. “A year or two ago, we couldn’t find anything that was reasonably priced,” she said. Now, she claims, it’s much easier to negotiate advantageous terms with landlords. Zellner added that city permitting for this and other projects has been smoother than usual, probably because the slowdown has reduced the backlog for city administrators.
Major contemporary art gallery Blum & Poe, which kick-started the Culver City art scene with its Escher Gunewardena–designed gallery on La Cienega Boulevard in 2003, just opened a new 27,000-square-foot building across the street. The new gallery, designed by the same firm, features flexible ground floor exhibit spaces, an outdoor garden, private showing rooms upstairs, and even a small apartment for visiting artists.
Another arts heavyweight, Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, recently began plans for a major expansion overseen by Michael Palladino, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Richard Meier & Partners Architects. The expansion will double Gagosian’s square footage to 11,600 square feet, and is expected to open next year.
Others joining the parade include ACME gallery in Miracle Mile, which expanded last fall with a job overseen by Wayne Schlock at Blue Point Architecture + Interiors; and Roberts & Tilton, which just moved into a larger space—a former coffee-roasting factory rebuilt by Johnston Marklee.
Most galleries justify expansion as a competitive advantage during the recession by making them more attractive to artists, who need more room as their work grows in scale. Blum & Poe plans to add more up-and-coming artists to its roster, while Gagosian plans to exhibit artists for longer shows. Vielmetter plans to use her additional space for private showings.
Pressure for outdoor space is driving some expansions. Gagosian’s expansion will include a rooftop sculpture garden. “Outdoor space is what LA uniquely has to offer. When the opportunity to do a roof garden came up, how could we not?” said Deborah McLeod, gallery director at Gagosian. Even a smaller gallery, like the Chung King Project in Chinatown, is moving to a slightly larger space later this year, with a back patio that owner Francois Ghebaly will do himself. With a few exceptions, many galleries have adopted a do-it-yourself approach over hiring an architect, moving into a relatively raw space or a previously occupied gallery.
But some architects are getting the call. Zellner has worked on ten private commercial gallery commissions, half of which are in LA. The architect’s “less is more” design philosophy for galleries has proven popular, eschewing the high-end luxury retail spaces popular almost a decade ago for more raw, industrial spaces. Even Gagosian, known for its luxe aesthetic, is striving for a simpler design. “We wanted something less finished. It’s a bit of a surprise when you walk in,” said McLeod.
Not all galleries are expanding. In the past year, closings have included Carl Berg (who has since moved to a rent-free space in the Pacific Design Center without his former gallery partners), Bonelli Contemporary, David Patton, and Mesler & Hug, to name a few.
With such comings and goings, one question looms, said Zellner: “Is it a zero sum game?”