Behind the story — how I came to write about Piero Golia's now-dismantled art speakeasy Chalet Hollywood:
When I first heard of the art speakeasy known as Chalet Hollywood, my initial reaction was an eyeroll. Operated out of a pair of small rooms at the rear of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), the space was part architectural installation, part art experience — a gathering site where chattering art types could, on occasion, take in a musical performance or mingle with a pair of aesthetically pleasing alpacas. My immediate thought: Does the art world really need another space in which to sip champagne? Aren't the infinite parties held alongside biennials and fairs in Basel, Miami and London enough?
My first visit didn't change this initial perception. I found clusters of fashionably dressed art types sitting around ... and sipping champagne. There was a magician doing card tricks, light cocktail party banter that I'd be hard-pressed to recall, and the sort of vibe common to so many art events, with people peering over shoulders to see who else was in the room. If this was indeed an art experience, then it could only be described as social practice for the Gagosian Gallery set. Indeed, the mega-dealer Larry Gagosian represents Piero Golia, the L.A. artist who conceived the Chalet Hollywood project.
But I had to admit that, over repeat visits, I was slowly captivated by the space. For one, it was simply a beautiful place to be. Designed by architect Edwin Chan, it had, as I wrote in the Sunday Calendar feature on the project, inky blue walls, geometric arrangements of white oak beams and one of the surreal aquarium environments produced by French conceptualist Pierre Huyghe. It's not entirely surprising that the Chalet will re-emerge in the fall as a museum installation at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.
On my second visit, Chalet Hollywood was more animated and relaxed. A piano player tinkered at the keys as I had a drawn-out conversation with a retired high school teacher about sculpture and fruit trees. It was someone's birthday. A cake materialized. A passer-by shoved a piece in my hand. I asked the man standing next to me whose birthday it was. His reply: "I have no idea. I just heard about this place from a friend."
The night wasn't transformative, but it made me reconsider my impression that this was just a space for art-world glitterati. Golia didn't turn anyone away. Being at the Chalet was quite enjoyable, with an easy sociability you don't find at most art events, which feel more like being in a coop with a lot of nervous chickens.
But it was the final evening of the 14-month project that provided the most interesting experience. For one, the Chalet was packed. Sardined into the space was a who's who of art world professionals. Among various museum directors in attendance were Michael Govan of the L.A. County Museum of Art, Jeremy Strick of the Nasher and Ann Goldstein formerly of Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum. There were non-art types too: a therapist, a contractor, an administrative assistant and the anonymous man who likened the space to a bathhouse: "It’s hot and everyone keeps on bumping into everyone else."
At one point, more than two dozen members of UCLA's marching band squeezed in and played a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." Later, the L.A. Ladies Choir sang, decked out in diaphanous vintage gowns.
Halfway through the evening, a roasted pig materialized on a mirrored tray — prepared by Tim Hollingsworth, chef at The Broad museum's upcoming restaurant. There were no forks in sight, so a pack of blow-dried ladies descended on the pig with their bare hands. It was like a scene from a Peter Greenaway movie.
In other words, it was all so absurd, it was charming. And I found myself giving in to this architected atmosphere of louche conviviality. (That's not the champagne speaking, either. I'm not much of a drinker.)
Still, Chalet Hollywood raised a couple of important questions.
First, was it worth the money — roughly half a million, as claimed by Golia? Certainly, I can think of a lot of other things that a half-mil could buy (such as a whole year's worth of actual art exhibitions that would be easily accessible to the broader public). But the money came primarily from private hands — not from LACE's nonprofit coffers, which makes it harder to criticize.
I would suggest, however, that Gagosian consider generously supporting LACE since one of his artists had the run of the organization's back rooms for a couple of years. Donations are tax deductible.
There is also the question of whether a small nonprofit such as LACE, with a history of doing edgy fare at low budgets, should have handed over its space to what was essentially a series of exclusive word-of-mouth gatherings.
I'd say, probably not — and certainly not for that long. Chalet Hollywood occupied two back rooms that had been used for storage at certain points in LACE's history at the site. But one of the rooms had been revamped into a small gallery and was used as a project space intermittently. (The other room stored the LACE archive, which was moved to another part of the space during the Chalet project.)
Who knows what projects went undone in the space during the time Chalet Hollywood was in operation. But at this point, I also think this is all water under the bridge. Between the time the Chalet was OKd and built, the organization saw one director leave, an interim director come and go, and a new director, Sarah Russin, take the reins. In looking at the lineup of upcoming exhibitions, which are politically and environmentally minded, I can be pretty certain that LACE's speakeasy days are behind it.
All that said, I will confess that I was a little bit seduced by the Chalet and I'm glad it existed. It's hard for me to judge how the project worked on the whole, since I only went to three events. But I have a soft spot for unhealthy obsessions — and the Chalet was certainly that: Golia's obsession with creating a face-to-face social space and Chan's obsession with architecturally reconceiving a pair of small rooms. The whole thing felt a little bit like a chemistry set, where people played elements, and Golia was the mad scientist putting them all together.
But above all, there's the memory of all those well-dressed ladies dismembering a pig with their hands. I won't forget that anytime soon.
Find me on the Twitters @cmonstah.