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ART

L.A.'s galleries reframe the recession

Art prices may be weakening, yet opportunities exist amid the challenges. Indeed, a surprising number of galleries have been able to grow.

By Suzanne Muchnic

July 26, 2009

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"Earthquakes, riots, fires," says art dealer Thomas Solomon, ticking off challenges of doing business in Los Angeles. And now a recession has deflated the international art market, sending auction prices into a downward spiral, shuttering galleries and squeezing collectors' confidence as well as their budgets.

Two weeks ago, against all odds, he opened a new gallery in a storefront in Chinatown. "I've been through these ups and downs," he says. "I'm not going away. Art is in my blood. This is what I do."


FOR THE RECORD:
L.A. galleries: In last Sunday's Arts & Books section, an article about how L.A. art galleries are faring in the recession implied that Anna Helwing closed her showcase because of the recession. She says she closed the gallery to raise a family. The article also misspelled her name as Ann. —



Sales have all but dried up for many L.A. area dealers, quite a few galleries have closed and others have downsized. But in a period of retrenchment and reshuffling, solidly established dealers are soldiering on with tightened belts, and a surprising number of galleries are growing, with the help of reduced rent. Unsettling as the current economic climate is, the expansions seem to confirm the resilience of L.A.'s art scene.

"It has been a tough time," says George Stern, a board member of the Art Dealers Assn. of California. "Clients sense that it's a buyer's market and rightly so. But I'm optimistic. Professional dealers who have been around for a long time seem to be weathering through this."

Some of them in expansive new digs. Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, a branch of a Blue Chip empire based in New York, is expanding its pristine space on Camden Drive. In a project led by Michael Palladino of Richard Meier's New York architecture firm, the gallery will double its size, to 11,600 square feet, expected to open in 2010.

Blum & Poe, a high end contemporary showcase that sparked Culver City's gallery boom in 2003, is gearing up for a major transformation in a two-story, 21,000-square-foot hulk of a building across La Cienega Boulevard from its current location. It's scheduled to open Oct. 2.

Among other developments in Culver City, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects is closing its space and moving four blocks west on Washington Boulevard to a much bigger building with a soaring ceiling. Cherry and Martin has doubled its size and increased its visibility at a new location that opened in April. Another Culver City newcomer, Roberts & Tilton, left its mid-Wilshire home for a bigger one, allowing the adjacent Acme gallery to grow.

L&M Arts, a major New York gallery, is also opening an outpost in Los Angeles, expected to open next year.

All this action doesn't mean the galleries are sailing through the recession unscathed. As veteran dealer Margo Leavin puts it: "This has been a big hit, a really big hit. There isn't an art institution that hasn't been affected."

Artscene, a monthly guide, lists more than 600 showcases in Los Angeles and adjacent communities, but dozens of galleries have moved or reorganized. At least 20 others have folded in the last year or so, including Ann Helwing, Lizabeth Oliveria and D.E.N. in Culver City; and Mary Goldman, Black Dragon, the Project and Mesler & Hug in Chinatown.

One casualty, Forum in West Hollywood, was a branch of a 48-year-old New York gallery. Most other losses were relatively young enterprises whose owners have moved on to other art projects.

Carl Berg, who closed his mid-Wilshire gallery in April, is doing business as Carl Berg Projects in a rent-free space in the Pacific Design Center. "I had partners who didn't want to risk any more in this economy," Berg says. "Rather than moving to a smaller place off the beaten track, I'm taking advantage of opportunities."

Choices to be made

Some expansions were in the works before the economy plummeted. Solomon, who is also part of a collaborative gallery in Chinatown called Cottage Home, signed his lease a month before the crash. Tim Blum and Jeff Poe bought their building more than a year ago. Vielmetter began scouting last summer.

"Then the recession came and I wasn't sure I really needed more space," Vielmetter says, "but the landlords were getting more and more reasonable, to the point that they are now extremely reasonable. And in the new space the landlord is doing a very substantial build-out for me. As ridiculous as it sounds, the only way for me to stay in Culver City and have the space I have always wanted was this recession."

She has made some tough decisions, though. A native of Germany who launched her first L.A. gallery in 2000, she opened Susanne Vielmetter Berlin Projects 2 1/2 years ago. But four of the six galleries in her German neighborhood closed amid a grim economy and, with her lease running out, she decided to shut down the Berlin operation this fall and bring the gallery director to Los Angeles.

"We will be looking for a new location in Berlin," Vielmetter says, "but we need to know where everybody else is going, and the economy has to pick up." In a way, she says, her temporary retreat from Berlin is "a positive thing. It will help me focus here."

That isn't easy in an art scene where the natural state of flux has been complicated by economic stress. Even long established dealers worry about cutting overhead. The green movement, substituting e-mail for the old-fashioned mode, has slashed printing and postage costs. Staffs have been trimmed, sometimes replaced by interns, and travel has been curtailed. Exhibitions may run longer than in the past. At Louis Stern Fine Arts, the West Hollywood gallery's trademark exhibition catalogs have been temporarily suspended.

Sandroni.Rey, a contemporary art gallery in Culver City, has slowed its exhibition program, but in January it will launch a nonprofit venture underwritten by an anonymous family foundation. Called Grant for New Projects, the organization will provide money for curators and emerging artists to produce projects.

Art values slide

Apart from public auctions, it is difficult to measure fluctuations of the art market, but the Wall Street Journal has estimatedthat contemporary art values have dropped by one-third this year.

Collectors continue to buy art in Los Angeles, dealers say. Some gallery owners are most successful at the high end of the market, but many potential buyers expect big discounts and set firm limits. For Louis Stern, the "reasonably priced" pieces that move cost less than $25,000. For Solomon, who watches for promising graduates of Southern California's art schools, $10,000 tends to be the cutoff point.

Distressing as the economic downturn is, many dealers say that their unwanted problems foster -- or force -- thinking creatively.

Here's Mary Leigh Cherry's philosophy: "I think you just get leaner and keep going for it. . . . You have to be smart and strategic, but you also have a chance to try different things. It's a time to not be so safe, because what do you have to lose?"

suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com