YEAR IN REVIEW 1995 : ART NOTES : The Future Is Looking Pretty Good

Suzanne Muchnic is a Times staff writer

Two things became a little more clear in 1995: Los Angeles’ art scene has a history and it has a future.

Not bad for a city with a flaky image that’s as hard to shake as greasy dandruff.

With its fixation on novelty and its penchant for mobility, L.A. will probably always appear to be a here-today-gone-tomorrow kind of place. But if there isn’t a there there--in terms of a single cultural center that you can count on from one season to the next--there is a there here, there and yonder.


Despite inevitable moves and regrettable losses--the Lannan Foundation’s decision to stop collecting art and close its exhibition space was the biggest downer--this was an unusually good year for the visual arts. Local showcases have rarely looked stronger, even though they exist in an atmosphere clouded by uncertain public and private support and an agonizingly listless art market.

Consider the gallery scene. Two ultra-classy New York imports, PaceWildenstein and Larry Gagosian, registered a vote of confidence in Southern California and added cultural luster to Beverly Hills by opening elegant galleries there. And New York-based Sotheby’s auction house moved into larger quarters nearby. At the same time, long-established members of the home team dug in their heels and honed their operations to fit the realities of the 1990s.

For example, this year’s hot gallery center was Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, which marked its first birthday in September. Located on city-owned property that once served as a trolley station, the complex of contemporary art showplaces and related enterprises has shaped up as a popular destination for locals and the out-of-town art crowd. Although most of the tenants have simply moved their operations from other locations to take advantage of low rents and professional camaraderie, Bergamot has provided an illusion of new blood and a palpable jolt of energy.

Predictably, Bergamot’s success has attracted other galleries to the neighborhood, including veteran dealer Fred Hoffman’s new space, backed by artist-philanthropist Hiro Yamagata. Offering a museum-like program, the gallery opened in October with a show of George Segal’s photo sculptures.

What’s old also was a significant cause for celebration in 1995. Margo Leavin toasted her 25th year in business in October with a survey exhibition and catalog of her venerable gallery’s program. Concurrently, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art staged a major exhibition (through Jan. 14) in homage to Jean Milant, another gifted and dedicated veteran who has been publishing high-quality graphic art at his gallery and print workshop, Cirrus, for a quarter-century.

Only a bit younger than Leavin and Cirrus, Joni Gordon’s Newspace gallery on Melrose Avenue observed its 20th year in operation. So did Peter Goulds’ L.A. Louver, which consolidated its scattered galleries and offices earlier this year in a handsome, new three-story building in Venice. Another 20-year-old, the Fellows of Contemporary Art, a nonprofit group that initiates and sponsors exhibitions of California contemporary art at various museums, celebrated its anniversary by presenting Llyn Foulkes’ retrospective at the Laguna Art Museum (through Jan. 21).

Meanwhile, West Hollywood dealers who did not migrate to Santa Monica or observe significant birthdays raised their profiles by staging special exhibitions and hosting well-attended joint openings. The Melrose/Almont neighborhood, in particular, has acquired an unusual mix of attractions ranging from Regen Projects’ up-to-the-minute shows and Kohn Turner’s contemporary exhibitions, to ambitious presentations by specialists in earlier periods: Herbert Palmer, whose 32-year-old gallery often features mid-20th century art; Manny Silverman, an aficionado of American postwar material; Louis Stern, an Impressionist and modern art specialist who this year staged the only local show of Fernand Leger’s work in living memory; and George Stern, who concentrates on early California art.

At year’s end the dealers are voicing an edgy optimism, tempering pride in their achievements with worries and warnings.

“I hope the local community recognizes the kind of commitment you make and the risk you take to stay in business here, and that they support us--not only by following and collecting the art we show but by paying attention to our programs,” Goulds says. What’s needed is “a sense of urgency” to make Los Angeles a crucial stop on the international art circuit and that attitude begins at home, he contends. “What I hope for the future is that collectors here not only support our shows but give more freely to Los Angeles’ institutions.”

In museum circles, 1995 delivered both good and bad news. After nearly two years without a leader, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in June split its top job and appointed UCLA Vice Chancellor Andrea Rich as its first president. She took charge on Nov. 1, but the museum has yet to find a director to oversee curatorial affairs.

On the upside, LACMA received a $7-million gift from trustee Dorothy Collins Brown to build an amphitheater and make other improvements on parklands surrounding the Wilshire Boulevard institution. But a highly touted, preliminary agreement to lease space to Otis College of Art and Design in the museum’s vacant May Co. facility, announced in May, fell through in November. Citing insufficient parking and the high cost of renovating the historic former department store, the school’s leaders scrapped the May Co. plan and purchased a more modern building in Westchester.

While LACMA charts a new course with Rich at the helm, three other Southern California museums are steaming into the future with new directors--Duane King at the Southwest Museum, Robert Frankel at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Naomi Vine at the Laguna Art Museum. And a half-dozen institutions have completed or are engaged in ambitious building projects.

Among them, nothing looms as large as the $733-million Getty Center in Brentwood, the most prominent and promising symbol of Los Angeles’ cultural tomorrow. Scheduled to open in 1997, the Richard Meier-designed complex will house all the J. Paul Getty Trust’s programs, including a new museum.

On a smaller scale, the Craft and Folk Art Museum in May inaugurated its expanded home on Wilshire Boulevard. October previews of the Hebrew Union College Skirball Cultural Center offered a glimpse of a new complex in Sepulveda Pass that will open in April. The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego plans a May 1996 opening of its primary building in La Jolla, which is being transformed by architect Robert Venturi. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art expects to break ground early in 1996 for a 13,000-square-foot wing along State Street, and the Newport Harbor Art Museum has revived plans to expand next door, into the former Newport Beach Public Library.

L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art didn’t grow this year, but it appeared to--with the October reopening of its sorely missed Temporary Contemporary facility. The popular warehouse-like space had been closed for three years to accommodate a city construction project that never materialized. Presenting an installation of the museum’s permanent collection and “1965-1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art,” a massive survey of conceptual art (through Feb. 4), and planning a March 17 opening for another major exhibition, “Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945,” the TC is back in business. As for MOCA’s future, the museum’s trustees in October announced a $25-million capital campaign for endowment and programs, with $12.5 million of that sum already in hand.