ART : A LACE Curtain Onto the World : Its new director wants the beleaguered arts space to be a place where people can experience ‘something different.’

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Brian Karl hit the ground running three months ago, when he arrived in Los Angeles as the new director of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. Leaving Harvestworks Media Arts, an artist resource center in New York, to direct the financially beleaguered, identity-challenged alternative arts space commonly known as LACE, he needed all the energy he could muster.

LACE--established in 1978 as an artists forum and exhibition space for cutting-edge visual, video and performance art--had a vigorous presence in the 1980s. But it declined into a state of near-death in the early 1990s, and relocating from a desolate, crime-infested downtown neighborhood to a tawdry section of Hollywood in 1994 did little to revive it. Meanwhile, moving expenses and a period of poor management--when grant monies were juggled to compensate for shrinking funds--escalated the organization’s long-standing debt to $160,000.

The board of directors got a grip on the institution’s finances after the January 1995 resignation of Gwen Darien, LACE’s last director. They whittled the debt to about $30,000, partly by digging into their own pockets, and reduced the annual operating budget from $350,000 to $250,000 by cutting staff and public hours. When Karl signed on with LACE, he got a stripped-down operation--and a daunting challenge.


So what has he accomplished?

Rushing into LACE’s gallery space after an early morning appointment, Karl is frazzled and suffering from the residue of a cold that laid him low the previous week. But he’s up for the question.

“The space looks better and feels better,” he says, looking around the gallery’s display of contemporary artworks. “We had several hundred people here for the last opening, and it was hard to get them to leave. And our performances have been fantastic.”

Continuing a mental checklist, he notes that trees have been trimmed in front of the building, at 6522 Hollywood Blvd., making LACE’s sign more visible.

“The neighborhood isn’t scary or undesirable, although there has been a long history of transients camping out in the neighborhood,” Karl says. While their proximity remains a deterrent for visitors, homeless people are less inclined to lodge near LACE’s entrances now that activities have increased. “It’s a sensitive issue, but they have learned that we regard this as our neighborhood too,” he says.

Financially, LACE isn’t out of the woods. “I’m not worried about next six months, but after that I will have to prove that we can keep the resources going,” he says. So far, LACE has depended mostly on funding from public agencies. Karl will look to add to the coffers with grants from private foundations, which are major supporters of alternative spaces in New York. He also hopes to increase membership, which has fallen to 300, partly because of a lack of solicitations and renewal notices.

And he’s building the staff. Working with operations manager Brian Moss, plus volunteers and student interns, Karl will hire an administrator, a development associate and someone to handle public relations.


“It’s amazing that the organization has been run as well as it has,” he says. “It’s been a little ad hoc.”

Further afield, Karl has been all over town, meeting artists, learning about other local arts organizations and facilities and promoting “a wider awareness of LACE.” Education and outreach are important for audience development but also as selling points to potential funders, he says.

Amid all this activity, Karl has developed a vision: “I want LACE to be a center of activity for people who are interested in art--a place [to go to] on its own, not just for a particular exhibition or activity. I want it to be a fun place, an interesting place where people can experience something different than they find at museums, galleries, movie theaters or pop music concerts.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s no accident.

“The old LACE was a center of activity, not just a gallery,” he recalls. “It was a significant hangout, a place where people bumped into each other at the bookstore and at different programs, a place to visit when you were in L.A.”

He would like to retrieve that spirit, but he knows all too well that several forces--including the lagging economy, shrinking support for the arts and the arrival of new galleries attuned to emerging artists--have made LACE’s role questionable.

“There has been a lot of disaffection with LACE from people who think it’s too inclusive or too insular or too elitist. That coupled with the relocation has created problems,” Karl says. “LACE needs to be redefined so that artists do come and see it as a resource for a fuller range of media. LACE needs to stay close to the community of artists it represents.”


Los Angeles native Karl graduated in 1984 from UCLA, where he majored in literature but also studied art with such prominent figures as Chris Burden and Vito Acconci and became an accomplished guitarist. Upon graduation, Karl headed for Boston to play in a band and work at a video lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Boston seemed too small after a year and a half, so he moved on to New York. Chatting with an assistant at the Kitchen, an alternative art space, he learned that someone was needed to answer the phone the next day, so he showed up for work and soon became involved with the video program.

Karl left the Kitchen in 1988 to direct Harvestworks, which offers an artist-in-residence program and a multimedia production facility, sponsors exhibitions and distributes artworks. During his tenure at Harvestworks, he joined the editorial board of Tellus Audio Series, an independent art-oriented label, and produced three CDs of new music and audio art works.

Traditional oil paintings, marbles and bronzes obviously are not his thing, but don’t call him a techno freak.

“I don’t want to be known as the music guy or the computer guy,” he says. “I’m not interested in any particular media or technology. What interests me is innovative use of whatever tools artists are involved with.”

And he believes that’s where LACE can hone its niche.

“The Bill Violas and Gary Hills of the world don’t need LACE,” he says of two renowned video artists whose work turns up in major museums. “But LACE can lead the way for the younger generation in a wide range of media.”

Although several local galleries have ventured into LACE’s territory, “there’s a lot of young talent out there,” he says. “LACE can be a home base, a trendsetter, and represent what artists are doing without regard to sales.”


As for the local-national-international content of programs, Karl says LACE is committed to showing art from Los Angeles but not just “the farm team.”

“I do believe we have to be a window on the world,” he says. “It’s stimulating to see regional art in a larger context. We need to be aware of the bigger picture.”

One change in the works is that the video screening room is being closed. Alternative arts spaces customarily present video art in an isolated viewing space, separate from exhibitions. Although that practice may provide an ideal environment for aficionados, it tends to scare off casual viewers--effectively limiting the audience and putting video in a ghetto, Karl contends. “I want to highlight it more. We will have special screenings and integrate it in the exhibition space.”

Karl is also giving a lot of thought to widespread shifts in the way people work, focusing on a project or a concept and communicating electronically rather than in a central work place. “We are fortunate to have a building, but it can be a burden,” he says. “I don’t want it to be a baby white elephant or a dinosaur.” To that end, he hopes LACE will form partnerships with other organizations and sponsor off-site projects.

The Hollywood location is problematic, but it has its rewards, he says: “We have the advantage of foot traffic, although we haven’t promoted it enough. Another thing I like is that there aren’t more cultural things here. People say, ‘It’s too bad you aren’t at Bergamot,’ but then we would be even more redundant,” he says, referring to the Santa Monica arts complex.

With his wife, artist Joey Morgan, and 2-year-old daughter Isabel Dakota joining him in L.A. this month, the city is starting to feel like home again.


“I’ve spent enough time here,” he says, “that when I’m driving down the street and the sun is shining, I feel connected.”


LOS ANGELES CONTEMPORARY EXHIBITIONS, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, between Highland Avenue and Cahuenga Boulevard. Hours: Wednesdays-Sundays, noon-5 p.m. Phone: (213) 957-1777.