Local art's savior: sprawl

Times Staff Writer

LET us now give thanks for urban-suburban sprawl.

Usually cast in the harshest light, L.A. sprawl has at least one redeeming feature: It has been very good for art. The simple explanation is that Los Angeles is too big to gentrify. The amorphous spread, even oozing over L.A. County's borders into the deserts and southward, provides seemingly endless, reasonably affordable work space for artists.

Likewise, five lively and important gallery neighborhoods now flourish -- Chinatown/downtown, mid-Wilshire, Hollywood/West Hollywood, Culver City and Santa Monica -- with outposts in places like Echo Park and Pasadena. In 2006, the ballooning international art market went officially bonkers, with masterworks reportedly reselling for nine-figure prices and work by debut artists regularly fetching five-digit sums. Galleries paying 60 cents, rather than $60, per square foot function differently in a marketplace increasingly geared toward the manufacture of blue-chip reputations.

Here, in loosely chronological order, are 10 other events worth noting.

From Afghanistan to Indonesia, thousands of angry Muslims launched deadly protests because of the publication in Europe of incendiary cartoons about Muhammad. Not since 2003, after former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell showed the U.N. inflammatory renderings of supposed Iraqi mobile weapons labs, have so many people died following the display of crude drawings.

After Barry Munitz was forced to resign as president and chief executive of the Getty Trust, retired Art Institute of Chicago director James Wood was named the first art professional to lead the nation's richest art institution. The Getty got a second chance to make its matchless economic standing truly meaningful.

The first big decision made by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's new director was to signal that henceforth, art comes first at the expanding Wilshire Boulevard complex. Michael Govan changed the program for the planned 20,000-square-foot Resnick Grand Entrance Pavilion, relocating a restaurant and store and turning over the entry spaces to art.

With considerable skill, necessary verve, a couple of unfortunate glitches and an indispensable catalog for "Los Angeles 1955-1985: The Birth of an Art Capital," Paris' Centre Georges Pompidou became the second European museum to do what no American museum yet has: chronicle the astounding postwar history of L.A. art.

It wasn't just the frilly, lace-paper doily picture-frames that made "The Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America" so enchanting at the UCLA Hammer Museum -- although they certainly helped. It was the brash refresher course in the primacy of artists' initiatives that did the trick. The Societe Anonyme, Inc., founded by artists Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp in April 1920, was America's first museum of contemporary art (later absorbed into the Yale University Art Gallery, which toured this show). The two artists beat Washington, D.C., collector Duncan Phillips by nearly a year, and New York's Rockefellers, who founded the Museum of Modern Art, by almost a decade. Artists lead, the art world follows.

Britain recently released figures showing an average 83% rise in visits to museums that formerly charged admission. By announcing their abolition of general admission fees, three major American institutions -- the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art and that city's Walters Art Gallery -- embraced an exemplary mission of public service over profit-driven cultural tourism.

The great traveling survey of Robert Rauschenberg's 1950s hybrids of painting and sculpture, called Combines, came home to gloriously roost at its organizing institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art, proud holder of an unrivaled public collection of the artist's engrossing, hugely influential works.

Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson University announced the joint sale of Thomas Eakins' monumental 1875 "The Gross Clinic," arguably America's greatest 19th-century painting, to Washington's National Gallery and a not-yet-built Arkansas museum planned by a Wal-Mart heiress. "Foul!" squealed the local art establishment -- the same folks who are busily enabling destruction of America's greatest privately assembled Modern art collection, the nearby Barnes Foundation. The spectacle of rank hypocrisy is -- well, gross.

Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello returned to Italian authorities the celebrated Euphronios krater, a looted ancient vase acquired by an avaricious predecessor in 1972. Italy soon demanded one of the Getty Museum's greatest treasures -- the bronze statue of a Greek athlete -- brandishing a dubious legal claim. (The Getty refused.) The overreaching Italians, apparently emboldened by retrieving one of the Met's peerless prizes, ceded the moral high ground in ongoing Getty disputes.

An unprecedented show of medieval Byzantine paintings from St. Catherine's monastery in Egypt, "Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai" is a coup for the Getty Museum. The spiritually driven works recall a source Gustav Klimt used for his carnal 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, shown in an exquisite spring exhibition that was its own coup for LACMA.


The worst

New York's Whitney Biennial used to matter, which is how it got the moniker "the show you love to hate." Now that it matters mostly to the casual careerist, this year's installment -- DOA -- certified that the handle is but a vapid marketing slogan.



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