Moving to Los Angeles from New York, an Inside Look at the Diverse Art Worlds
By Jenny Begun
There is a widespread notion that the Los Angeles art scene is still emerging. It seems that it has been emerging for decades. Lawrence Weschler in his biography of LA artist Robert Irwin said that the gallerist Irving Blum “after years of trying to nurture support system for art in Los Angeles … gave up in angry frustration in 1973.” Blum enthusiastically recalled his years with Ferus gallery, which were “imbued with a sense of the vigor of the time.” Simultaneously, he displayed “cynical disappointment at the failure of an important collecting scene to emerge there.”
With the seeming exception of mega-galleries and the main auction houses, the art world generally follows the movements of global financial markets. This was evident after the past several economic slowdowns when art sales became scarce for several years after each recession. Just like LA has not become a financial center since the days of Ferus Gallery, NY is still the champion in the area of collecting. And judging by the number of galleries in each city, NY still seems to be able to expand to accommodate the effervescent demand. However, if we are to talk about the art scene as opposed to art market, LA does not concede anything.
Before moving to LA six months ago, I worked with various galleries and art related enterprises in NY for seven years. Right off the plane, I immersed myself into LA’s seething art scene. There are many amazing creative talented people living and working here. The city has a great deal of galleries, large and small, art spaces, art colonies, art collectives, museums, private foundations, periodic art walks and art fairs. The list goes on.
Artists seem to love living here, even though LA is hardly the art market epicenter. Many have moved here from NY in the past decades and the exodus is not slowing down. The top reasons, I learned from polling these “defectors” and many LA natives, are ‘reasonable’ living costs, a slow enjoyable pace, and lots of affordable space for studios. Some of the inconveniences, that we all experience here, are the distances between small gallery clusters, mind-boggling traffic, and public transportation, which is clean and efficient, but very limited in its reach. It makes getting around a nightmare.
However, remoteness may also have its benefits. It contributes to the development of stronger connections between art spaces, artists and visitors. When one has to take a trip to visit a particular gallery, one tends to stay there for a while, talk to the staff about their artists, the artworks on view, or just discuss general topics. Such an exchange is what art business presumably is about: building rapport with art lovers, educating, offering tips on where to find further information on a subject, and sharing ideas. Everyone benefits.
In the few months of being here, I met a lot of people, in various creative fields, who have moved to LA from NY. The conversation among the “expats” often easily turns to the obvious negatives that are very pronounced in NY: high cost of living (especially the rent), an overcrowded and highly competitive environment, the fact that quality is being replaced by quantity, and the painful observation that gallery openings now seem to attract more and more people who come only for free food and alcohol.
However, there are other, more disturbing, trends. Such as, for example, NY art critics declaring that you have pretty bad taste, if you like a particular work of art. Sounds to me like a dictatorship and plain bullying. I want to quote here William Zinsser, who said about fiction writers, “…We have no right to tell them, ‘That’s wrong.’ We can only say, ‘It doesn’t work for me.’ To apply Zinsser’s sentiment about writing to art, “(art) is the expression of every person’s individuality, and we know what we like when it comes along.”
But the “Soup Nazis” of the art world are on a quest to make art exclusive. Exclusivity is artificially created and maintained to bait the moneyed buyers. The private circle even made up its private language, the “artspeak.” I doubt that the ultra-rich take time away from their solipsistic activities to read the pompous press releases and magazine reviews, but, those of us who do, we rarely can make any sense out of all of that. Though once you say that “the Emperor has no clothes,” you automatically get labeled as an outlier. If the current art market corruption irks “those outside the art world, who get irritated at things like incomprehensibility or money,” they should just accept that art is “not for everyone,” according to Jerry Saltz.
Thus, the general public is unwilling to voice an opinion. Too often I hear, “I love art, but I don’t know anything about it.” Nevertheless, every time I took these self-proclaimed philistines to see art, they always had something to say about it. They knew why they liked or disliked something, whether concepts made sense to them, and even had interesting suggestions about what could be done differently, visually, to communicate the artist’s message more effectively. That was, I think, because no one was there to tell them that their opinion showed their bad taste, or lack of education, or that they were not too savvy and liked the “wrong” artist.
One thing I noticed about LA, and perhaps this phenomenon is rooted in the distances between various areas, is a strong sense of local community. People tend to show interest in the work of others, support each other and thus shield each other from the indifference of the art market at large. Each art work finds its audience, however small. I’ve enjoyed many dinner conversations about exhibitions or artists with people of different professions outside of the art field. What animated me the most was their interest in artists’ ideas and understanding of the significance of art in our education and of its valuable role in the quality of our lives.
Support from people, for whom the artists create within smaller communities and to whom they sell mostly, is not as strong in cities overtaken by global markets and commerce. Collectors nowadays often buy art as an investment, not because they like the work personally. It is, of course, safer to buy work by someone who has been in the press and whose name is known. But that leads to insipid uniformity as many artists and gallerists, in their attempt to appeal to collectors and sell, proclaim that their art recalls the work of Basquiat or other big names of auction darlings.
My very good friend, artist Marion Di Quinzio, who often takes a day to travel with her husband to NY from Philadelphia to see new exhibitions, told me in February that when they visited galleries in Chelsea, it was as if every gallery shared a memo on what to show in a particular month: predominantly every exhibition featured an installation. A few days ago, her visit to Lower East Side galleries made her feel the same uninspired dullness upon seeing most of the galleries showing similar looking work and a lot of unimaginative still lifes. Maybe one still life was sold, and the memo got around?
These are signs of commercialization of the field and commodification of art. I am certain they are everywhere nowadays, but most prominent in NY as opposed to LA if only because of the city’s density. One doesn’t need a magnifying glass to see when everything is in focus on the surface of the current market bubble. Analysis of these obvious corruption markers often calls for contemplation for the reasons Why? I don’t think that there is anyone in particular who can be blamed for the current state of affairs in the art world. As it takes two to tango, it also takes a village to let things get this far out of hand. And it takes the same village to restore what is broken, to preserve innocence, purity, and beauty inherent to art creation, and also the intellectual, emotional, and human aspects of art collecting. People, who strive for that, live in both cities, LA and NY, and I am grateful that they make the art scenes on both coasts equally deserving of our support and attention.