In Los Angeles, some of the high-end galleries seem to be moving to Hollywood, but the more ambitious alternative art spaces are setting up shop in the obscure reaches of downtown. Here, in a raw landscape of industrial castoffs, affordable warehouse spaces are abundant and the possibilities for what they could become are boundless. Last January, the trendsetting Night Gallery, which blends an artist-run sensibility with an art gallery's agenda, made a bold move by leaving their edgy Lincoln Heights strip mall space for an enormous building in the industrial area just south of the 10 freeway. Around the same time, Laura Owens' 356 S. Mission Road, a unique project that started as an artist's studio and exhibition hall but has evolved to encompass commercial and community interests, opened to some fanfare on downtown's eastern edge.
Now, another player has joined their ranks, making for a verifiable scene. François Ghebaly, who has operated small gallery spaces in Chinatown and Culver City, is leasing the 12,000-square-foot warehouse directly adjacent to Night Gallery's. Instead of going the route of Regen Projects and keeping the space entirely for himself, however, Ghebaly is sharing the lease with four other tenants: Fahrenheit, a new exhibition space and residency program developed by FLAX (France Los Angeles Exchange) and Martha Kirszenbaum; Brian Kennon's 2nd Cannons artists' book publishing project; Dorothée Perret's DoPe Press, which publishes Paris, LA magazine as well as artists' books and editions; and Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA), a media resource center developed by Human Resources co-founder Eric Kim with Hailey Loman. It is a dynamic mix of commercial and nonprofit enterprises, all sharing a commitment to supporting L.A.'s multifaceted art scene.
"The space is too big for just the gallery, so I decided to invite some friends to join me," Ghebaly said during a recent visit. After considering a variety of options, the group he settled on is a mix of "old partners in crime" like Kim and Kennon, with whom he shared a building in Chinatown during the run of his first gallery, and friends he's made in L.A.'s lively French expat community. Each project will have autonomy, but there will be room for exchange, dialogue and overlap. "We will have different visions existing in a mutually supportive ecosystem," Ghebaly enthused. "This would be impossible in any other neighborhood, maybe anywhere else in the world."
At 34, the French-born Ghebaly has called L.A. home for 14 years now. Having spent his formative years here, he has an obvious passion for what he calls "the true L.A. art scene." In 2009, he founded his first gallery in a small, tucked-away cul-de-sac in Chinatown, sharing a building with Human Resources, 2nd Cannons and artist-run initiative WPA. When the Chinatown scene fell apart in 2010, Ghebaly decided to make the move to Culver City, and found himself drawn to an awkward corner rental that used to be an auto repair shop. The erstwhile auto bays formed the sweeping downstairs exhibition space, while a tiny triangular upstairs unit provided offices and a project area.
"That space was great for artists to do one particular show, and that was it," Ghebaly says, referring to the location's highly specific dimensions and viewing angles, which elicited a grid environment from Channa Horwitz and an elaborate kinetic installation from Joel Kyack, among other projects. "I wanted my artists to develop and have more options. Plus, the gallery was growing and we needed a space that was more welcoming for visitors."
Ghebaly feels strongly that downtown is the most exciting place to be in L.A. right now, with new businesses popping up there all the time. "It used to be scary down here, but now we've got some of the best restaurants and coffee houses in the city. And you can still get superb spaces for good prices. My share of the lease comes out to the same price I was paying in Culver City, but now I have five times the space, or more." He and his staff actually moved into the warehouse last summer, and put on an initial exhibition of works by Neil Beloufa that was on view from September to November. For the last couple of months, they've been working on improving and restructuring the space with the help of architect François Perrin, carving out the niches that will be occupied by the various tenants.
Ghebaly's enterprise will take up the most room, with a large exhibition space and a smaller project room. Fahrenheit -- which plans to have an international exhibition, performance and screening program along with a French-focused residency for artists, curators and writers -- will occupy an office, an artist's studio and an exhibition space. LACA, which envisions itself as "a space to read, screen video and investigate material in the context of research, without attachment to an academic institution or museum," will include a reading room, a conference room and work spaces. Kennon and Perret will each have smaller offices that will serve as the base of their publishing operations; Kennon's office will also include a project space and a "quasi-functional bookshop." At the back of the warehouse will be a common area, including a small kitchen and a wood-paneled den, which Ghebaly affectionately refers to as The Lodge.
With his intense energy, Ghebaly seems to embody the daring, agile spirit that drives the downtown arts scene -- a spirit that demands the breakdown of old or typical ways of doing things. "Of course it's important to sell, but I didn't get into this business to do only that," Ghebaly asserts. "There is another responsibility, for galleries to do something more interesting, to engage with ideas."
Downtown also seems to be nurturing a sense of community that is absent in the other gallery hubs of Hollywood and Culver City. Over at 356 Mission, Owens and partner Wendy Yao (who opened the second iteration of her Ooga Booga store inside the space) have been creating a rigorous yet freewheeling program of art exhibitions, performances, panels, workshops, readings and screenings that engages with the surrounding neighborhood, which is home to many artists' studios. Ghebaly and the proprietors of Night Gallery (Mieke Marple and Davida Nemeroff), who are all longtime friends, have plans to tear down the fence that currently separates the two properties and create a large communal area, all the better to throw joint opening parties and other events.
The Mistake Room, Cesar Garcia's new internationally-focused contemporary art space, recently announced it will be moving into a warehouse at 1811 E. 20th Street, just around the corner from Ghebaly's complex.
The complex will have its official grand opening on January 31. Ghebaly will have a new exhibition by Joel Kyack on view, and will also present a performance by the artist. Fahrenheit will open its first group exhibition, featuring a mix of local and international artists. 2nd Cannons will open a show by Paris-based artist Victor Boullet. DoPe Press will debut issue no. 11 of Paris, LA along with a new edition by Elias Hansen. LACA will be doing their launch event in conjunction with the second annual LA Art Book Fair, taking place that same weekend. More details will be announced shortly.