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Southern California's Interconnected Art Ecosystem

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In partnership with the Otis School of Art and Design, Artbound presents a multimedia look at the Creative Economy with online articles and video segments culminating in a broadcast special.

On a cloudy and cool night in February, a motley group of artists, writers, and friends of gallerists Mieke Marple and Davida Nemeroff are huddled around a makeshift fire pit in the parking lot of Night Gallery. The gallery, in an industrial corner of downtown L.A. below the 10, is hosting a dinner to celebrate the opening reception of its latest show, a mixed media exhibition by Karl Haendel and sculptures by Jacob Yanes. The dinner, cooked by Haendel and Marple, uses the same ingredients -- split peas and wheatberries -- featured on the floor of the show.

The dinner is emblematic of a portion of L.A.'s art scene: laid-back, democratic, and bootstrapped. It's a stark contrast from the catered dinners hosted by more established galleries in Culver City and Hollywood. Yet these dinners, along with the opening receptions and exhibitions, are integral to what USC public policy professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett terms the "seemingly informal social world" of a city's cultural economy.

In some ways the show itself is almost beside the point -- the merchandising side of a retail business where no one pays retail. "Mounting shows is the most visible but also the most minor part of what we do," says Nemeroff. In fact, Los Angeles and Orange County's galleries are punching far above their weight when it comes to their economic impact. While Otis College's Report on the Creative Economy estimates the total number of gallery jobs to be just 1,000 total, the economic output is $93 million in 2013.


Most of the complicated work of galleries happens behind the scenes. While the exhibits are what draw visitors to the gallery, the role of the gallery extends beyond curation. "We sell work but also help artists strategize their career for the long term," explains Marple.

For galleries that means placing the work in the hands of the "right" collectors. Unlike just about any other commodity, the value of art isn't determined solely by supply and demand, or the cost of production and distribution. Rather, market value is impacted by who else is collecting the work of an artist. The implicit approval of a collector like L.A.-based philanthropist Eli Broad or Michael Ovitz can catapult the work of an emerging artist towards higher market prices.

While Broad and his peers focus on the higher end of the art market, there are newer tastemakers like Stefan Simchowitz shaking up L.A.'s art ecosystem. A perpetual lightning rod for controversy, Simchowitz is part of a new breed of collectors, focused on speculative (some may say predatory) investing in emerging or unknown artists.

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Not unlike a venture capitalist, Simchowitz funds work by newer or unknown artists, buys multiple pieces, and hopes to flip them once an artist's career begins to ascend. It's high risk and high reward but the model has worked for him before. He was an early collector of current art world darlings Oscar Murillo, Petra Cortright, and Kour Pour.

While Simchowitz isn't a gallery in the traditional sense of the world, he treads on their turf financing, buying, selling, and promoting artists. And he's not the only recent interloper. Beverly Hills talent agency UTA even announced a new division, UTA Fine Arts, to represent visual artists just as they do Hollywood film stars.

According to the firm's announcement, the division intends to help artists finance projects, get commissions, arrange corporate and institutional partnerships, and even get endorsement or merchandising deals. Perhaps most radically, whereas the artist and dealer split is typically 50/50, UTA plans to charge its standard 10 percent commission on projects.

Certainly the arrival of new nodes in L.A.'s complex and interconnected art ecosystem is spurred by an overheated and competitive marketplace. Over the past year, the major auction houses continue to hit new records in sales. "There is one quote-unquote art world triggered by news of auction results," says Bettina Korek, founder of independent arts organization For Your Art. "But that's not the only art world in Los Angeles."

Saskia Wilson-Brown
Saskia Wilson-Brown

In fact, it's the fluidity of L.A.'s art scene that continues to attract artists to the city. The city has historically lured artists here with promises of cheap real estate, good light, and open spaces. More critically, the stereotype of Los Angeles as a site for creative experimentation still rings true.

Korek says artists in L.A. "can create and choose their own path. More activities are more directly in their control. They have more agency for themselves." She cites the abundance of artist-run spaces such as Michol Hebron's recently opened Situation Room as one example, as well as the Women's Center for Creative Work, Laura Owen's 356 Mission and Saskia Wilson-Brown's Institute for Art and Olfaction. These are all artist-run alternative spaces focused on engaging the wider community. And to Korek, these spaces exemplify the idea that there isn't a singular, defined trajectory for artists.

That sense of freedom is what also kept artist Liz Glynn in Los Angeles after finishing her MFA at the California Institute of the Arts in 2008. Glynn, whose work has been shown at the Hammer Museum, LACMA and MOCA believes L.A. provides an environment that allows her to create ambitious projects outside the typical boundaries of institutional practices.

"Practically, it's also easier than New York because of the real estate situation," she says. That's become a common refrain from artists who have migrated from the east coast. In the past few years, there has been an influx of highly visible artists relocating to L.A., including Jordan Wolfson, Ryan Trecartin, Sam Falls, Gabriel Kuri, and Thomas Demand.

Liz Glynn in her studio with her ceramic copy (in progress) of the Salisbury Hoard | Photo: Sharon Mizota.
Liz Glynn in her studio with her ceramic copy (in progress) of the Salisbury Hoard | Photo: Sharon Mizota.   

It's not just artists that are moving to Los Angeles. While L.A. has long been an outpost for global gallery networks like Gagosian, only recently have smaller but highly influential enterprises made their way west. London and Berlin's Spruth Magers and New York's Maccarone are both planning to open new spaces in Los Angeles in 2015. Hauser & Wirth, with former MOCA curator Paul Schimmel are opening a massive 100,000 square foot multidisciplinary space in the Arts District. The gallery will also contain a bookstore, restaurant, and artist studios.

While the scale of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel is several orders of magnitude larger than a scrappy operation like Night Gallery, their intention is the same: become a hub for the art community in Los Angeles. "We're a place for dialogue, a gathering point," says Marple.

The 2014 Otis Report is available for download online at Otis' website. View it here.

Read previous installments of our "State of Creativity" Series:

What Is the Creative Economy?
The creative economy is a vibrant and vital force in Los Angeles. Artbound provides deeper engagement with the Otis Report on the Creative Economy through an editorial series exploring the roots and effects of creativity.

How Arts Education Fuels the Creative Economy
Education, particularly in the arts, will play a pivotal role in preparing students' creative capacities and sustaining a creative economy.

Apparel Design and the Fabric of the Creative Economy
There are more eyes on the L.A. fashion industry than ever before. The industry creates billions of dollars in labor income in L.A. and Orange County.

How Creative Placemaking Plays a Role in the Creative Economy
The concept of "creative placemaking," the integration of a community's artistic and cultural assets in community planning and revitalization, is gaining momentum in places like Boyle Heights.

How Art, Science, and Technology Interact in Southern California
Over the past few decades, artists and scientists have helped bring focus to the art-science-technology track of Southern California's present creative economy.

Artbound Special Episode "State of Creativity"
A special episode on the Otis Report on the Creative Economy.

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