Explore L.A.’s Dynamic Art World as It Takes Center Stage

By Janelle Zara

In Los Angeles, where the landscape shifts from sandy beaches to concrete grids to tranquil residential hillsides, the geography of the art world similarly forms its own ecologies. If you were to drive from west to east, you’ll notice how Santa Monica Boulevard shifts through the glossy shop windows of Gagosian’s Beverly Hills into the more colorful environs of M+B and Matthew Marks’s West Hollywood, then into the grittier, potholed streets of Regen Projects’ Hollywood. Farther east still, after Santa Monica convenes with Sunset and then eventually dissolves as it reaches Chinatown, there are artist-run galleries of all kinds, occupying old warehouses, living rooms, and elevators. And in the Arts District, on the eastern edge of Downtown, there’s the big new kid on the block, Hauser & Wirth.

Driving from Gagosian to Hauser & Wirth, however, is a terrible idea. Consistently, the most common mistake of the uninitiated is trying to do too much at once, not taking distance or rush hour into account and inevitably losing hours on the freeway, sitting bumper to bumper. The pros know that gallery-going in L.A. is a strategic endeavor, and here, AD offers a rough geographic guide to navigating the terrain in time for a spate of fairs opening in city next week: Art Los Angeles Contemporary (ALAC), which celebrates its tenth year, plus the debuts of London’s Frieze, New York’s SPRING/BREAK, and the local newcomer Felix. Our guide is an easy-to-follow and deliberately oversimplified lay of the land that inevitably omits many great destinations, because similar to the layout of the city itself, there’s too much ground to cover all at once. (And it goes without saying: The Hammer, LACMA, and MOCA are all absolute musts.)

The West Side

a painting of a woman holding a snake
Kehine Wiley’s 2017 Portrait of Wangechi Mutu, Mamiwata, is one of the works in the UTA Artist Space exhibition “Dreamweavers,” on view February 13 through April 13. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo by Max Yawney. Courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York.

Historically, according to ALAC founder Tim Fleming, L.A.’s big-time art collectors have been concentrated on the West Side, which is why his fair takes place annually in the Barker Hangar of the Santa Monica airport. From there, it’s easy to head to Bergamot Station, a Santa Monica 40-gallery cluster that was founded in the ’90s, or Beverly Hills, where Gagosian, purveyor of Jeff Koons and his blue-chip ilk, is just steps away from Neiman Marcus and Rodeo Drive. (Celebrity sightings at openings are not uncommon, especially during Oscars season.) During Frieze, neighborhood newcomer UTA Artist Space, the contemporary art arm of the Hollywood talent agency, presents the surrealist “Dreamweavers,” a group show of prominent black artists co-presented by music mogul and philanthropist Swizz Beatz.

Just a bit south, Blum & Poe left its home in Santa Monica in 2003 in favor of the cheap real estate of disused warehouses in Culver City, where the easy access to the 10 freeway still kept their collectors within arm’s reach. Susanne Vielmetter arrived soon after as a second anchor, and today a former industrial stretch of La Cienega Boulevard is now a surprisingly walkable row of midsize galleries, including Honor Fraser, Luis de Jesus, and Anat Ebgi, the latter of which has a gorgeous show of Faith Wilding paintings on through March 9.


a building covered in black words
Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (It), 2018, on the façade of LAXART, which has been mistaken for a pawn shop since her work was installed.Photo by Ruben Diaz. Courtesy of LAXART.

Overduin & Co cofounder Lisa Overduin told The New York Times that she opened her gallery on Sunset Boulevard “because we did not want to be near any other galleries” in 2009, back when art was concentrated mainly in Santa Monica or Chinatown. By 2012, changes were afoot. That’s when Regen Projects, home of Matthew Barney, Catherine Opie, and other superstars, opened its gleaming white, 20,000-square-foot gallery a few blocks south. Now its corner of Santa Monica and Highland is the center of an art hub that has Gavlak, Steve Turner, Various Small Fires, and Shulamit Nazarian within semi-comfortable walking distance, with the very recent additions of New York gallerists Tanya Bonakdar and Jeffrey Deitch

Neighborhood gallerist Michael Kohn (who’s currently showing Guadalajara, Mexico, artist Gonzalo Lebrija) has pointed to rising real estate prices in the area as signs of rapid gentrification, but a work by Barbara Kruger on the façade of nearby nonprofit space LAXART pays homage to the neighborhood’s original commercial trades. Giant letters read, “OWN IT. STEAL IT. LOAN IT. KISS IT,” nodding to the pawn shops and sex workers that came before it.

The East Side

a white gallery space with brightly colored paintings on the walls
An installation view of “Zhou Yilun: Ornament and Crime,” on view at Nicodim Gallery through February 17.Photo: Courtesy of Nicodim Gallery

Downtown is a blanket term that covers the highrises of actual Downtown, Chinatown, the Arts District, and Boyle Heights, and to navigate them, you still need a car. Conveniently, from February 15 through 17, the New York art fair SPRING/BREAK makes its L.A. debut in the stalls of what used to be a downtown industrial fruit market, bringing the scrappy artist-run spaces that pop up in odd corners of the city under one roof.

“There’s a lot of energy now in downtown,” according to Culver City gallerist Susanne Vielmetter, who’s opening a second, 11,000-square-foot gallery space in the newly rarified Arts District on February 16. Part of that energy has been the Arts District’s rapid real estate development, which includes the 2016 arrival of Swiss behemoth Hauser & Wirth, plus a number of expensive new coffee shops and concept stores. Galleries have come (and gone) to the area’s former warehouse spaces for the relatively affordable real estate, but not without fierce resistance from longtime residents. For better or worse, this region of the city is undergoing dramatic changes that reach beyond the art world.

The general trend has been an eastward migration, as seen when the Santa Monica Museum of Art left its longtime namesake home and reopened downtown in 2017 as the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. Predating that was The Box’s migration of its high-caliber roster from Chinatown to the Arts District in 2012. And further afield in the still-industrial zones, the nonprofit Mistake Room opened in 2014. Its neighbors are younger galleries and artist-run spaces whose openings operate like house parties, thanks in part to the number of young artists living on the East Side. There’s Elevator Mondays, where you can see art inside a freight elevator on Mondays (or by appointment), and Club Pro, which often feels like a nightclub. At larger galleries like Night, Ghebaly, and Nicodim, openings spill out into the driveway, likely alongside a taco truck and coolers full of beer cans. Farther north you can find a similar scene at Tin Flats in Frogtown, or in the suburbs at The Pit in Glendale.

Mid-City and Points South

a gallery with a projected image of a young boy
Installation view of “Time Is Running Out of Time: Experimental Film and Video from the L.A. Rebellion and Today” at Art + Practice. Photo: Joshua White

South Los Angeles has historically been the home of the city’s black neighborhoods, though periods of prosperity, tumult, and more recent demographic shifts have brought in a predominantly Latino population. In 2012 in Arlington Heights, the artist couple Karon Davis and the late Noah Davis cofounded The Underground Museum, joining a row of storefronts that served as home, studio, and exhibition space. In 2015, just before Noah Davis died of cancer, they had entered a partnership with MOCA that allowed them to curate shows using the museum’s collection. “That relationship has allowed works that might not come to that neighborhood to become much more accessible,” says California African American Museum Deputy Director Naima Keith. “It’s become a hub, almost a beacon that welcomes the community.” Farther south, in an Art Deco building in Leimert Park, Mark Bradford opened his Art + Practice campus in 2015 as both a youth social services center and an exhibition venue. The current exhibition “Time Is Running Out of Time,” runs through September, showcasing early video works by black artists and filmmakers.