Downtown Los Angeles places another big bet on the arts

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Downtown Los Angeles places another big bet on the arts
The Walt Disney Concert Hall, which opened in October of 2003, in downtown Los Angeles, in 2006. Performance venues and museums are betting on a critical mass to lure patrons. (J. Emilio Flores/The New York Times)

by Robin Pogrebin

LOS ANGELES, CA.- For decades the effort to revitalize downtown Los Angeles has been tied to arts projects, from the construction of the midcentury modern Music Center in 1964 to the addition of Frank Gehry’s soaring stainless steel Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003.

But the pandemic was tough on downtowns and cultural institutions around the country, and Los Angeles has been no exception.

Its downtown office vacancy rates climbed above 25%. Storefronts are empty. Homelessness and crime remain concerns. Many arts organizations have yet to recover their prepandemic audiences. And there have been vivid displays of the area’s thwarted ambitions: Graffiti artists covered three abandoned skyscrapers just before the Grammy Awards were held across the street at the Arena, and some lights on the acclaimed new Sixth Street Viaduct were doused after thieves stole the copper wire.

So it was a major vote of confidence in the area’s continuing promise when the Broad, the popular contemporary art museum that opened across the street from Disney Hall in 2015, announced last month that it was about to begin a $100 million expansion.

And it was very much a continuation of the vision of its founder, Eli Broad, the businessperson and philanthropist who played a key role in the effort to create a center of gravity in a famously spread-out city by transforming Grand Avenue into a cultural hub. Broad, who died in 2021, helped to establish the Museum of Contemporary Art and get Disney Hall built before opening the Broad to house his own art collection.

“As Eli said — and he said this when really almost no one agreed with him — downtown LA is the center and this region needs a cultural center,” said Joanne Heyler, the founding director and chief curator of the Broad. “He was right. At least our experience and our audience proves that point.”

The Broad — which offers free admission — says its attendance has recovered to prepandemic levels, as does the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which says it is once again averaging 89% attendance.

But other presenters have struggled. Last summer, Center Theater Group suspended productions at one of its three stages, the 736-seat Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center complex, citing financial woes.

“It’s no secret that many art institutions critical to the downtown Los Angeles arts ecology are continuing to face hardship,” Hilda L. Solis, the Los Angeles County supervisor who represents the Grand Avenue stretch of Bunker Hill and the nearby Arts District, said in an email. “But despite the setbacks, this field is resilient. Artists and organizations in the area are finding ways to pivot in an effort to reconnect with Angelenos.”

They are also working to lure audiences back downtown at a moment when office vacancy is up and hotel occupancy is down. “It feels a little hollowed out,” said Christopher Koelsch, the president and CEO of the Los Angeles Opera, adding that “it is much harder to sell our midweek performances than it used to be.”

The opera is projecting that attendance will reach 75% capacity this season, an improvement over the past few years but still down from the 83% attendance it had during the last full season before the pandemic.

Traffic congestion remains another hurdle to getting people to travel downtown, and some galleries and arts organization have been expanding into other areas to meet people where they are.

Galleries Hauser & Wirth and François Ghebaly, which have spaces downtown, both recently added locations in West Hollywood. And while the LA Dance Project is expanding its downtown studio and performance space, doubling its seating capacity, it also just entered an agreement to perform regularly at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

The galleries say that they are not giving up on downtown. “They both complement each other,” said Stacen Berg, partner and executive director of Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles, referring to her gallery’s two locations. “West Hollywood is a more trafficked area — we have people pop in multiple times to see one show. Downtown serves as a destination. They make their way to come to us.”

Ghebaly said he decided to open another space in West Hollywood to give collectors the convenience of “proximity shopping.”

“The ideal way of covering a city like Los Angeles is to have several locations,” he said. “These neighborhoods are essentially different cities, cultures, identities — like island states in Greece, only instead of being separated by seas, they’re separated by freeways.”

Dealers say downtown offers an unusual degree of physical space and creative freedom. “You simply cannot see these shows anywhere else in LA or in New York,” said dealer Susanne Vielmetter, who in 2019 expanded her downtown gallery and closed her Culver City location.

Hauser’s downtown space, a sprawling complex that includes a bookstore and the popular restaurant Manuela, says it drew 4,000 people to its recent opening for Jason Rhoades, Catherine Goodman and RETROaction (part two).

Young people who live and work in the Arts District contribute to a liveliness among galleries. “People go out downtown,” said Mara McCarthy, the founder of the Box gallery, which presents contemporary art and performances. “They will go see a show over there and get a beer down here and go get ramen.”

Grand Avenue remains a case study in progress and challenges. Some hope that the recently completed development Grand LA, across from Disney Hall — which was designed by Gehry and includes restaurants, shops, a hotel and residences — fulfills its promise. Just a few blocks away, the LA Grand Hotel is being used to house the homeless.

“Downtown is stalled,” said Richard Koshalek, a former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art who also led the committee that selected Gehry for Disney Hall. “There should be a commitment to a visionary plan.”

There have been signs of attention from government officials.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last month that his administration would push to expedite construction of a $2-billion, 7.6-acre residential and commercial development called Fourth & Central, which bills itself as “the New Gateway to DTLA.” Mayor Karen Bass of Los Angeles has continued to work to address the homeless crisis. And the City Council approved nearly $4 million to remove the graffiti on the abandoned skyscrapers and secure the buildings.

Mark Falcone, founder and CEO of Continuum Partners, which is developing Fourth & Central, said that “at the moment, there is the perception that there is more risk in LA and San Francisco than there was five years ago” but that he remains “very bullish” on downtown’s prospects.

“We believe cultural enterprises are the things that give a community more long-term resilience and stability than anything else,” he said.

Arts administrators are making plans too. The Mark Taper has begun to offer some programming again (a return of Alex Edelman’s one-man show and a Michael Feinstein concert) and plans to announce a new season that its artistic director, Snehal Desai, says will focus heavily on weekends to accommodate the weakness in weekday attendance.

“The pandemic accelerated some of the trends that were already going on,” said Rachel S. Moore, the Music Center’s president and CEO. “People are much more selective about what they’re seeing, but things that are super popular are super popular.”

The Broad recently hit the highest daily attendance in its history: 6,200 visitors on March 30. (By way of comparison, the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art said its attendance was 1,985 that day.) “There was a feeling in the beginning that downtown was in mothballs,” Heyler said. “We’ve emerged from that moment fully.”

In another promising development, the Colburn School for music and dance just broke ground on a Gehry-designed expansion to its downtown campus that will include a 1,000-seat concert hall.

“There is a need for a medium-size venue in the heart of the cultural district,” said Sel Kardan, the school’s CEO and president, adding that he hoped the stage would be used during the upcoming Olympics.

And the Los Angeles tourism board has focused its latest — and largest — ad campaign on art and culture. “Most people don’t know that Los Angeles is now home to the most museums and performing arts venues in the country,” said Adam Burke, the board’s president and CEO.

A few businesses have recently put down roots downtown, including ​​Spotify, which opened a sprawling new campus in the Arts District, and Warner Music Group, which moved into a new five-story building on Santa Fe Avenue. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, is planning to offer corporate memberships to try to leverage this new crop of executives, Anne Ellegood, the executive director, said, adding that the museum is “thinking a lot about what we can do to bring artists back to the neighborhood.

“Everyone in the cultural sector,” she said, “has to be thinking about how to ensure that artists stay in L.A.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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