Walking down the nonlinear streets in Downtown’s Arts District, Traction Avenue looks about the same today as it did two weeks ago, but it’s changed a lot from how it looked last summer, when I first reported on the gentrification and development of the area.
Storefronts and tenants continue to shuffle—the retail space 12345 once occupied has sat empty with a “For Lease” sign in its window since August; District Gallery is gone; Traction Avenue Gallery closed down a few months back. And these are just a few recent examples, as more development gets started, finished, or stalled.
The Box, a gallery on Traction Avenue operated by Mara McCarthy, and MAMA Gallery on the other side of 4th Street are among the few galleries to point tourists to when they come to the Arts District area in search of, well, art.
Entrance to Art Share L.A. Photo: the author
Over at Art Share L.A., Executive Director Cheyanne Sauter is used to dealing with confused visitors looking for the Arts District while standing in the sizable 28,000-square-foot creative arts center, still the only low-income housing option in the AD.
“I just got off the phone with this housing department group,” she said, “They want to do a panel about affordable artist housing in the Arts District and other metropolis areas in Los Angeles, like Santa Ana, Long Beach, Hollywood, Venice, all of these hotspots where artists have been gentrified out.”
Their topic idea: why is it important to have artists living in those neighborhoods?
“My question to him was: which artists?” said Sauter. She went on:
Do you want the artists that we support at Art Share, the ones who are making 40K and under and scraping by, and their finances don't even come from their trade? Or are you talking about that one percent margin of artists who are killing it and are being represented by a gallery and making a sustainable living? Which artists are we talking about? Or are we talking about the graphic designer who only needs a 300-400 square foot apartment and just works all day on contract work for other clients? Like, what do you mean, what's an artist?
The man on the phone was from the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing (SCANPH) and pretty much had no answer, but instead decided to alter the panel discussion topic to include these economic nuances.
“I feel like once we figure out what class of artist everyone is fighting for, then we can really see who’s got to join the game. Because if it's a developer, he wants the millionaire artist,” Sauter said. “I feel like the definition of artist needs to be truly figured out.”
“Some days I come to work and I think: how much more change can happen? How many more buildings can be turned over and purchased above this $20 million mark?”
The stakes are real for Sauter. Located just a few steps from the decided heart of the Arts District, Art Share, founded in 1997, is surrounded by constant development and construction.
“The building right next door to us is in escrow right now in the $20 million range,” she said, adding that its intended use will be for “creative office space,” a concept seen more and more around the so-called “cultural hub” of the city. The rapid development across Los Angeles has been exacerbated by the city’s affordable housing shortage and propelled by developer-friendly Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has promised 100,000 more homes by 2021, and City Councilman Jose Huizar, whose District 14 encompasses such gentrifying Eastside communities as Downtown, Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Northeast LA.
View of construction surrounding Art Share, shot from behind the building at 4th Street, the center divider of the 50-square-block Arts District. Photo: the author
“Outside the doors the past six months have been so overwhelming,” said Sauter, who sat down at her desk in an offshoot of the gallery on the multi-use space’s main level. “Some days I come to work and I think: how much more change can happen? How many more buildings can be turned over and purchased above this $20 million mark?”
While the neighborhood around it continues to evolve, inside its doors, Art Share stays true to their mission to preserve art in the AD and support artists, providing them with access to work, exhibition, and performance spaces. Rather than “keeping up with the Joneses,” and attempting to cater to a new population entering the scene, Sauter hopes to find a balance in her established, but changing, community.
Enter Hauser Wirth & Schimmel
The Joneses officially arrived on March 13, when mega-gallery Hauser Wirth & Schimmel opened its breezeway to the public for the first time.
Perched from a winding staircase just days before unveiling Hauser Wirth & Schimmel to the public, Partner and Vice President Paul Schimmel addressed members of the press, following words from Founder Iwan Wirth, and before introducing his co-curator in their debut exhibition, Jenni Sorkin. First among his remarks, he thanked everyone for attending “the opening of the first arts center in the Arts District,” and acknowledged “this wonderfully changing area” wherein the occasion had brought them.
Paul Schimmel, Partner and Vice President Hauser Wirth & Schimmel. Photo: Daniel Trese
Schimmel moved to Los Angeles in 1981, the same year the city passed the Artist-in-Residence (AIR) Ordinance, allowing artists—some of whom were already living in the defunct industrial warehouse spaces located in the outskirts of Downtown—to live in their studios legally and for just pennies per square foot, as Arts District lore goes.
AIR laid the groundwork for the boom of development seen in today’s Arts District—Throughout the 80s and beyond, suitable warehouses became known as “artist lofts” and by the turn of the 21st century, the marketability of the neighborhood was practically pre-paved for developers to capitalize upon.
Another progressive zoning policy was passed in 1999. The Adaptive Reuse Ordinance (ARO) has become one of the most significant incentives related to historic preservation in Los Angeles, according to the Office of Historic Resources. It facilitates the conversion of dozens of historic, under-utilized, or abandoned office buildings into residences, and offers perks for developers who choose to work under these guidelines: an expedited approval process and the guarantee that older and historic buildings are not subjected to the same zoning and code requirements that apply to new construction. The ARO was applied first to Downtown (hence the buildup of the Historic Core by developers like Tom Gilmore circa 2000), until it was extended into other parts of the city in 2003, kicking off pockets of development and adding 7,300 new housing units across Los Angeles between 1999 and 2008, compared to just 4,300 in the 30 years prior to its passing.
Installation view including work by Louise Bourgeois, Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, 2016. Louise Bourgeois: Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York NY. Photo: Brian Forrest. Courtesy the artists and Hauser & Wirth
The first artist to join the newly minted Hauser Wirth & Schimmel was the estate of Louise Bourgeois, whose sculptures are now displayed on a curved island-like platform hovering in the center of the sky-lit, humidity-controlled, south gallery directly in front of where Schimmel gave his remarks. The former chief curator at Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, waxed a bit nostalgic when describing one of his first experiences after moving to LA:
I was at a party not far from here and I first met Mike Kelley, and I had come from New York, I looked around and I said, “oh my goodness, I'm…in the new Soho.” Well, Soho came and went, a lot of other cities did a lot of gentrification, and I guess, in some ways, Hauser and Wirth and I got lucky that it's been such a slow start.
Schimmel has seen a key shift in demographics over the last ten years toward young people who “want to walk, live, work, play and party, have cultural experiences all in [the same] neighborhood.”
Hauser Wirth & Schimmel indeed hopes to be a major part of the overall Arts District neighborhood experience: the restaurant Manuela (named after Manuela Wirth) is set to open summer 2016, followed by a public garden. A large open-air courtyard in the middle of it all is for sculpture as well as “quiet contemplation and informal gathering,” according to the founding partners; plus free Wi-Fi is always nice.
The gallery is nearly finished with construction and set on reaching this “cultural community” one way or another. According to Schimmel—who has been known to pay the occasional studio visit to local artists—reaching that community has been the model that has allowed them to expand the notion of what a gallery can be and its relationship to the public, to the viewer, to artists.
“It is our certainty that artists and collectors and people who care about art will come from all over the world and we hope to contribute to the richness of Los Angeles' growth and development,” said Schimmel.
Shinique Smith, Forgiving Strands, 2015–2016, Installation view in Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016,
Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, 2016. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joshua Targownik
Founded in Switzerland in 1992, Hauser & Wirth has spaces in Zurich, London, New York, Somerset, and now Los Angeles—“an expansive plan that has taken us almost 25 years, but Los Angeles was at the very beginning of our journey,” said Wirth, who spoke first at the press opening and gave a brief history of the global enterprise he built with Ursula Hauser and her daughter, who became his wife, Manuela Wirth.
Their six locations around the world include the second most recent addition: a sprawling 18th century rural farm compound in Somerset, England that has attracted over 200,000 visitors since its opening in summer 2014. “We very much think of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel as an urban counterpart to Somerset,” said Wirth.
“Los Angeles has had a very special place in our heart,” he explained, “Four of the founding artists of the gallery came from Los Angeles and it was no coincidence that we founded Hauser & Wirth when Paul Schimmel presented his MOCA exhibition, Helter Skelter the same year, [the work from which] we sold, and it was a revelation and it galvanized our ambition to one day work with the greatest of this city's artists and create a space here.”
Hauser & Wirth’s artists today include some Los Angeles-based favorites—Diana Thater, Paul McCarthy, Mark Bradford—and adding Schimmel to the Hauser & Wirth outpost helped the gallery win representation of Mike Kelley’s estate, despite Gagosian organizing shows of his work before his death in 2012. In a recent The Art Newspaper piece about international galleries moving to Los Angeles, Jori Finkel points out that two years ago, before Hauser Wirth & Schimmel became a permanent fixture in the area, artists like Bradford and McCarthy did not have gallery representation in Los Angeles. Finkel suggests that the move secured exclusive worldwide representation of Bradford and kept McCarthy from switching to another gallery at home (McCarthy also does projects at his daughter’s respected gallery on Traction Avenue, The Box).
Graffiti was kept intact on Hauser Wirth & Schimmel building facade. Photo: Joshua Targownik
Developing Creative Spaces
Of course, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel is first and foremost a commercial operation. Selling art is a necessary element of their longevity. One can only imagine what it cost to bring a factory (that at one point in its 100-year history produced cleaning products) up to code, not to mention keep it afloat. The 116,000-square-foot behemoth now amasses an entire block, connecting both East 2nd and East 3rd Streets via a covered breezeway entrance that measures the length of an American football field.
Hauser & Wirth has earned a reputation for repurposing old structures into new, architectural masterpieces with help from Annabelle Selldorf, of Selldorf Architects, whose firm has designed multiple projects for the family of gallerists. They also consulted facilitators Creative Space in the repurposing of the Arts District site, which is made up of a few once-disjointed 19th and 20th century heavy industry buildings that were left largely intact (and are now reinforced for another century of use).
Undated drawing of the Globe Grain & Milling Co. headquarters and warehouse, at 907 East 3rd Street in Los Angeles, now an arts district.
The complex is the location for the new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel gallery. Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
On its opening day, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel brought in 6,500 visitors, Tyler Stonebreaker of Creative Space told ArtSlant while standing in the east gallery, also called The Barn. He and business partner Evan Raabe were at the less-than-week-old gallery showing friends around the site their firm helped secure in the Arts District. Missing was Geoff Anenberg, an instrumental Partner at Creative Space, who has worked with Laura Owens and Michele Maccarone to help find their New York galleries spaces on Mission Road on the other side of the LA River in “Arts District adjacent” Boyle Heights.
Creative Space is a multi-dimensional firm: part architecture firm, part real estate broker, part landlord. Essentially a development management firm, the company is a facilitator that can help someone like Paul Schimmel execute his vision.
“I always laughed when developers the last few years found out Hauser & Wirth was coming and just went berserk trying to buy everything they could...”
According to Stonebreaker, Creative Space understands their neighborhood—they first got familiar with the AD in 2010 when Tyler Wells of Handsome Coffee (which became Blue Bottle, and is now Blacktop on East 3rd) needed help finding a space in what was then unchartered territory. Creative Space has since brought in such boutique operations like Zinc Cafe and Poketo, and soon Grupo Habita who will open a location for their new 60-70 room boutique hotel in an old three-story brick warehouse a block from Hauser Wirth & Schimmel.
“We just say this is a neighborhood [where] certain things make sense here, certain things don't,” said Stonebreaker, who believes development is supposed to serve its community, as opposed to converting it into an urban village of “progressive luxury fashion” and other nonessentials.
“I always laughed when developers the last few years found out Hauser & Wirth was coming and just went berserk trying to buy everything they could, thinking somehow that an art collector is going to translate into someone renting an apartment or buying some bullshit merchandise at the shopping center,” said Stonebreaker, who thinks those developers are building for an archetype of what they imagine the Arts District is.
The work Creative Space is doing in the AD is considered to be progressive at best, and exclusive at worst; the firm has been criticized by some for “curating” the neighborhood, in effect helping a once affordable area with ample cheap space develop into a million dollar neighborhood, and prompting a feeding frenzy of speculative developers who want to own property with the same zip code as Hauser Wirth & Schimmel and will pay top dollar, driving up land prices.
Gentrification and the Hybrid Industrial Live/Work Zone
Beyond what the global heavyweight gallery means for the LA art scene or how it might elevate Los Angeles out of its perceived art world inferiority as compared to New York or London, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel has been influencing the urban landscape of its new neighborhood since purchasing property just south of Downtown in 2014.
Community-focused and keen on adaptive-reuse, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel is an overall exciting addition to an area that is still full of people who identify as artists, maybe now more than ever. Dr. Dana Cuff, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA and Founder of cityLAB, which explores the challenges facing the contemporary metropolis, agrees that the gallery is a positive addition to the AD:
But because of the secondary effects that [the gallery] will have, which is to encourage further development, its impact on, say, low-income communities in the area will be seen as negative, so what's good for one group isn't necessarily good for the other. That's kind of the nature of city growth and change, and I think what we would try to do as a civil society is to make sure that those who are most disadvantaged are protected in some way and that's what we aren't doing very much of anymore. And maybe in some instances those are artists and in every instance it’s poor neighborhoods of color.
The bottom line in all of this is, of course, gentrification but this is a process as old as urban planning itself and is occurring in cities throughout the industrialized world. Gentrification causes displacement, especially of poor people of color, and finding a means of slowing it down or keeping people in their homes as neighborhoods change is pretty much the only option.
“I don't think there's a single example where a city has been able to stop gentrification, historically, because as economies improve, the way cities live and breathe changes and all of the processes that go into that are what keeps cities vital—one of which is gentrification,” said Dr. Cuff, “Now we have so little public sector support that the people who are most vulnerable are doubly damaged by urban processes.”
“...the history of Los Angeles has been one in which developers were the more powerful agents.”
The Hybrid Industrial (HI) Live/Work Zone Ordinance, a code amendment that will create a new zone classification in the City of Los Angeles, is the next wave of progressive zoning policies, following the AIR Ordinance and Adaptive Reuse Ordinance. The HI Ordinance went into effect as of March 30, 2016, and permits a mix of residential and commercial uses on industrial land. The idea behind this new HI Zone, the first industrial zone of its kind in the city, is to foster job creation and create affordable housing via development incentives.
However, opponents of the HI Ordinance argue that it will essentially “down-zone” an area that was special because of the open M3 Heavy Industry District classification, plus the experimental AIR ordinance, both of which made the mixed-use Arts District possible in the first place. On top of that, they fear it will lead to the transition—and more often demolition—of industrial buildings into dense residential condos or live/work lofts that are used, and marketed by developers, as residential apartments, further shifting AD demographics away from manufacturing and toward becoming a regular neighborhood, which leads to the erasure of essential industrial land.
The Sears Roebuck building in Boyle Heights
Who’s Profiting from Development?
There is another feeding frenzy going on behind the scenes. “I'm staying out of naming names, but there is sort of this payback, like money given to political gain and then now to reciprocation,” says Stonebreaker. “The zone is reciprocation of and driven by developers that are going to make an extraordinary amount of money tearing or surgically altering the existing community, let's call it, to build an urban village. There's no other way to put it—it's exactly the way it's going to be.”
Councilman José Huizar did not respond for comment, but looking at his campaign donations from his last and final election (he has reached his term limit), it is a who’s who list of Downtown developers. It includes the development company Camden, who according to sources, hired lobbyists to act as Arts District residents in order to influence a development project; and Andrew Cohen, President of Atlas Capital Group, who is developing a huge three-building complex called Row DTLA for “creative office” use.
Hamid Behdad, also on Huizar’s list of donors, is one of the developers working on converting the iconic Sears Roebuck building in Boyle Heights into mixed-use lofts and office space—“Central City Development Group has cleared away obstacles in the way of obtaining new entitlement for proposed redevelopment on the site,” the Sears project’s website boasts, crediting themselves with achieving what other developers could not.
As reported by the LA Times after the last election: “total campaign donations to Councilman José Huizar—both direct contributions and independent expenditures— exceed $1.3 million. That amounts to a more than 6 to 1 financial advantage for Huizar over his best-known challenger, former County Supervisor Gloria Molina.”
“We watch the Arts District kind of collapse in on itself...and really what everyone loves about it is what's threatened.”
The 6th Street Bridge used to cross the LA River into Boyle Heights until it was demolished in January 2016 to be rebuilt bigger and better than ever. The new viaduct on the River is set to be complete by 2019 and its builders partnered up with Frank Gehry who will help oversee the buzz-worthy project’s fruition.
Steven Almazan, Outreach Chair for the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, was born and raised in Boyle Heights and returned to the neighborhood as a Special Education teacher for KIPP LA Schools.
He sees gentrification in Los Angeles as having occurred clockwise, progressing from Silver Lake to Echo Park to Eagle Rock to Highland Park to Lincoln Heights and now Boyle Heights. “We are prepared to work in collaboration with the city and developers to ensure that Boyle Heights maintains its cultural and historical essence,” said Almazan via email, “I view the new 6th Street Viaduct Project as the city's final stamp of welcoming gentrification in Boyle Heights and the Eastside.”
The galleries across the river in Boyle Heights on Mission Road and Anderson Street that have contributed to the blurring of the Arts District boundaries are what Almazan calls a “byproduct” of the rapid growth of the AD’s gallery scene; he also mentioned that the aforementioned New York galleries, Owens’ 356 Mission and Maccarone’s eponymous space, have been less than engaging with their new community—one that is 94 percent Latino with a median income of less than $35,000 per year, according to the U.S. Census.
Arts District tile as seen on the facade of older buildings in the area.
On the influence of politics and development, and the way forward for the AD, Dr. Cuff had this to say:
We watch the Arts District kind of collapse in on itself in a way and really what everyone loves about it is what's threatened. It means that the way we go about watching its change and negotiating its transformation has to be very thoughtful and, literally, like acupuncture not like napalm, in the sense of Planning. Our Planning Department has never been very powerful…the history of Los Angeles has been one in which developers were the more powerful agents all throughout history.
Art Share has become a sort of bridge between a fading past and changing present. “We have a mural in our building that shows the original crew of artists that were here, misfits we call them,” Sauter told me at the Arts District farmers’ market last summer, “You walk into Art Share and it’s a throwback to what [the AD] used to look like.”
Like Art Share, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel is playing the long game, giving to its new community more than it is taking. After much anticipation, Sauter is happy to welcome Art Share’s commercial counterpart to the community, not only to have another art space to point confused tourists to. “There’s room for everyone. Bring it on.”
Lauren McQuade is an LA-based writer, photojournalist and editor with interest in social issues and the representation of culture in the city of Los Angeles.
(Image at top: Exterior view of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, facing northeast. Photo: Joshua Targownik. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth)