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The unspoken reason why galleries are flocking to Los Angeles

Galleries like Sprüth Magers and Hauser Wirth & Schimmel quietly but fiercely compete for the city's artists

by Jori Finkel  |  7 March 2016
The unspoken reason why galleries are flocking to Los Angeles
Sprueth Magers, Los Angeles. Photography: Joshua White/JWPICTURES.com
The grand openings of the Los Angeles branches of European galleries Sprüth Magers and Hauser & Wirth (called Hauser Wirth & Schimmel), on 23 February and 13 March respectively, are sure to generate even more buzz about the booming Los Angeles art scene. Gallerists who have moved here in the past have praised the “energy” (Dominique Lévy), the “freshness” (Perry Rubenstein), “the ability to spread out” (Michele Maccarone) and the “exciting artists” (Adam Lindemann, of Venus Over Los Angeles). Or, as Lindemann put it more plainly, “The weather is better and there is a lot more room.”

Some of the buzz is well earned, especially when it comes to cheaper downtown real estate and the great artists working and teaching here. But there is another strong incentive behind so many galleries making the move, one that too often goes unmentioned.

Many galleries are fiercely, if discreetly, vying for market control over artists, with high-end galleries such as Hauser Wirth & Schimmel and Sprüth Magers competing directly for the startling number of major Los Angeles-based artists who lack gallery representation there. Just two years ago, the list was extraordinary: Mark Bradford, Sterling Ruby, Thomas Houseago, John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Liza Lou, Robert Irwin and Paul McCarthy didn’t have galleries here (although McCarthy does projects with The Box, which is run by his daughter). The peculiar thing is that, at least by New York or London standards, these artists didn’t have that many galleries to choose from. Very few Los Angeles galleries, with the exception of Gagosian Beverly Hills, Blum & Poe and Regen Projects, could match, let alone advance, the artists’ international reputations.

Enter Hauser Wirth & Schimmel and Sprüth Magers. Iwan Wirth, who you could call an “artist’s gallerist” for the loyalty he inspires, credits Los Angeles artists from Jason Rhoades to Richard Jackson with attracting him to the city—and Paul McCarthy with helping him scout out what the Los Angeles Times columnist Carolina Miranda memorably described as a Home Depot-sized gallery space. What goes unspoken is that the move to Los Angeles was also instrumental in helping the Hauser & Wirth enterprise to secure exclusive worldwide representation of Mark Bradford. The move kept Paul McCarthy, who has become a mainstay of Hauser & Wirth’s New York spaces, from switching to another gallery at home. And teaming up with Paul Schimmel, the former curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), helped Hauser & Wirth win representation of Mike Kelley’s estate, despite Gagosian organising shows of his work before his death in 2012.

Powerful incentives

Sprüth Magers’ decision to open in Los Angeles, made after Hauser & Wirth’s, could be seen as a way to parry the blow. Sprüth Magers is now in a good position to show Sterling Ruby, who has already left Hauser & Wirth for them in London. And it can now expand its relationship with John Baldessari, who has shown with the gallery in London and Berlin, to the US, where Marian Goodman has had a near-monopoly lately.

“Galleries don’t want to lose artists they show in New York or Europe to someone here in LA,” says veteran gallerist Marc Selwyn of the larger trend. “They want to control the market for their big artists. Opening a branch here can be a defensive move.”

If a prime reason for setting up in Los Angeles is to gain or maintain control over an artist’s market, one reason for the past failure of so many Los Angeles gallery imports is that the market is just not as developed as some imagine. Debunking the myth that Los Angeles is “awash with movie stars buying art”, Selwyn says “many galleries here do a larger proportion of their business to out-of-town clients than people realise.”

Los Angeles gallerist Brian Butler adds: “Historically, 70% of gallery sales would go to collectors outside of Los Angeles. I think it has become a little better, maybe 60/40, depending on the work and the gallery.”

The gallerist Matthew Marks, for example, sold his entire Ellsworth Kelly show days before opening his Los Angeles gallery in 2012, but he sold to collectors in San Francisco, New York and Europe—there wasn’t a single local purchase. While Marks has stayed open in Los Angeles, many other gallery imports over the last decade have not. If business were booming, the Perry Rubenstein Gallery would not have declared bankruptcy and either Dominque Lévy or Robert Mnuchin would have taken over the Los Angeles branch of L&M Arts when they dissolved their partnership. The fact that these galleries were so short-lived suggests sales, even in the age of art fairs and jpegs, were not as strong as expected.

A New York-based curator asked me if I thought Hauser Wirth & Schimmel and Sprüth Magers would appeal to the Los Angeles collector base. The more urgent question is whether they will be able to grow that collector base sufficiently.

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