The State of the Art Gallery

The State of the Art Gallery

By Joe O'Donnell

Photos by Trevor Baker

The entrance to Peace Yoga Gallery gives little clue as to what the space encompasses. From street level the Downtown Los Angeles storefront looks like little more than a funky juice bar — albeit one hung with exceptional visionary art and graced with a six-foot Buddha sitting sentry on the sidewalk. But the facade gives way to a sprawling multipurpose space combining art, yoga, and food, and represents the diverse design — by necessity, whim, or calculation — of Downtown’s galleries.

The last decade saw a remarkable upsurge in Los Angeles’ status as an art destination, and no part of the city has embodied that boom more than Downtown. More notable than the sheer number of galleries is the way they redefine what a gallery is. They are converted basements, live-work spaces or refurbished rescue missions. They are dedicated single-purpose enterprises or adjuncts to retail businesses. And they demonstrate that serious dedication to artistic purpose does not belong to a single model of gallery form or function.

Peace Yoga Gallery — the brainchild of Cheri Rae Russell, a former professional ice skater, current yogi, chef, and gallerist — demonstrates one of the more imaginative gallery configurations, marrying a raw food kitchen, a 4,000-square-foot basement yoga studio, and an art gallery. 

The dual-purpose gallery and yoga space represents the deliberate implementation of Cheri Rae’s Yoga Art idea — that people are more receptive to art while being calmed by yoga. The artwork in the gallery, typically paintings by fantastic realist and visionary artists like Amanda Sage and Shrine, is displayed and lit to be viewed and enjoyed during yoga practice, complete with professional musical accompaniment. The result is a sort of active gallery in which everything that occurs is part of an integrated artistic experience. “This gallery is not about selling art, it’s about changing people,” Cheri Rae declares — a conceit made possible by the multifaceted nature of her enterprise.

Peace Yoga Gallery’s mandate for personal change is its own, but a model that de-emphasizes sales in favor of more personal motivations is one of the hallmarks of the redefined Downtown art gallery.

“It’s passion-driven,” says Qathryn Brehm, executive director of Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk, who identifies a supply and demand in Downtown that exists outside the formal art market. “There are more artists in LA than ever before in the history of the city. So how do all of those artists get recognized? Where do they show their work?”

They show their work Downtown because its artist-driven scene lacks the barriers to entry that more formal galleries adopt. “If you want to be experimental, unless you have a real following, an established gallery like Bergamot is not going to want to show you,” Brehm explains. 

And while Downtown may not attract as many serious collectors as well-established gallery enclaves like Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station will, it draws a wider, if less formal, audience. “Downtown has grown to the point that it’s become a destination,” says Brehm.

Pointing to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and REDCAT, Bettina Korek, a Los Angeles arts advocate and founder of the independent arts organization ForYourArt, notes that Downtown has long had a draw for art lovers. “You have a great range of different kinds of presenters, so Downtown gives people who want to experience art a lot of possibilities from different perspectives.”

The same sense of experimentation that draws artists inspires gallerists to reimagine what an art gallery looks like. Korek attributes this innovation to Downtown’s geography. “There are interesting spaces available Downtown and these proprietors are embracing that and working it into their model. They’re responding to the situation rather than having a preconceived notion of what a gallery should be.”

One such proprietor is shoe designer Paul Kaufman, owner of Downtown’s PSKaufman shoe store. For him, marrying a gallery to an existing business allows for a degree of freedom from the constraints of gallery-as-sole-enterprise.

Tucked away in a back corner of Werdin Place alley, PSKaufman’s bright seafoam green storefront under a boot-shaped sign is enough to entice curiosity. “The space really dictated its possibilities as a gallery,” Kaufman explains. The entrance stairs land in a basement retail showroom as whimsical as some of the shoe designs it features, including a fuchsia stairway to nowhere and vintage elevator-shaft-turned-boot display. The displays themselves look like a curated exhibition. A cartoonishly off-kilter, five-sided doorway leads beyond the show room to a snaking series of dramatically lit antechambers, still exhibiting PSKaufman shoes, before finally giving way to a spacious gallery. 

Kaufman typically shows emerging artists who value exposure as much as or more than sales, taking away the financial pressure that limits collaboration for its own sake. It’s a tradeoff made possible by the fact that PSKaufman is primarily a shoe store — albeit one that benefits from the exposure its art events bring.

PSKaufman’s Downtown location is a key facilitator of its community-minded mission. “There’s obviously something happening down here. I think there’s not so much this crazy competitiveness that there is in established retail areas. People here feel, ‘Hey, we’re all struggling; we’re all independent,’” says Kaufman. 

Photographer and photo book publisher Nick Haymes also credits the West Coast tendency toward collaboration over competition as one of Downtown’s draws, describing a pioneer spirit among the new galleries that are springing 

up. “LA still seems very open and experimental,” he says. “People could try, fuck up, and then try something else. I think if you’re an artist it’s very freeing.” 

Haymes’ Little Big Man Gallery, at the eastern foot of the 4th Street Bridge, is a photography gallery distinguished by its narrowly defined mission. Noting the current vogue for concept-based and process-based photography, Haymes felt a lot of work was being overlooked. So he developed a space to exhibit the sort of straight, unmanipulated photo work that he creates, and that wasn’t being shown elsewhere. His own role as gallerist seems almost incidental: “It’s content-driven. I’m a working photographer trying to show my peers those that I admire.” 

Nearby MAMA Gallery is one of the newer Arts District galleries that exemplify Haymes’ point about the area’s pioneer spirit. “Right after we signed a lease we learned that all these major galleries were moving down here, and that’s exciting,” says Adarsha Benjamin, MAMA’s curator. “It still feels wild down here.” 

As a single-purpose, self-sustaining gallery centered on art sales, MAMA more closely fits the orthodox gallery model. Yet, as Benjamin is quick to point out, she would never put the word orthodox in the same sentence as MAMA Gallery. MAMA has shown site-specific work that wilted, deflated or rusted over the course of an exhibition, toying with the intersection of visual and performance art. Benjamin’s attention to curation makes MAMA feel more like a museum than a commercial gallery space.  

“We knew we wanted to be downtown, specifically in the arts district, because of the architecture here and the vastness of space. That was the defining reason — space.” 

MAMA’s artists are encouraged to fully utilize the gallery’s bright, open 4000-square-foot space, which is built around a house from the late 1800s, allowing the architecture to interact with the installations. “We didn’t start small because our ideas are big and the space needed to represent that,” says Benjamin.

If there is one commonality among Downtown’s gallerists, it is the inclination to be uncommon. The area allows each gallery to develop organically into its own best form while responding to the situation of Downtown Los Angeles. As Paul Kaufman explains, “The chances are better we will all succeed if we maintain that which makes us different.”