The Los Angeles-based arts nonprofit LAXART announced last week that it has acquired a building in Melrose Hill and will be moving into its “permanent home” in the fall. The new site, a brick and concrete building on Western Avenue, will more than double its current exhibition space to approximately 5,000 square feet. LAXART’s current space, located in a former Hollywood recording studio, will close at the end of June.
“The uncertain, early days of the pandemic instigated some institutional soul searching, forcing us to identify and squarely confront deeper, more systemic challenges,” LAXART Director Hamza Walker said in a statement. “The most fundamental of these was to secure a permanent home. For most mid-scale, non-profit arts organizations, this isn’t so much a challenge as it is a dream.”
LAXART was founded in 2005 by Lauri Firstenberg with the goal of providing a platform for emerging and under-represented artists, encompassing exhibitions, performances, public programs, and publications. Since then, it has organized over 400 projects and has partnered with other local institutions including the J. Paul Getty Museum, co-producing the Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival in 2012 and the exhibition Video Art in Latin America in 2017; and the Hammer Museum, helping mount the first iteration of its California biennial, Made in LA, in 2012.
In 2015, LAXART moved into its current location in the Hollywood gallery cluster near Regen Projects, Kohn Gallery, and Various Small Fires. Its facade on the corner of Santa Monica and North Orange Drive has been transformed over the years by artists including Karl Holmqvist, Barbara Kruger, Daniel Joseph Martinez, and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon as part of an ongoing mural series.
Firstenberg stepped down as director in 2016 and was replaced by Walker, who became LAXART’s second-ever director after more than two decades at the Renaissance Society in Chicago.
In 2019, LAXART found itself dragged into the controversy surrounding the Marciano Art Foundation (MAF), the private museum opened by Paul and Maurice Marciano, brothers who made their fortune with the GUESS fashion brand which they started in 1981. That November, MAF abruptly closed its doors and laid off almost all of its employees after workers announced plans to unionize, leading to protests and calls to reopen the museum. Former employees also turned their attention to Olivia Marciano, Maurice’s daughter and artistic director of the MAF, who was appointed to LAXART’s board the previous year. In an open letter to LAXART’s board members, protestors demanded that they remove her from the board if she did not work to reopen the MAF and reinstate the laid-off workers.
When confronted by protestors delivering the letter, Walker told them: “I respect your position. You’re brothers and sisters in arms.” Olivia Marciano never commented publicly on the museum’s closing and she remains on LAXART’s board, according to its website.
John Frane, a board member at LAXART and design principal of HGA Architects, is working with the nonprofit to design the new space, which is described in the statement as “reductive and raw, a clean slate.” With its open floor plan, the new location avoids some of the challenges of the current site, including columns interrupting sight lines, changing ceiling heights, and an awkwardly disjointed arrangement of exhibition spaces.
“The proportions are good. It’s unbroken and quite flexible,” Walker told Hyperallergic. “We can build to suit in terms of projects, unimpeded.” The flexibility of the interior will extend to a multi-use outdoor space in what was previously a parking lot.
LAXART has raised almost half of the $5 million goal set for the building campaign, partly through proceeds from a Christie’s auction last November featuring work donated by artists Jacqueline Humphries, Arthur Jafa, Barbara Kruger, LAXART board member Glenn Ligon, Christina Quarles, and Jonas Wood.
In its new home, LAXART will join other art spaces including Sargent’s Daughters, Shrine, and David Zwirner that have also announced plans to open along the stretch of East Hollywood dubbed Melrose Hill. According to the LA Times, the neighborhood is one of the densest in the city, with a majority Latino population and below-average median income.
The arrival of galleries in other historically marginalized, majority POC neighborhoods in the city, such as Boyle Heights and Inglewood, has sparked fears of gentrification and conflict between neighborhood activists and art spaces.
As with many neighborhood boundaries in LA, the distinction between East Hollywood, Melrose Hill, and Koreatown are a matter of some debate. While Google Maps or the LA Times puts the upper boundary of Koreatown at Third Street or Beverly Blvd, LAXART’s new home is within the area represented by the Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council (WCKNC).
“Our community is quite different both ethnically and economically from Melrose Hill,” Elizabeth Isralowitz, chair of the WCKNC’s Sustainability and Beautification Committee, explained in an email to Hyperallergic.
In a phone call, she added that the committee had already met with representatives from David Zwirner Gallery to discuss ways they can engage with the community. These include evening hours that are promoted through the community, outreach to local schools, and the display of work of local artists.
She also stressed the importance of transparency, literally, adding that art spaces should avoid frosted or opaque windows.
“We need them to feel like they’re part of the community,” Isralowitz said.
It remains to be seen how LAXART will balance these concerns with the opportunity the new home offers to “expand our life with artists and our role in civic discourse, in Los Angeles, the nation, and beyond,” as Margaret Morgan, chair of LAXART’s board of directors, says in the statement.
Walker explained to Hyperallergic that the stretch of Western Avenue the nonprofit is moving to is a commercial zone, while also acknowledging the need for integration.
“We’re trying to lay down roots,” Walker said. “Once we’re there, we’ll figure out what the temperature is. We want to meet our neighbors.”
Editor’s note 4/22/22 5pm EST/EDT: This article has been updated to include comment from Elizabeth Isralowitz.