Los Angeles' cultural shift: Why artists are heading west to the City of Easels

LA's newest cultural space is more than just a vanity project. The Broad gallery demonstrates how the city of the silver screen has moved on, says Mark Ellwood

This autumn, the most ambitious museum in the history of Los Angeles opened its doors. The $140m (£93m) Broad (rhymes with road) is a custom-built temple for namesake billionaire developer Eli and his wife Edythe's 2,000-work modern art collection. Its 50,000sq ft of gallery space showcases everything from vintage Warhol soup can screenprints to Yayoi Kusama's polkadotted Infinity Mirrored Room. There's pop art from Jeff Koons – his Franklin Mint-esque Michael Jackson and Bubbles porcelain sculpture – plus a huge mural from Takashi Murakami. Video installations include Ragnar Kjartansson, the Icelandic artist known for his waggish endurance pieces (in this case, an hour-long loop of himself and a band repeatedly playing the same burst of an Abba song). With free admission and a starchitect- designed building by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, it's a glitzy, bombastic rival to Tate Modern or the Guggenheim in New York or Bilbao. 

Yet The Broad – both much ballyhooed and much delayed, taking seven years to complete – is more than an ego-soothing landmark; it's a statement about the shift in LA's cultural landscape beyond television or film. Until recently, the arts in LA were largely confined to the Getty's magpie-like collection in Brentwood and Disney's showy Gehry-designed concert hall downtown, home to the LA Philharmonic. The Broad's mission, in part, is to showcase how the last decade has turned the City of Angels into the City of Easels. 

That shift was arguably kickstarted by the makeover of the city's moribund modern art museum, Lacma (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). This vast renovation project began in 2004 and was jointly steered by director Michael Govan and architect Renzo Piano. 

Their efforts have turned Lacma into a buzzy showcase, with travelling exhibits such as the current Rain Room, a digitally controlled storm that debuted at MoMA in New York. Then there's next year's major Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective, The Perfect Medium, staged jointly with the Getty. Lacma's sun-baked plaza is now home to retro diner Ray's, as well as site-specific art installations such as Urban Light by the late Chris Burden. In just seven years since it opened, this forest of cast-iron street lamps has become a visual shorthand for the city – it even cameos in the current LA-set season of American Horror Story (in which one sledge-hammered character trait of Lady Gaga's sophisticated vampire is her passion for collecting modern art). Lacma itself has carefully cultivated movie connections, too: Will Ferrell's wife, Viveca Paulin-Ferrell, co-chairs its fundraiser, Contemporary Friends.

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Lacma (Alamy)

Another fresh cultural hub opened two years ago, a performing arts centre underwritten by publishing heiress Wallis Annenberg; she jostles with The Broads for the title of deepest pocketed philanthropist in LA. Annenberg siphoned off a chunk of her billions to fund this project, which has turned the 1930s-era Beverly Hills Post Office into two distinct auditoria, via a new extension (it has preserved telling period details, though, from the New Deal murals in the post office lobby to the stamp-selling counters reconfigured as ticket offices). When the Wallis opened, the debut performance was from the Martha Graham Dance Company; it's struggled somewhat since then to find its métier, but importing new artistic director Paul Crewes from the Staffordshire-based Kneehigh Theatre Company next spring should help stabilise. 

The art boom here hasn't been solely driven by the whims of the wealthy, though. In fact, LA's urban sprawl, so derided and dismissed, has an allure for artists and gallerists from across the country. Property is relatively cheap in the greater Los Angeles area compared with most major American cities, so defecting here is financially sound. Sara Fitzmaurice runs one of the art world's top publicity firms, Fitz & Co; spotting the shift westwards, she moved her whole family to California five years ago. 

“It all begins with the artists,” Fitzmaurice explains. “They can actually afford to have incredibly large studios, which allows them to explore and create in ways that can be restricted in other cities where space is scarce.” No wonder the London-based duo behind the Moving Museum, Aya Moussawi and Simon Sakhai, have earmarked LA for the next iteration of their artist-driven pop-up fair next year. 

As artists flock to fill the empty buildings from Silverlake to Skid Row or the San Fernando Valley, gallerists have followed – take New York-based Matthew Marks, who's opened a satellite in West Hollywood, and Larry Gagosian, whose multi-tentacled gallery surfaced in Beverly Hills, where it signed local talent such as James Franco, whom it now represents for his visual work. East Coast gallerina Sarah Gavlak, herself an alum of LA's Art Center college in the 1990s, just returned here to open a second outpost for her gallery, this time a 5,000sq ft warehouse in Hollywood proper. “No one can afford to live in New York, financially or spiritually, any more,” she laughs, “And anyway, LA has always been amazing.” 

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LA Philharmonic (Alamy)

Erstwhile Whitney museum curator Shamim Momin moved west to open her non- profit, Land (Los Angeles Nomadic Division) in 2009 for much the same reason: she recognised the looming boom in creative talent. “Artists have such great space – both literal and conceptual – to work here, and the landscape can still allow for new organisations to grow and innovate,” Momin explains. Her witty projects are artworld highlights, whether Wildflowering LA, where artist Fritz Haeg asked locals to nominate patches of scrubland around the city for him to garden into greenery, or this year's Manifest Destiny Project, where she and artist Zoe Crosher curated a show on billboards along the I-10 freeway from Florida to California – John Baldessari was one of the participants. ForYourArt, which founder Bettina Korek began as a Popbitch-like newsletter on local culture almost 10 years ago is another local standout. It now also stages pop up events and shows around town from its offices close to Lacma – typical is 24 Hour Donut City, a round-the-clock doughnut giveaway inspired by the mid-century bakeries that still cling to the edges of many of the freeways that quilt LA's sprawl.

The desert expanse that surrounds the city has proven fertile ground for artists, especially Andrea Zittel's High Desert Test Sites, a short drive out to Joshua Tree. Zittel moved there 15 years ago, on to 25 acres of land where she built a series of trailers which were offered to artists to come and work there at what she dubbed High Desert Test Sites. She now stages year-round shows and performances, each piece inspired by the landscape and culture of southern California. 

Photographer Catherine Opie has long been based in LA. Her work riffs on aspects of local culture – indeed, it was Opie whom Elizabeth Taylor's estate allowed to document the minutiae of the movie star's home in her photo series and book 700 Nimes Road. Catherine best sums up the city's newfound love of art. “I think the urban sprawl of Los Angeles is creating a unique opportunity for people that both London and NYC don't quite have,” she explains. “Because we don't have a centre, we have the opportunity in the vast metropolis of the city to create subtle, different experiences. It feels slightly new and exciting because of the buzz.” She's about to install a monumental new commission at LA's Federal Courthouse, a cascading series of 8ft by 17ft panoramic photographs of the California landscape suspended in its atrium. It will open early next year – though before then, like any other noteworthy local talent, you can see the best of her work hanging at The Broad. 

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Getting there

Los Angeles is served from Heathrow by Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk), American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk), British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com), United Airlines (0845 607 6760; unitedairlines.co.uk) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com). Norwegian flies from Gatwick (0843 3780 888; norwegian.com/uk).

Visiting there

The Broad, 221 S Grand Avenue, Downtown (001 213 232 6200; thebroad.org).

Lacma, 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Miracle Mile (001 323 857 6000; lacma.org).

The Getty, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood (001 310 440 7300; thegetty.edu).

Disney Concert Hall, 111 S Grand Avenue, Downtown (001 323 850 2000; laphil.com).

Wallis Annenburg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverly Hills (001 310 246 3800; thewallis.org).

Matthew Marks Gallery, 1062 N Orange Grove, West Hollywood (001 323 654 1830; matthewmarks.com).

Gagosian Beverly Hills, 456 N Camden Drive, Beverly Hills (001 310 271 9400; gagosian.com).

Gavlak Gallery, 1034 N Highland Avenue, Hollywood (001 323 467 5700; gavlakgallery.com).

Moving Museum (themovingmuseum.com).

Land, 6775 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood (001 646 620 8289; nomadicdivision.org).

For Your Art (foryourart.com).

High Desert Test Sites, 6470 Veterans Way, Joshua Tree (highdeserttestsites.com).

More information

discoverlosangeles.com

visitcalifornia.com/uk

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