Los Angeles begins to shed image as cultural wasteland

Question: What's the difference between yogurt and Los Angeles? Answer: Yogurt has an active culture. It's a typical East coast joke. New Yorkers -- even a smug Bostonian or two -- have been known to smirk when they repeat it.

The joke, however, is no longer on Los Angeles. Almost overnight, it seems, the City of the Angels has laid its claim to culture -- including being well on its way to becoming one of the world's major art centers.

Los Angeles, of course, has never really been the cultural wasteland its critics make it out to be. Granted, the city has no opera and its ballet company has yet to come into its own. but the city's symphony orchestra is world class, its theater life is thriving, and -- with a headlong leap that is typically Los Angeles -- its art community has begun snatching headlines as a force so potent that it is certain to take the punch out of cultural jibes,

"There is a sense of adventure here," sums up local artist Mark Palley, whose words are echoed again and again in the city's art circles. "There's a sense that we're an ascendant star."

Los Angeles made its mark on the contemporary art scene in the early 1960s through the work of a dozen or so artists who were experimenting with light, space, and plastics. But it wasn't until recently that the network of museums, dealers, galleries, and artists necessary for the foundation of a thriving art center began to fall into place.

Just last year, it was announced that, as part of a downtown redevelopment project, a Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) would be built and open by 1984, placing Los Angeles alongside New York, Paris, and Amsterdam as a major world city with a museum devoted exclusively to contemporary art.

Even in its early stages, the museum raised international eyebrows when it scored a coup by luring Pontus Hulten, director of the Centre Nationale D'Art Contemporain Georges Pompidou in Paris, to be its director. Under a city policy that requires redevelopment contractors to contribute up to 1.5 percent of the cost of a project to the purchase of art, the $16 million tab for building the museum will be picked up by Bunker Hill Associates the private developer of the redevelopment project. Already, museum organizers have raised $12.9 million for MOCA's founding endowment.

The art news downtown, however, isn't limited to the new museum. In the past few years, an estimated 1,000 artists have trekked inland from art pockets at the beaches and Hollywood -- drawn to the airy, cheap loft space that could be found in the warehouses of the inner city's light industrial district.

Although zoning laws made such living illegal at the time, just last month the city passed an ordinance -- the only one of its kind among the nation's big cities -- designed to help artists by making it legal to live in loft space in commercial or industrial areas. Unlike New York City's loft zoning laws, which are limited to the now-chic SoHo district, the new Los Angeles ordinance applies citywide and is aimed at making sure artists will have areas to live and work in if redevelopment prices them out of the downtown area.

With the artists have come the galleries -- from one or two just a few years ago to 24 today. And with the galleries are beginning to come a large number of the curious. When gallery owners got together Sept. 13 to hold their first annual open house under the banner of Los Angeles Visual Arts '81, an estimated 5,000 persons showed up -- a number that staggered even the most-ardent downtown believers.

The city's contemporary art scene is anchored by a traditional art network that has grown substantially in the past 10 to 20 years. Some of the world's most presitigious private collections are displayed here, including those of millionaires Norton Simon and Dr. Armand Hammer. In addition, the collection of the late J. Paul Getty is housed in a Malibu museum which, when it receives its Getty endowment of an estimated $1 billion to $1.4 billion, will be the richest museum in the world.

At the 15-year county Museum of Art, which now is in the process fo doubling its 75,000-square-foot exhibition space, membership has jumped from 22,000 in 1969 to 43,000 today. Another measure of the growth of both local and international art interest here is the fact that Sotheby Parke Bernet, one of the world's leading art auction houses, decided last month to make its Los Angeles office a separate division within the company. When it opened in 1971, the branch office here totaled up $1.5 million in auction sales -- a figure that rose to $30 million last year, or 10 percent of Sotheby's North American sales.

It is the contemporary art scene, however, that is generating the most exciting news. Even as observers watch closely to see if the burgeoning art community can continue to grow in a sprawling, outdoor-oriented city with no tradition of art appreciation, they are asking: Why now?

The most obvious answer appears to be that 200 years after it was first settle -- and some 40 years after it began its pell-mell rush to become a major metroplitan area -- Los Angeles is coming into its own as an international city. And in the process, observers say, the city is beginning to civilize itself.

"Los Angeles is now at the point where people are developing roots," explains City Council president Joel Wachs, an arts enthusiast who championed the recent ordinance changing zoning laws. "This is now home.

"People are demanding more from their city," he continues. "They want more than just steak and potato restaurants . . . L.A. is becoming a cosmopolitan city. and in a city that by its nature separates people geographically, the arts can be an important medium for interchange."

As artist Mark Palley sees it, "Los Angeles has always been an enigma . . . and I think it has been a bit indigestible . . . In a way, L.A. has been waiting to be explained -- and art may actually be a medium to do that. . . . Art may be a way to make sense out it.

"Or," he adds, smiling, "at least to glory in the senselessness."

However the contemporary art scene develops in Los Angeles, there is one thing the city will not become -- New York. Although inevitable questions of comparison are raised by the recent, rapid strides of Los Angeles toward international stature, members fo the local art community insist that the city, with its stress on post-World War II art and its Pacific and Hispanic influences , will develop as its own unique center.

That much said, however, observers like William Wilson, art critic of the Los Angeles Times, obligingly compare the two cities -- pointing out that while New York has hit its stride, and possibly peaked, as an art center, Los Angeles has the excitement of a city that is just beginning to realize its potential.

"I see Los Angeles becoming a major contemporary art center, specifically for the art of our time," says Jean Milant, owner of Cirrus Gallery and a major force in developing the downtown art community.

"New York and Paris are not contemporary cities," he continues. "They are not in the process of making themselves historical at the moment. . . . That's what's happening here. L.A. is becoming an international city."m

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