Los Angeles According to: Esther Kim Varet from Various Small Fires

In a new series about Los Angeles seen through the eyes of its gallerists, the founder of Hollywood’s VSF talks about artists to watch and her favorite happy hour

BY Chris Waywell in Frieze Los Angeles , Interviews | 26 JAN 24

Various Small Fires (VSF) was opened by Esther Kim Varet in 2012. It has a mission to show no bias against age, medium or market viability in its artists. Its Hollywood space has a unique sound corridor for audio art plus a dedicated outdoor gallery for large-scale sculpture and installation. A second VSF outpost opened in the Hannam area of Seoul, South Korea in 2019, and a third in Dallas, Texas in 2022. Esther Kim picks her highlights from her city and neighborhood.

What’s great about VSF’s location?

In the Venn diagram of where artists and collectors live the intersection is Hollywood. And that’s the same Venn diagram that has led many local business owners to set up shop here. That’s a general statement, of course! But generalities are good when you first arrive in a city to get your bearings. 

Jessie Homer French. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles / Texas / Seoul
Jessie Homer French. Courtesy: the artist and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Texas/Seoul

What changes have you seen in your neighborhood since the gallery opened?

Since finishing our building in 2015, the neighborhood has seen a steady increase of fellow gallerists and high-end furniture and lifestyle retailers moving into the area. Over the last ten years, Los Angeles’s population has continued to grow—traffic to get from one end of the city to another has become almost unbearable—making the centrality of Hollywood that much more desirable. 

Why would you recommend your area to art lovers new to LA?

There’s a stronghold of longtime, original LA galleries that have congregated in this area including Regen Projects, Michael Kohn, David Kordansky, Jeffrey Deitch but also new satellite transplants like Karma and Marian Goodman all in the neighborhood.

People that have their claws out and are always angling are considered weirdos in LA

Can you explain the ethos of your gallery and what unites your artists?

Various Small Fires (VSF) began as a series of conversations with artists and curators in my Venice Beach kitchen during my doctoral dissertation in 2012. The gallery formally opened in 2015 with a program reflecting our strong desire to be a much-needed platform for artists exercising their voice on the most important social, political, and environmental issues that threaten humans and the greater life web today. In April 2019, we opened a second location in the Hannam neighborhood of Seoul, South Korea, and in 2022 we welcomed our third outpost in Texas.

Which emerging artists excite you at the moment?

One of the most exciting museum shows I saw in 2023 was LACMA’s “Woven Histories – a 150-artist survey of textile-based makers. I recently purchased two works by the artist Samantha Bittman, whose work was introduced to me by an artist of ours, Diedrick Brackens, who was in “Woven Histories”. I offered Samantha a solo exhibition at our Seoul gallery.

Installation image of Woven Histories. Photo: LACMA.
'Woven Histories', 2023, installation view. Photograph: LACMA

What’s different about the LA art scene to that of other cities (your local art scene in particular)?

There’s a real sense in LA that the trajectory of your career doesn’t define your happiness and worth. Perhaps because of that attitude, the art scene here is less hierarchical and much more collaborative. People that have their claws out and are always angling are considered weirdos. 

Favorite museum or gallery in Los Angeles?

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) holds the largest collection of art in the Western United States and is just a short drive from my home and the gallery, though I don’t get to visit nearly as often as I wish I could. Many of our represented artists also have works in their permanent collections.

Last exhibition you went to?

The Hammer Museum’s “Made In L.A. 2023: Acts of Living biennial exhibition, to see paintings by our artist Jessie Homer French. 

Stir Crazy. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles / Texas / Seoul
Stir Crazy. Courtesy: the artist and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Texas/Seoul

Favorite place to eat in your area?

Within very short walking distance, we have some world-class options. Ludo Lefebvre’s Petit Trois for lunch and Nancy Silverton’s Chi Spacca or Mozza for dinner—both within eye-shot from the gallery, which is rare in LA. A five-minute drive away you have Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook’s newly opened Cook Shop—on Larchmont, neighboring Hancock Park, which is a wonderful walking street with loads of on-trend bakeries (Levain for chocolate-chip cookies, Holy Grail Donuts) as well as Café Gratitude for the ultimate vegan dining experience. 

Best bar near the gallery?

Stir Crazy for natural-leaning wines and small bites: their garden-driven menu changes frequently. Special mention to the late-night happy hour at Jones on Santa Monica for a dirty martini and old-school Italian fare. 

Your most recommended local business?

Depends on what you need after your visit to the gallery—an afternoon pain au chocolat, flat white, or flowers? Go to Sightglass Coffee. Shopping for something highly edited and fancy to wear out on the town? Just One Eye. 

Best thing about Los Angeles?

The relaxed fashion. 

Various Small Fires is showing at Frieze Los Angeles 2024.

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Chris Waywell is Senior Editor of Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.