Los Angeles According to: Mara McCarthy from The Box

In the latest of the series seeing Los Angeles through the eyes of its gallerists, the founder of The Box picks her favorite haunts and exhibitions around town

BY Chris Waywell in Frieze Los Angeles , Interviews | 09 FEB 24

Mara McCarthy opened her Los Angeles Arts District gallery The Box in 2007, with a mandate to contextualize historical and underrepresented artists within the social and political community of Los Angeles, often working with local social initiatives and projects such as the LA Poverty Department. Despite that (or maybe because of it), McCarthy knows her way around an audiophile bar and a Korean spa. Here are her highlights of her neighborhood and city.

What do you like about your gallery’s location?

One of the things I like about it is that it’s connected to a really interesting history in LA. It’s in an area where a lot of artists have lived. Unfortunately, a lot of them have been gentrified out. Al’s Bar was across the street and a lot of performance art and punk happened there. A lot of good shit happened there. My dad performed there a lot. It’s a convenience store now. It’s not the worst thing: everybody needs a Gatorade once in a while. But it has that vibe, that energy. 

I also like that I’m next to MOCA Geffen, which, of course, has a very longstanding history. We were pretty early in the Arts District, you know. I looked at buildings in Hollywood and had a really hard time finding something I loved. This building is kind of awesome. It’s a good industrial—but not overly industrial—kind of building; it has good proportions and all that kind of shit. 

Portrait of Mara McCarthy, Founder & Co-Principal of The Box LA Credit: Molly Tierny
Mara McCarthy. Photo: Molly Tierney

Can you give a brief explanation of the ethos behind your gallery?

We’re rooted in historical artists and also younger artists who are showing a lot in Europe. The root of the space was to show people who weren’t being shown in Los Angeles, and put those characters back into the art-history narrative. That’s still a thread within our program. A lot of those characters are very connected to the performance art community in LA and stuff like that. I really realize the value of creating space for performance, but also creating space for working with communities. I work with the LA Poverty Department who I’ve done quite a few projects with. It’s a local dramatic arts program that's focused on the Skid Row community. 

During the pandemic, we supported a residency and built a dance stage in our parking lot. So the gallery can serve as a commercial venue, but we also want to do things to support these artists that we appreciate, you know, so it’s not always a painting on the wall.

It would be really hard to live someplace that didn’t have a lot of food diversity.

What’s your favorite museum or gallery in Los Angeles?

I like the Hammer. I feel like it’s really interesting to watch right now. What I’m excited about in terms of the community, I would probably say Moca. I really love Johanna [Burton]—she’s been so supportive of us—and I love Clara [Kim]. I just love the community that’s come in there. And I love the Hammer too, but like, I’m a little nervous because now Ann [Philbin]’s leaving. I feel that’s where I’m at. 

Main image: Paul Pfeiffer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (30), 2015. Fujiflex digital c-print, 121.9 x 177.8 cm. © Paul Pfeiffer. Courtesy the artist; Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; carlier | gebauer, Berlin/Madrid; Perrotin; and Thomas Dane Gallery, London
Paul Pfeiffer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (30), 2015. Fujiflex digital c-print, 121.9 x 177.8 cm. © Paul Pfeiffer. Courtesy the artist; Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; carlier | gebauer, Berlin/Madrid; Perrotin; and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

Best show you have seen recently?

The Paul Pfeiffer show at MOCA Geffen is amazing. It’s a very strong show and I feel like it’s a statement. It takes over that whole big space, and these are big installations with lots of media and sound. It [must have taken] a lot of work to get it there, in a way that makes me excited.

Which emerging artists are you currently excited about?

I always find that word so strange. We’re really excited about showing somebody new at the fair, this woman named Laura Soto. I don’t know if I would call her “emerging” per se. This is gonna be the first time we work with her at Frieze. She does a lot of work with paper pulp. She’ll make pulp or layer paper and then coat them in fibers and make these big, almost shell-like forms. She's really into the fact that when she peels back a layer, she reveals colors that maybe are not the color she picked, and then uses those colors. They’re kind of like things that are a little bit off. One of them has all these little acrylic drips off it. They’re a really enjoyable thing. But they have interesting connections to her family life and to her own world in terms of processing and making work. So we’re excited to be debuting her at Frieze.

From Corazon del Sòl and Anna Betbeze. Sarcophagus Telephone. Dual exhibition. 2022. Credit: Fredrik Nilsen Studio
Corazon del Sòl and Anna Betbeze, “Sarcophagus Telephone,” 2022. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio

What’s your favorite restaurant? 

There’s a really nice restaurant called Damian in Downtown LA. It’s kind of a fancy place. But it is consistently delicious and I just think it’s so beautiful. I am also very into this place called Mian. It’s in San Gabriel, and it does Szechuan noodles, with the numbing pepper—that stuff. That’s the thing I love about LA. I’ve always thought it would be really hard to live someplace that didn’t have a lot of food diversity.

Your favorite bar?

Gold Line is a really cool bar in Highland Park that I like to go to sometimes. I like to go there right after work during the week because it gets really busy on the weekends. It’s a bit of a niche thing because it specializes in highballs and they like to play records. My partner’s really into audiophile stuff, and this place has crazy speakers. We started going there during the pandemic because one of the great things that happened in LA was that a lot of the bars and restaurants made it so that you can drink and be outside. And that was like such a revelation in LA because we had such strict laws about where you could drink, and now that particular bar for example has tables on the curbside and overflows into the street, which is really nice. Growing up here, and then traveling with my dad in Europe, you’re like: Why don’t we do this? In Germany they only get to do this for like five months of the year, we could do it almost all year.

Simone Forti. An Other Pretty Autumn. Solo exhibition. 2022. Credit: Fredrik Nilsen Studio
Simone Forti, “An Other Pretty Autumn,” 2022. Courtesy: Fredrik Nilsen Studio

A favorite business in LA?

There’s this place called Descanso Garden Spa, it’s kind of like in Sun Valley. There have been Korean spas I’ve gone to over the years in Koreatown: a couple of my favorite ones have closed, and a couple have gotten more Westernized. This one is a little bit far away, but not that far away. And it’s a big spa, with a big space for the men and zones for women and zones where we can all come together and have lunch and take a nap.

What’s the worst thing about LA?

Lack of public transportation. We just got a station, right by us in Little Tokyo. But I have a good friend who visits from New York. She stays in Malibu. So she ends up having to take a car to the train station and then take the train, and then get picked up to go to Pasadena. That is stupid. If I could sit for my half-hour commute downtown and read, I wouldn't say no.

What’s the best thing about LA?

The sun.

The Box is exhibiting at Frieze Los Angeles 2024.

Frieze Los Angeles 2024

Frieze Los Angeles is at Santa Monica Airport, February 29–March 3, 2024.

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