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Issue 216

What Makes Artist-Run Spaces Flourish

Brian Butler, Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer and Diana Theater discuss why LA has been home to so many experimental venues over the last 40 years 

BY Brian Butler, Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer AND Diana Thater in Interviews | 22 FEB 21

Diana Thater The bedrock of the LA arts scene has always been its schools: CalArts, UCLA, ArtCenter College of Design. When my generation was starting to show work in the early 1990s, we were very ambitious because we had teachers like John Baldessari, Mike Kelley, Patti Podesta, Charles Ray and Nancy Rubins. None of us had any money but we didn’t care. Why not just have a show in your living room?

Brian Butler When the art-market bubble burst in 1989, I had just come back from Europe, where lots of gallerists – including Christian Nagel and Maureen Paley – were showing in domestic spaces. I found an available townhouse at 1301 Franklin Street in Santa Monica that just made sense. 

DT I think a lot hinged on the recession, followed by the Gulf War and the LA riots. The city went dark for a few years. The only pinpoints of light were those domestic spaces and the artists who showed in them, and congregated at Museum of Contemporary Art openings. We all knew each other: everyone was either a teacher, a student or a recent graduate. 

If you think about it, historically, experimentation always happens when there’s no market, there’s a recession or a war. In the 1960s, there was Fluxus and Judson Dance Theater: things that didn’t make money but advanced ideas. I think it’s during these low points in socio-economic history that our culture really leaps forward.

Oo Fifi Diana Thater
Diana Thater, Oo Fifi, Five Days in Claude Monet’s Garden, Part I, 1992, installation view at 1301PE, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist 

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer When I started The Finley in 2011, we were in the middle of a recession. I had finished my MFA at ArtCenter four years earlier and was writing freelance, but I wasn’t making much money. My family owns the building in Los Feliz where The Finley is located, so I have no overheads. The gallery is in a stairwell with a window: you can see it from the street, so no one has to man it. I had thought about opening a gallery elsewhere, but I believe wholeheartedly that, to paraphrase Lee Lozano, the easiest discipline is the best. I was also interested in engaging with a community that is not about the market, but about exchanges amongst peers. 

DT Mike Kelley always used to say: ‘I don’t know why you want to do this. You’ll never make any money.’ In the 1990s, a lot of us showed at Bliss, a little kunsthalle that Kenneth Riddle started in a house in Pasadena. No one ever tried to sell the art there. Brian, you always specialized in the barely sellable artwork, too.

BB Angela Bulloch did one of the first shows at 1301 in 1993. We got a boom box with a touch pad, so that when someone stepped on the apartment doormat, the audio from the shortest fight in heavyweight history would play. I think it was Mike Tyson. It lasted 25 seconds. 

Laura Owens Finley
Laura Owens, 2012, exhibition view, The Finley, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and The Finley, Los Angeles; photograph: Andrew Cannon

SLG Before I opened The Finley, I was aware of The Vanity, which Asha Schechter started in a closet in his Mid-City apartment, and Pauline, the space Mateo Tannatt ran in his home. Being from LA, maybe I took it for granted that a domestic environment would be suited to an art experience, because things here centre more around private than public space. 

BB Richard Kuhlenschmidt, who started his gallery with Tom Jancar at the Los Altos Apartments in 1980, was also really important, because he was one of the first to start showing CalArts graduates. 

DT All of those shows were really DIY and we had to learn how to deal with quirky architecture. I did my first real show, ‘Oo Fifi’, at 1301 in 1992. We couldn’t afford screens for the projections, so I just used the walls and covered up the windows with gels. My experience there helped me develop tools I’ve used throughout my career.

SLG That’s amazing! I think The Finley is different enough that artists can have fun and try things out in ways that might later become productive for their broader practices. Some have worked on the window and, in 2017, Dianna Molzan used the double-height ceiling to curate a show of hanging mobiles. 

Lately, I feel LA is over-saturated with handsome white cubes that have beautiful skylights, but where the viewing experience becomes anonymous, rote. I’m drawn to the contrast of domestic spaces – whether it’s a dingy garage or a mansion like Parker Gallery in Los Feliz – that really frame the experience.

1301 LA
1301, Los Angeles, 1992. Courtesy: 1301, Los Angeles 

BB In a way, these spaces are annual. The late 1980s was a rainy season and, all of a sudden, the blossoms were everywhere. 

We were ultimately pushed out of Santa Monica because the city eliminated rent control and the building was developed as a tenant-ownership project. But Diana and I kept working together, collaborating on ‘The Best Animals Are the Flat Animals’ [1998] at the Schindler House. In 1996, I also worked on a project with Jason Rhoades and Jorge Pardo at the Peter Strauss Ranch, which burned down in 2018. That was the age of the artist intervention – a term that became horribly overused. 

SLG In the past, there’s been a cycle of benign neglect in LA, which meant that artists could make things without much expectation. The recent influx of money and attention has changed everything. When the market and things like Instagram homogenize art, domestic spaces can create little sub-cultures, pockets of difference and specificity. These spaces serve a different scale of audience. Maybe a dozen people see a show, but all of them are brilliant and are impacted by it. That’s not just the market: that’s history. I think we can still do that. I hope we can. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 216 with the headline ‘Gallery, Garden, Garage’, alongside Garage Galleries Thrive in Car-Bound Los Angeles and A Brief History of the LA House Gallery.

Main image: Asha Schechter, 2013-14, exhibition view, The Finley, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and The Finley, Los Angeles

Brian Butler is a gallerist and owner of 1301PE, Los Angeles. He is the former director of ARTSPACE (2005–08), Auckland, New Zealand. He lives in Los Angeles.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer is a writer who publishes the journal Pep Talk, co-runs The Finley and teaches at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece (2014, Afterall). She lives in Los Angeles. 

Diana Thater is an artist. In 2020, she had an online solo exhibition at David Zwirner and her work was included in group shows at the San José Museum of Art, USA, and Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, Germany. She lives in Los Angeles.