Los Angeles may not be considered the most influential destination for art in the United States, but you’d be surprised by how many historically significant structures, movements, artists and institutions have colored the Southern Californian city. In fact, during the Second World War, some of the most famous and important figures of the Avant Gard era came to Los Angeles, briefly making it the center of the radical art movement.
Since then, many artists have made LA home, including Ed Ruscha, Mike Kelly and John Baldessari, helping to create a diverse art world within this flashy city.
Jumping in the car and moving from east to west from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains to the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean, you can find art institutions offer both a global and local perspective. These institutions along with the help of numerous smaller galleries and community projects work together to solidify Los Angeles’ place as a major player in the international art world.
Photo by Melissa Karlin
Pasadena is an old school kind of place. It’s idyllic and manicured, and unsurprising, the craftsman style of the early 20th century home was perfected here. You can experience the grandeur and intricate detailed combination of art and architecture at the Gamble House (pictured above). The home is only available to visit via tour and these are held Thursday-Sunday on the hour from 12-3 p.m. This landmark is also famous for its place in cinematic history as the home of Doc Brown in the first Back to the Future film. For an institutional art experience, Pasadena’s old town has any art-lover covered with two establishments that have very different points of interest. The Norton Simon Museum is a bit like any art museum in Europe; it houses work from a collection of impressionist and modern masters alongside ancient works from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and a lush sculpture garden. The Pasadena Museum of California Art, on the other hand, is focused exclusively on Californian artists and design movements, exploring the distinctly Californian combination of cultural dynamics and influences through rotating exhibitions.
2. Downtown Los Angeles
Photo by Melissa Karlin
There are two ways to experience art in Downtown Los Angeles: on top of Bunker Hill and below it. This divide creates an interesting dichotomy that reflects the art world at large: institutional versus independent. The heavy hitters are on Grand Avenue. With the opening of the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (pictured above), the avenue is solidified as the arts and culture establishment of the city. This monolith is located directly across the street from MOCA (the Museum of Contemporary Art), the Music Center (which includes the LA Opera, the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson), and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Below the hill is the old bank district and arts district. The second Tuesday of every month, the Downtown Art Walk takes over on Spring Street and some of the surrounding areas. What started out as a way for galleries to open their doors and build an audience has become a massive monthly art party. Crowds rush to the area known as Gallery Row for free art shows. Live music and restaurant specials add to the appeal.
Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty
Los Angeles is also home to the largest art museum west of the Mississippi. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art covers art from the ancient non-western to the contemporary with an emphasis on presenting what is important not only to the art world but to the unique and diverse population of Los Angeles. For instance, the complex campus is home to a Latin American section with works from the modern Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera juxtaposed with Spanish works from the colonial periods and ancient artifacts from Mexico’s indigenous people. The museum is also home to a small but immensely interesting section called Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art in the Middle East. This work is striking and important, bringing a voice to an area rife with conflict and the culture that exists within.
4. West L.A.
Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty
Along Washington and La Cienega in Culver City there are over 30 galleries that make up the Culver City Arts District. This cluster of creativity is filled with mostly private galleries, with a few nonprofits thrown in. Westwood is home to two UCLA-run institutions: the contemporary-leaning Hammer Museum, which recently made the news by dropping its admission fee, and the Fowler Museum, the half ethnographic and half contemporary art institution. Towering above it all as it sits majestically on a hill is The Getty (pictured above). The views alone make a trip to this powerhouse of a museum worth it, the art is almost like a bonus. And that’s not to diminish the quality and range of this generally European art history-focused institution, but on a clear day when you can see from Downtown Los Angeles to the ocean and beyond, it is one of the most spectacular sites in all of Los Angeles.
Finally we reach the ocean a vastly different experience. In Venice (pictured at top), the gallery scene is less than it once was but it is still rather vibrant. This all comes to a head when the Venice Art Crawl takes place (the next one will be Dec. 17). This is when galleries and shops open their doors to the public and like the art walk in downtown, celebrate the art and culture of Los Angeles, though this time with a bit more of a hippy, beachy vibe thanks to its location, unique graffiti, and sidewalk staples.
is a writer, photographer and professional social butterfly based in Los Angeles. When she’s not traveling, she’s usually drinking coffee and watching obscene amounts of TV.