Something's happening in Culver City



Times Staff Writer

THEY are neighbors here on Main Street, Culver City: At 3850 Main is artist and architect Gregg Fleishman, creator of geometrical plywood constructions ranging from ergonomic chairs to structural scale models for geodesic buildings. Fleishman, a native Angeleno who has spent the better part of his 57 years in Culver City, has been working magic with birch wood at this address for more than 10 years. Just a few doors away at 3830 Main is Cliff Benjamin, co-owner of the Western Project art gallery, a bright, airy space that opened less than a year ago. The gallery's most recent show, of work by Carole Caroompas and Tom Sanford, opened Saturday. One Main Street business owner is a Culver City lifer, the other, new in town. But from their downtown vantage point, both Fleishman and Benjamin are aware that Culver City - once known as an affordable bedroom community with movie industry connections and not much else - is the L.A. area's newest haven for the visual and performing arts. Benjamin, 49, formerly director of the Mark Moore Gallery at Santa Monica's Bergamot Station, has lived in Los Angeles since 1968 but acknowledges he was only vaguely aware of Culver City when he and Western Project co-owner Erin Kermanikian started looking for a place to open their own gallery. "I was one of the first people to say, 'Oh, no one would ever come to Culver City," Benjamin admits. "I looked all over the city. I went from Chinatown to West Hollywood, from the beach to downtown. But then I drove up Washington Boulevard and ended up on Main Street and I said: 'Oh my God, this is it'"

"It felt like Los Angeles 20, 25 years ago; it
didn't feel congested," Benjamin continues,.
"The first time my partner and I came over
here, walking down the street in the middle of
summer, we said: "This sort of feels like Palm
Springs, it's so calm, and the streets are so
wide.'" Benjamin also liked the idea of being
near Culver City's internationally known land-
mark of weird science, the Museum of Jurassic
Technology. :

Possibly the best known Culver City arts
venue is the 11-year-old Jazz Bakery, a non-
profit jazz theater in the Helms Bakery build-
ing. But with a recent influx of at least nine new
or relocating contemporary art galleries, as well
as the Nov. 7 opening of Center Theatre
Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre, it's hard to deny
that something new is happening when it
comes to the arts.

Even the area's new Trader Joe's, open for
less than a year on Culver Boulevard, has cre-
ated a niche to display works by local artists.
"We think it's pretty cool," says store employee
Alex Calder.

In terms of economics, the rarefied world of
high-end art galleries and the ever-struggling
community of nonprofit performing arts insti-
tutions, such as the Douglas Theater, couldn't
be more different,


GALLERY owners say they are
moving to the Culver City area to
take advantage of the large, rela-
tively inexpensive warehouse
spaces the city provides; they say
their well-heeled, international clientele will
find them wherever they go.

Gregg Fleishman makes art out of birch

By contrast. Culver City performing arts in-
stitutions like the Douglas - or the 6-year-old
Culver City Public Theatre, which provides free,
outdoor performances during the summer at
Dr. Paul Carlson Memorial Park - are often
more dependent on the cooperation and finan-
cial support of city government. With the aid of
the city. Kirk and Ann Douglas, son Michael
and other private donors. Center Theatre
Group, a resident company of downtown L.A.'s
Music Center, has spent $10 million to turn the
old Culver Theater movie house into a 300-seat
playhouse, including an upper-level classroom
and rehearsal space. The "adaptive reuse"
project was done by Culver City's Steven Ehr-
lich Architects.

Still, both gallery owners and performing
arts proponents say that a certain synergy has
developed in town that fosters the arts as a

ALMOST THERE: Center-Theatre
Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre will open Nov.7.

whole. "There is definitely a symbiosis there;

one creates a buzz for the other," says Kellee
Fritzal, economic development manager tor the
Culver City Redevelopment Agency.

Says Gordon Davidson, Center Theatre
Group's artistic director-producer: "One of the
most amazing things has been the cooperation
and participation of both the Culver City Re-
development Agency and the City Council;

without their willingness to participate, this
wouldn't have happened. Plus they put in con-
siderable money themselves, from various
sources and pockets, and that pleased Kirk and
Ann Douglas; they didn't feel like they had to do
it all themselves."

Davidson also likes the central location. "It
is very accessible to what one might think our
regular audience is - Beverly Hills, Brentwood,
Santa Monica - but it also has Baldwin Hills
and Ladera Heights on the other side; that
automatically expands the diversity of the

 "It's not quaint like Pasadena is quaint, it's
not 'old world' like that, but its scale seems
right," Davidson continues. "It's not encrusted
with that history that can be wonderful, but can
^also/be a mold that you have to fit into."


OTHER Culver City architects are
Pugh+Scarpa, HOK and Ehrlich,
I the firm responsible tor the Doug-
las Theatre project. Ehrlich's
Washington Boulevard offices
represent the kind of creative renovation Cul-
ver City officials love: The firm is head-
quartered in the former California Municipal
Club House, built in 1917 as a dance hall and
community center. The building later became a
mortuary and had been boarded up tor years
when architect Steven Ehrlich purchased it in

Although Culver City's reputation for sup-
porting the arts is strong, it is also relatively
new. One local gallery owner says the city has
had to struggle to erase its reputation among
artists as a "kind of 1950s municipality" whose
government "is an old, white boys' club with no
interest in the arts."

Artist and 25-year Culver City resident
James Dorsey describes the city's earlier at-
tempts at supporting artists as well meaning
but woefully disorganized.

In 1996, Dorsey applied to be part of a Sum-
mer Gallery Series, an adjunct to the popular
Summer Sunset Music Festival, and was in-
vited to exhibit his work in a city-sponsored
solo show at the recently renovated Culver City

"There was a lady assigned to me from the
city, I don't remember her name anymore, and
assistants were going to be there for the event
- but when my wife, Irene, and I got there,
there was no one there; we set up everything
ourselves," Dorsey says.

"Then came early evening, and we were sup-
posed to shut things down, and Irene and I real-
ized we were the only people at City Hall. I felt
very strange about that, so I called the police. A
black-and-white showed up, and the cops told
us we couldn't leave, we had to lock up City
Hall. We were furious and left at this point - I
thought, 'Do what you want to me, but I'm not
the idiot in charge of this.' "

But Dorsey is beginning to see enough en-
couraging signs that he might soon look into
doing another Culver City exhibition. "There's
a gallery that recently opened up on Washing-
ton Boulevard a block from my house, and
; here are banners around town advertising ca-

D0WNTOWN: The Hay den Tract is home
to buildings designed by Eric Owen Moss.

fes, and the Sagebrush Cantina will be turned
into an art gallery," Dorsey says. "It's great."

The Cantina, on Culver Boulevard, is being
renovated and taken over by the Wonderful
World of Animation, a Beverly Hills dealer that
exhibits and sells animation art from feature
films and cartoons. The business will relocate
to Culver City after the first of the year and
plans to operate a restaurant on the premises.

City officials are quick to say that Dorsey
would meet a friendlier city this time around.
Economic development manager Fritzal says
that Culver City began its quest to become a.
cultural destination in the early 1990s, when it
launched plans to add more parking structures
and leased and renovated the Ivy Substation as
a performing arts center. The 1907 Mission Re-

vival-style building had once housed a power
converter that provided electricity for the Red
Cars of the Pacific Railway Co.

The structure stood on land owned by Los
Angeles, but Culver City leased it and spent
about $2 million on its renovation and preserva-
tion as a historic site. The city makes the space
available for rental, and it is often occupied by
performing arts companies, including Center"
Theatre Group, which has used it for develop-
mental programs.

But Fritzal says it was not until 2001, when
the City Council created a cultural affairs com-
mission, that Culver City began to establish its
reputation as a city determined to invest in be-
coming an arts center.

The cultural affairs group has not only been
aggressive in supporting development of the
Douglas theater and the city's existing pep-
forming arts institutions - including the Deb-
bie Alien Dance Academy and the Henry Man-
cini Institute - but also has helped privately
owned galleries bypass red tape or spruce up
their facades or surrounding streets and side-

The city has provided grants to artists for
arts programming within Culver City limits. It
also partners with Sony Pictures, whose stu-
dios are in the heart of the area, to fund arts
grants and programs in the city's public

ROOTS: Conversion of the Ivy Substation to a performing arts center began the wave

Amir Fallah, 24, a master of fine arts student at UCLA, moved to Culver City 2 1/2 years ago to
be near UCLA'S graduate studio on Warner
Drive. During that short period, the Baltimore
native says, "I've just seen gallery after galley
moving in.... It's kind of exploding. ^

"Hollywood and Santa Monica are old
places, they've had galleries for awhile, and gal-
leries always look for new places," Fallah says.
"It's kind of like how it was in New York, when
galleries moved from SoHo to Chelsea, and now
a lot of people are moving to Brooklyn. As soon
as one big name moves somewhere, everyone
else kind of follows."

Western Project's BenJamin has observed
the same thing. "There's this art movement
that happens every five to seven years; the most
recent development pre-Culver City was China-
town," he says.

Fallah and Benjamin are not the only ones
to suggest that Culver City is going Chelsea, so
to speak - and the "big name" that made the
first move was Blum & Poe, a contemporary art
gallery that engaged architects Frank Escher
and Ravi GuneWardena to remodel an unused
red brick warehouse on La Cienega near the 10
Freeway. They moved there from Santa Monica
about a year ago.

Owners Tim Blum and JeffPoe say their new
5,000-square-foot gallery has six or seven times
more space than their former headquarters.
"There was nothing down here, it was just a
dead zone," Blum says. "People were definitely
like: 'Hmmm, is that really such a smart idea, to
go down south, down La Cienega?' But we just
had to trust our intuition." ,


THE ZIP Code is technically L.A.,
|but to the galleries taking up resi-
dence near the intersection of La
Cienega and Washington boule-,,
vards, it's all Culver City - al-
though a contingent of design-related busi-
nesses in the area, led by Vincent Cullinan,
owner of Classic Tile & Mosaic, are making ef-
forts to dub the area the La Cienega South De-
sign District.

Also on the list of new residents: Susanre
Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, which moved
to West Washington Boulevard from its mid-
Wilshire home in January; Sandroni Key, which
relocated from Venice to La Cienega, also in
May; the Project, which left downtown LA. and
opened on Comey Avenue at Venice Boulevard
on Sept. 10; and BLK / MRKT Gallery, which
opened about two months ago on Washington
Boulevard after vacating the old Wiltem Build-
ing at Wilshire and Western. '

The new Anna Helwing Gallery opened in
July 2003 on La Cienega. Lizabeth Oliveria Gal-
lery, also on La Cienega, opened in May after
moving south from San Francisco. The George
Billis Gallery, in New York's Chelsea district,
opened a branch on La Cienega on Sept. 10.

Mary Leigh Cherry, co-owner ofcherrydelos-
reyes gallery, which occupies a renovated tav-
ern on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles, says
that even from a few miles away, she feels like
part of a new gallery neighborhood. "We have
definitely noticed since last year that people are
coming in and saying, 'Where is Blum & Po«
new space?' The Culver City area is generating
this kind of excitement."

New York art dealer Michael Jenkins, direc-
tor of Brent Sikkema gallery in Chelsea, says it
didn't take long for the East Coast to become
aware of Culver City. "I went to L.A. in March to
see a young artist, and I'd been to Susanne Viel-
metter's gallery on Wilshire before, and I knew
she was moving, but it wasn't until I was kind of
there that I realized that Blum & Poe was
around the corner, and the Project was going
there. It registered that there was a little neigh-
borhood developing," Jenkins says.

Culver City officials hope more people from"
outside the area will discover their "hidden"
city. They admit to a dearth of general-interest
bookstores and that the area could use more re-
tail shops and restaurants - but declare them-
selves ready to expand.

"I happen to live in Pasadena, and Pasadena
is so established; Culver City is more fresh, the
dew is still on the grass," says Elaine Gerety
management analyst for the redevelopment
agency. "I think of Culver City as the early
morning hours, all the excitement, all the wcn-
der. This is definitely a work in progress."