Imagine you're in Westwood Village, the mostly commercial neighborhood adjacent to UCLA, at around 6 p.m. You've just had a cheeseburger at Headlines! diner, which feels as if it belongs to a chain even though it doesn't. You catch a glimpse of airbrushed Ashton Kutcher, holding a point-and-shoot and smiling down at you from the massive yellow banner hanging on Bel Air Camera across the street. It's a cheesily colorful exterior typical of Westwood — a place where neon in windows, backlit signs of chains like Verizon and exclamation points (Headlines!, aahs!!) intermingle.
Then you head down Kinross Avenue, past a storefront that, until a week or two ago, was vacant, like 30 or so others in the immediate area. You notice the word "Fruitique" above the door, hear strains of Neil Diamond's "Cherry, Cherry" ("Cherry baby, she got the way to move me") coming from inside and see the colorful merchandise displayed against fruit-covered wallpaper. There are Norman Rockwell plates repainted so that a mother is tucking in a half-bitten peach instead of a little blond boy, as well as an oversized apple blinged out enough to double as a disco ball. The sight is supposed to catch you off-guard: What is this eccentric, DIY energy doing taking up Westwood real estate?
The Fruitique, run by David Burns and Austin Young of the artist-activist collective Fallen Fruit, opens Nov. 1, the same night as 14 other pop-up retailers involved in the Hammer Museum–spearheaded Arts ReSTORE LA: Westwood project. It's an attempt to imagine a different, more creative kind of Westwood, where boutiques move into storefronts that landlords have been unable to fill, in some cases for more than a decade.
The Hammer, located on the corner of Westwood and Wilshire, developed Arts ReSTORE in six months. "This is so outside of the realm of what we do that it's hard to imagine exactly how it will work," Hammer director Ann Philbin says. "We're just trying to raise awareness and start a conversation. So it's an experiment."
Philbin has wanted to make Westwood more arts-friendly since she came to the museum. Before galleries started moving into Culver City, she encouraged some of them to find space near her museum. Such plans fell through at the last minute, partly because landlords were far more comfortable with businesses like Target, which recently moved into a space that gallerists had considered.
Still, Philbin is frustrated by the spaces that remain vacant, and the landlords who refuse to lower prices in order to fill them. "No one can really quite explain to me the business reason why it would be better to have these spaces empty," she says.
Last spring, when the Goldhirsh Foundation announced it would award five $100,000 LA2050 grants to organizations with visions for L.A.'s future, the Hammer hustled to produce the pop-up arts district proposal. The youthful-feeling foundation, established by publisher Bernard Goldhirsh in 2000, made the proposal process public. Anyone could vote online for their favorites, with those votes influencing the foundation's choices. The Hammer's proposal won in the arts category.
But why start a bid for a better future for L.A. arts in a relatively affluent retail district?
"Westwood is the port of entry to Los Angeles for the UCLA community, and we feel its revitalization is key to positioning L.A. as a world-class city," says Anna Silverman, the foundation's social innovation manager. "This project is about incubating and supporting local craftspeople so that consumers and the local economy don't need to rely on big brands and chains."
The Hammer hired Gloria Gerace, who had been managing director of the regionwide, Getty-backed Pacific Standard Time series of art exhibitions two years ago, to help find the right craftspeople and to work as a liaison among artisans, museum and landlords. She conducted interviews, did studio visits and read through proposals that came in response to the Hammer's open call.
Gerace wanted the makers to be newly established but still have the capacity to staff a store for a month. She often was met with skepticism when she proposed the location to potential participants. "It was as if Westwood Village had fallen off the map," she says.
Some Arts ReSTORE participants, like ceramist Heather Levine or limited-edition clothing maker Ermie, have the kind of product you would be more likely to see in Silver Lake.
But the hope is that the new stores could change conceptions of the neighborhood. "This wouldn't work if there were just two [artisan-run stores] coming into Westwood in two different spots," says Jim Brooks, director of Topa Management, one of the two landlords that agreed to participate. "It needs the synergy."
Nonprofit ForYourArt's Give Good Art project, featuring artist-designed gifts, will set up shop in a Topa space.
Brooks, whose company just signed a 10-year lease that expands Urban Outfitters' previously small Westwood store and has already seen an upswing in interest from other retailers as a result, doesn't necessarily expect the Arts ReSTORE vendors to remain in the area after the month ends. But he considers the project a "win-win," with the Hammer leveraging its art connections and paying all the operating costs — that initial $100,000 ended up being only seed money — to imagine a Westwood that fits its vision and Topa showcasing how its spaces can be used. "It's almost like a marketing extension" for Topa, Brooks says.
One large space across the street from CVS, at 1000 Westwood Blvd., will include seven vendors. Whitman's Beard Used Books, run by Westwood residents Rama Bauer and Steve Rohal, will be there — if they're well received, they may actually open a space nearby. Clark & Madison's handbags and luggage line will be there, too, along with Loyal Dean longboards and designer Tanya Aguiñiga.
Next door to the multivendor market, the store/gallery IKO IKO will sell artist-made objects. Dosa, the clothing and housewares collections by nomadic designer Christina Kim, will be above Give Good Art's store. Homeboy Industries, the downtown-based organization that supports reformed gang members and former prison inmates, will run a café closer to the museum.
On Kinross, the Iron Curtain Press, which Joel and Rosanna Kvernmo have been running out of their apartment prior to now, will host workshops and fill custom print orders right next door to the Fruitique.
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The Fruitique started to take shape a few days before the others, maybe because its organizers were nervous about wallpapering all the tall walls. Around noon on Oct. 23, Burns and Young were unpacking inventory. Burns held up a miniature warrior figurine made of paper-thin wood, then experimented with hanging a bunch of green grapes from its spear. "This is a miracle," he said of the figurine, "but he needs to have some fruit added."
"We need to make more Day-Glo fruit," Young said, pulling out a bag of yet-to-be-altered artificial apples and pears. He had just mentioned the fruit-themed playlist they'll have looping during open hours and how songs mentioning bananas tend to be about labor (think "Yes, We Have No Bananas" or Radiohead's "Banana, Co.," with its possible references to how foreign business messes with local economies).
Hopefully, clientele will notice details like that and think about them, because that could make Arts ReSTORE more than a well-intentioned retail venture, and give it some of that "there's-more-to-this" energy that good art often has.
ARTSRESTORE L.A.: WESTWOOD | Westwood Village | Nov. 1-24, Thurs.–Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. | artsrestore.la