When L.A. Artists Need a Place to Live and Paint, They Call Keith Couser
Keith Couser at his gallery
Photo by Kate Jordan
In Los Angeles, the slashie phenomeon is indelibly ingrained in a culture that celebrates creative ambition. You see it in the waiter/actor/model who shuffles from auditions to brunch service, the graphic designer/Pilates instructor designing a new web site, and the barista/musician pulling an espresso.
For Chicago transplant Keith Couser, bridging the worlds of art and real estate has allowed him to create a niche as the preferred agent for Los Angeles’ up-and-coming artists. As a gallerist/real estate agent, Couser splits his days running his compact Culver City gallery, Loudhailer, and finding homes for a growing clientele of creatives including art world darlings such as John Knuth, Julian Hoeber and Mark Hagen.
Couser spent almost two decades in the real estate industry in the Midwest while becoming increasingly interested in art by going to a lot of exhibits and studio visits. He eventually became a collector and then a partner in a small gallery, Bucket Rider, in Chicago.
Couser‘s expanding social network began to include more and more West Coast artists and his gallery focused on emerging talent, many of whom are now rising stars in L.A.’s art world. His gallery was the first to feature Knuth's critically lauded series of “Fly Paintings,” created using the excretions of 250,000 houseflies.
Four years ago, tired of Chicago winters and with an increasing number of his artist friends already in L.A., Couser made the move here. His first real estate clients were people he knew from the art world. Knuth, who helped find Couser his first apartment in L.A. when he moved here, wound up asking Couser to help him buy his first home last year. Knuth and his wife, interior designer Taylor Jacobson, found themselves priced out of Echo Park, where they had been renting an apartment.
“We couldn’t afford to buy in Echo Park. We couldn’t afford the ‘hipster hills.’ We were priced out of Highland Park, and Glassell Park, and Eagle Rock,” Knuth says. Couser showed them about 30 homes in their price range, including properties south of the 10 and in East L.A., before they bought their house in Altadena. Knuth prioritized properties that had a two-car garage with a yard big enough to build a studio. His workspace needed to be able to accommodate his unusual materials and methods for his art, which include not only the flies but also snakes and smoke flares, with space to build outdoor sculptures.
For Knuth, working with Couser came naturally. “He will sell you a painting, then sell you the wall to hang it on,” Knuth jokes.
Couser, right, at his gallery, with artist Devin Farrand
One of the reasons Couser enjoys working with artists is their shared aesthetic appreciation of fixer-uppers. “Artists have a better vision of what can be done,” he explains. “They can look at a property and not just see the bad but can re-envision it.” Artists, with less predictable income than a salaried employee, also present unique challenges in terms of financing, which Couser helps them through. “They’re also the toughest to sell houses to.”
For artists Julian Hoeber and Heather Rasmussen, Couser understood the couple’s aesthetic demands when they were house-hunting in 2013. “He knew my taste, he has an eye for art, and he’s concerned with aesthetics,” Hoeber says.
Since Hoeber had a background as a fabricator, Couser knew he was comfortable with remodeling. As a result, Hoeber says, “He was a little more adventurous about what to put in front of us.” Hoeber wound up purchasing a two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow on a large lot that offers space for a studio.
With more and more requests for help finding studio space, Couser expanded from residential real estate to commercial, scouting for cheaper space in less obvious neighborhoods. With the post-industrial Arts District becoming less hospitable to working artists as it becomes a packaged and branded urban commodity for “artists” more likely to run a social media startup than stretch a canvas, Couser has had to get more creative.
In residential real estate, he says, “Everything is on the Internet. For commercial properties, you need to have the right contacts to find the right properties.” Yet as pricing for studio space increases, Couser says artists look for a detached garage they can convert into studio space in their homes.
As parts of Northeast L.A. such as Highland Park have become out of reach for first-time home buyers, Couser has expanded his searches to neighborhoods such as West Adams, South L.A. and Inglewood. “We’re still in a boom cycle,” he says. “So we’re casting a wide net. If someone is looking for a Craftsman, they may not be able to afford it in Pasadena but maybe they can in El Sereno. It’s a game of patience.”
Last year, with Couser’s real estate business growing, he once again opened exhibition space, in a small storefront just off La Cienega’s Gallery Row. His approach to the gallery reflects the same tactics he brings to real estate, exhibiting emerging artists who are less well-known locally. “I don’t chase the latest kid out of art school in L.A.,” he explains, eschewing the MFA feeding frenzy at CalArts and Art Center. Instead, he prefers to find talent from his Midwest connections to Cranbrook and the Art Institute.
In addition, he adds, “I work with young collectors because I was a young collector. I can remember that feeling of walking into galleries and being sized up and dismissed.”
Artists often are viewed as a double-edged sword: as the trailblazers willing to live with fewer local amenities in exchange for cheaper digs but also the harbingers of gentrification. But the reality is that many of the artists Couser works with don’t want to be frontierspeople. Instead, they’re buyers much like everyone else — looking for a decent value, good schools for their kids and enough space to grow a lemon tree.
While the economy is strong and the art market is healthy, allowing more artists to become first-time home buyers, Couser is circumspect about the cyclical nature of real estate. “A bust is inevitable,” he sighs. In the meantime, as long as L.A. continues to attract new artists, new home buyers and new art collectors, Couser hopes to serve them all.
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