The Main Museum, Leonard Peltier exhibition, installation viewEXPAND
The Main Museum, Leonard Peltier exhibition, installation view
Chris Wormald

Downtown L.A. Embraces the Concept of the Kunsthalle

In between downtown's always growing, ever-changing population of eclectic artist-run alternative and commercial art galleries proliferating in and around the Arts District, and the realm of high-profile public and private museums from Grand Avenue to Exposition Park, there's another kind of art space. It's what the Europeans, who have thousands of such spaces in every corner of the continent, call a kunsthalle — meaning "art hall," which is not a satisfying translation.

Nonprofit and without permanent collections, producing ambitious programming on the elevated scale of larger galleries but charging no admission, these active, regional spots directly enliven their own neighborhoods and engage in international conversations. As a bonus for architecture buffs, these venues frequently employ an adaptive-reuse approach to renovating industrial and/or historic locations.

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Such is the case with the Institute for Contemporary Art Los Angeles (ICA LA), the Mistake Room (TMR) and the Main Museum (the Main). Each of these high-ceilinged venues has its own unique character and mission but they share a commitment to bringing fine art to new audiences, outside the retail market realm and on a human scale, and always with the modern and historical Los Angeles perspective in mind.

Nina Chanel Abney, Royal Flush, installation view at ICA LAEXPAND
Nina Chanel Abney, Royal Flush, installation view at ICA LA
Brian Forrest

ICA LA, which evolved after leaving its original incarnation as the Santa Monica Museum of Art, occupies a breezy warehouse on Seventh Street across from the Greyhound station. Its lofty and reconfigurable interior was renovated by the reigning king of art-world adaptive reuse, architect Kulapat Yantrasast, and it's painted on the exterior in a sunny, buttercup yellow per the beaconlike logo and visual brand design by artist Mark Bradford.

Currently on view are two solo shows by New York–based artists, sculptor/conceptualist B. Wurtz and painter Nina Chanel Abney, as well as a majestic room-size piece by Adrian Piper. Abney is also showing at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park, and Piper is the subject of a major retrospective at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. Piper's work is a walk-in video-based installation in which senses are heightened and prejudices challenged in an immersive, declarative experience. Abney's work reconfigures tropes of modern art history, especially heroes of Western painting such as Picasso and Matisse, into contemporary sendups of American cultural and political failings. Wurtz offers a sculptural tour de force in the language of found materials, upcycled objects, visual puns and low-key performative accumulation. All three, though they express it differently, center around the central problematics of representation.

Adrian Piper, What It's Like, What It Is #3 at ICA LAEXPAND
Adrian Piper, What It's Like, What It Is #3 at ICA LA
Brian Forrest

"We've only been open for a year!" says ICA curator Jamillah James. "So it's still a great opportunity to see who comes out for the kinds of programming we are doing." There's the loyal SMMOA crowd and the general art public who find their way downtown. "The young creative class in the city tends to congregate on the Eastside, and we have the school down the street who come every Monday and some evenings with parents. One thing that's been heartening to see at our open houses, which are these sort of nonhierarchical openings where we have an hour for the VIPs and the day is open to the public, is how diverse it is among ages, people of color, LGBTQ.

"That's true of the staff here, too, which is almost entirely POC; it's a more accurate reflection of the world outside the museum, and part of the opportunity is to try to change that game up a little." That script-flipping is further manifested in the programs. "It can't be a tokenistic gesture," James says of her approach to inclusion. "It's important to me to reflect the whole of what art and art history can look like."

The Mistake Room, Korakrit Arunanondchai, installation viewEXPAND
The Mistake Room, Korakrit Arunanondchai, installation view
Josh White/JW Pictures

The Mistake Room has been open for a few years now, growing from the seed of an idea planted by executive and artistic director Cesar Garcia. Along with a dedicated council of founders and advisers and a staff led by deputy director/head of programming Kris Kuramitsu, he has nurtured ideas about how to bring acclaimed global artists to the long-overdue attention of L.A. audiences, as well as to identify local and international collaborators to bolster the discourse. It has produced landmark exhibitions with artists including Oscar Murillo, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Boychild, Eduardo Sarabia, Diana Thater, Thomas Hirschhorn, Cao Fei and Tuan Andrew Nguyen.

TMR's current show mixes that all up a bit further, with an installation by Iraqi-born, now L.A.-based Susu Attar, whose performance work and painting-based installation questions the way in which the body is experienced in an increasingly diasporic, digital, virtual reality.

Oscar Murillo, Distribution Center, Mistake Room installation viewEXPAND
Oscar Murillo, Distribution Center, Mistake Room installation view
Josh White/JW Pictures

But the spirit of international exchange continues apace, as TMR expands its actions to Asia and also south of the border, exporting L.A. along with importing the globe. Earlier this month, TMR curated a special section of Shanghai's Art021 Contemporary Art Fair; and they are already several projects into a series of exhibitions in Guadalajara.

TMR has always been conceived as a global platform and it plans an eventual expansion of the program beyond the L.A. space, into the city and around the world. Guadalajara was its first foray. "It made sense for us because we have quite a few board members based there," Kuramitsu tells L.A. Weekly, "and also a lot of great relationships with local institutions. We have a commitment to the artist scene there as well. It was very organic."

The special section of Art021 in Shanghai is titled Lived Worlds, and is a curated section of six gallery-booth projects from L.A., Canada, China and Mexico (Shulamit Nazarian, François Ghebaly, Paramo, josegarcia, BANK and Catriona Jeffries) as well as a video program. "When we approach these off-site projects," Kuramitsu says, "we do so with a focus to the locality of the context in which we are working rather than trying to superimpose what we do in L.A.

"Instead," she says, "we spend time learning about distinct locales, identifying opportunities where we feel our program could contribute something to the local scene, and then working with local partners to help build projects that we hope can one day sustain themselves." The Guadalajara project, a collaboration with PAOS, has already staged several exhibitions, including a project with Henry Taylor. "Guadalajara is a magical city," Kuramitsu says. "It really has become a second home for TMR." The next project opens in February, a solo exhibition with L.A.-based ceramic sculptor Brian Rochefort.

Back home, the Susu Attar show is open through Dec. 8, and Dec. 15 sees a benefit auction and holiday party.

The view of Edgar Arceneaux's Library of Black Lies from outside Beta MainEXPAND
The view of Edgar Arceneaux's Library of Black Lies from outside Beta Main
Elon Schoenholz/Courtesy the Main Museum

The Main Museum, aka the Main, nee Beta Main for its early months in soft-launch mode, is an architectural gem on Fourth between Spring and Main in the landmark Continental Building in the historic core. Founder Tom Gilmore and director Allison Agsten share a profound appreciation for the often overlooked accomplishments of working artists from the local landscape, and are dedicated to fuller engagement with them and with addressing broader challenges to access in the art world, whether in economics or language.

On view now, the Main's annual "Office Hours" show is a perfect example of what that artist-curator relationship can look like at the scale of a community. Basically, Agsten schedules about 50 one-on-one meetings with local artists, each of whom contributes to a snapshot group show that is already a highlight of the season. It launched with the first one; this is the third iteration and, although works are not thematically selected, themes do emerge. This year there's a focus on innovative use of unconventional materials, as well as a dynamic array of portraits and other narrative work. The Main even commissions poetry and essays for each iteration.

The Main Museum, Leonard Peltier exhibition, installation viewEXPAND
The Main Museum, Leonard Peltier exhibition, installation view
Chris Wormald

Since it opened its doors and through a series of ongoing architectural renovations and preservations, the Main has created and hosted projects with artists including Suzanne Lacy, Leonard Peltier, Star Montana, Dora de Larios and Edgar Arceneaux, plus talks and forums and other kinds of topical public sessions. It regularly takes on issues of inclusion, intersectionality, activism, feminism, ableism and sustainability in its intuitive, heartfelt programming. It also recently announced a partnership with Art Center College of Design, which will see studio residencies and exhibition opportunities shared at the site.

The winter programs include "Office Hours," which closes Nov. 18; writer-in-residence Travis Diehl reading from his work in progress on Nov. 15; Diehl and four artists-in-residence (one of whom happens to be Susu Attar, on view at TMR) hosting open studio hours for the public; and, on Dec. 4, a public check-in with the Art Center students and the progress of their "classes-in-residence."

The Main also just launched "In Focus," an entire exhibition exclusively for its Instagram page, which is conceived as an overall self-contained program, featuring work by April Banks, Philip Cheung, Vikesh Kapoor, Dan Lopez and Elizabeth Preger, who were standouts from the "Office Hours" sessions. Experimenting with how technology can create bonds between disparate audiences, and possibly revamping the idea of what an art space can be beyond walls and floors, is a very Beta Main move. The name of the game is access and outreach, after all.


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