Like the Buddhist influenced pieces on display in the main gallery area, Bert Green sits at his desk, a little Buddha-like himself, calmly presiding over the domain of the flourishing downtown Los Angeles art scene. I took a good look at the exhibits before sitting down today with the multiple gallery owner, and founder of the Los Angeles Art Walk.
The event had been growing at an impressive rate since it’s creation in 2004, and I wanted to find out what direction Art Walk was taking these days. Bert tells me it’s great, but he thinks it’s also taken a bit of a wrong turn.
Art Walk started out small, with an attendance of 75 people who turned up to peek into the cluster of galleries who had opened their doors that evening. With skid row in all its glory just a stone’s throw away, Bert joked that these first attendees were called the “brave 75.”
Today the estimated attendance for the last Art Walk is 6,000. It sounded about right. I remember standing on 5th and Main, the Art Walk’s natural epicenter, being impressed with the floods of people I saw squeezing down the sidewalks.
Bert thinks that one reason for the rapid growth of the event is that the economy may be having a reverse effect on the downtown area. Population is on the rise, and people are starting to move downtown. Development and real estate might not be growing right now, but renovation is. That means rental prices are starting to soften. Leasing offices are beginning to give potential tenants more leeway, and someone looking to try it out downtown, can do this without taking too much of a financial risk.
Subsequently, these new tenants who are spending less on rent, can afford to support the local businesses. “Some of the diners and hamburger joints are doing great because of this,” he said.
Bert himself lives downtown, at the “million dollar” Rosslyn, right across the street from his Fine Art gallery. He can just look out his window anytime and check on his gallery, which he tells me he does often. Bert was raised just outside Manhattan and lived in NYC for 15 years. He then moved to San Francisco and eventually migrated south to Los Angeles, but has been in downtown proper for the last three years.
He feels the downtown art scene is unique. It’s varied, not more than other cities per se, but more than other gallery clusters, which tend to have a compressed range of similarity. Artists that are in the same point in their careers, for instance. Downtown is filled with DIY stuff, artists who are just starting out, or experimenting and changing styles. There are lots of artist run spaces, under the radar spaces, off the beaten path places. Some of the venues are late night parties that aren’t on the maps, because they can’t commit to doing regular shows. Then there’s the museums.
“The variety is unparalleled. It has the feeling of the Lower East Side,” Bert said.
A New York native myself, I snapped my fingers. “Exactly!”
Bert lived in SoHo during the 70’s and 80’s, and watched that area develop into what it is now. Before moving to downtown Los Angeles, he walked around and said to himself, “Oh my god, the same thing could happen here.”
“LA isn’t an isolated urban area like NYC. People are here by choice; we’re not displacing residents. Downtown LA is developing its own character. We’re starting from scratch, creating a new way of life down here. This opens it up to more innovation.”
“It’s much more interesting to me to be somewhere where it’s in a state of becoming, not where it’s in a condition of being. And when it stops being that here, I may move.”
Bert tells me that it’s changed a lot in the last two years. That it used to be that you had to leave to get clothes and groceries. But now he uses his car once a week tops.
“Bit by bit, things are becoming available,” Bert said. “But it’s going to be a 25 year process.”
In fact, this seems to be his only frustration with downtown development. How slowly it’s becoming. As for his frustrations with Art Walk—it’s the opposite. So many visitors are coming now, and it’s growing so rapidly, that it’s become too much for him to manage alone.
So, what is the future of Art Walk? Bert says it’s getting too big for one person to manage, so they’re transitioning to a nonprofit organization run by Richard Shave, of the bus company and Los Angeles tours. He has a vested interest in Art Walk already. Bert is transferring it over to their team, and will remain as founder, but hopes they will take over completely down the road.
And then there’s another problem…the street vendors.
“We’re not interested in developing it in this direction,” Bert said. “I don’t begrudge the street vendors, but it’s illegal. Everyone needs to obey the law.”
The police approached Bert at the last Art Walk to ask about the vendors, which were causing people to overflow into the streets, creating a dangerous situation. Bert had to tell them, he has nothing to do with the vendors.
“They’re not here because of us, they came on their own.”
“Creating obstructions on the sidewalk is illegal. Now if these vendors moved their set up to a designated spot, private property, parking lots for instance, we would support it. At the moment it’s too chaotic.”
I asked whether closing off the streets, like other Art Walks I had been to in other cities tend to do. Bert was also opposed to this.
“If they close off the streets, people would still need to stay off the sidewalks. And it’s like…we have a perfect urban scene down here. Events close off streets to create a carnival like atmosphere, a flea market.”
“We want to focus on the venues. There’s no shortage of street vendors in Los Angeles. You can get that anywhere. And besides most of it, sorry…it’s not art.”
I mentioned that I saw the video on Youtube from the last Art Walk of the young man caught shoplifting who smashed a storefront window trying to escape. I wanted to know if he was at all worried that the event was becoming dangerous. Bert wasn’t surprised, “It seems everyone’s seen that video.”
Bert doesn’t want one bad person out of thousands to reflect the other 5,999 citizens that are law abiding, and just having fun. “We don’t want this to be dangerous. It’s not a free for all here.”
I thanked Bert for his time, paid one last respectful look at the Tibetan influenced pieces in the gallery, and headed out onto the streets again. I wasn’t sure that Art Walk would be able to staunch the flow of guerilla performers and street vendors that were attracted to the event. But I wished him luck, and I agreed with him, that for the most part, the Art Walk seems to be achieving its goal of nurturing and growing the downtown Los Angeles art scene.
And like him, I’m just happy to be a part of it.