Text by Urs Baur
Images by Tim Aukshunas
Perhaps it was the quality of the light, the palpable sense of freedom and possibility or simply an abundance of affordable raw spaces, that first drew significant 20th-century artists like Ray Ray and Charles Eames, Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, Ed Ruscha, and John Baldessari to Santa Monica and the surrounding area. Whatever the reason, their choice to take up residence during important stages of their careers undeniably helped place Santa Monica firmly on Southern California’s mid-century art map.
Today, the city hosts over 120 museums, galleries, and public art installations within its eight square miles, more than any city other than New York—a testament to the community embracing the transformative power of art.
“With a rich collection of public art and a diverse creative population, Santa Monica is dedicated to the belief that art is a basic city service and is essential to our city’s continued vitality,” proclaims the city’s Cultural Affairs website. Beyond serving as a central hub for grants, competitions, and other resources aimed at both working and aspiring artists, the website meticulously catalogs Santa Monica’s extensive public art collection alongside an interactive map and a regularly updated list of ‘must-see’ art pieces and their respective locations. Here, we shine a light on some of the pillars of the Santa Monica art scene. Each is worth a visit.
The city is home to a notable concentration of world-renowned art galleries, especially in Bergamot Station, a collection of 18 galleries clustered together on a nearly 5-acre repurposed train yard. Bergamot Station welcomes the community to a uniquely curated art experience and regular events, as well as providing a little oasis in an industrial part of Santa Monica.
“The independent galleries at Bergamot Station Arts Center showcase the most current developments in contemporary and modern art, offering a space, free to the public, to immerse themselves in an art experience,” explains Robert Berman. When he relocated the eponymous Robert Berman Gallery—originally founded in the late ’70s—to its current premises at Bergamot, Berman became one of the inaugural tenants of the art complex, occupying the two spaces he still holds today. Berman also operates Santa Monica Auctions, an internationally renowned auction house. Berman’s gallery was among the first to showcase works by seminal artists such as Keith Haring, Raymond Pettibon, William S. Burroughs, and Man Ray.
Galerie XII opened in 2018. The gallery is the Santa Monica location of its Paris affiliate, also owned by Valerie-Anne Giscard d’Estaing, a publisher, who entered into the gallery business in 2007 with a focus on contemporary photography. D’Estaing credits the communal spirit, the sense of place, she experiences at Bergamot Station for her decision to open her gallery here. “There’s close collaboration between all of us tenants, there’s good energy. Of course everyone is competing, but in reality our collective presence broadens the offering to visitors and potential buyers.”
Lois Lambert Gallery represents over 100 artists from the United States, Latin America, South America, Europe and Asia. According to Lambert herself, she is “dedicated to bringing thoughtful, sometimes provocative, and always original art to the public.” Over time she’s added an upstairs gallery to create more exhibition space, and also curates a gallery store, where she sells artist-made objects, ceramics, and other unique gift items. “I’ve been at it for 35 years,” she says. “I still love the gallery and discovering artists. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”
While Santa Monica’s galleries contribute greatly to the community, it is arguably Santa Monica’s non-profit arts institutions that have the most profound impact on the city’s essence.
”At 18th Street, we’re committed to creating opportunities for artists to help build the kinds of healthy communities they want to live in,” Jan Williamson, Executive Director of 18th Street Arts Center says of the longest running artist residency in Southern California. The center hosts about 60 artists concurrently and helps the city manage 40 low-cost artists’ studios at the Santa Monica Airport, where they also host monthly open-studio shows. It adds to the community’s “identity and sense of pride,” she boasts
As an example of creative placemaking, Williamson points to 18th Street’s ongoing Culture Mapping Project. “Essentially it is a community produced map, highlighting the history and cultural assets of a given neighborhood.”
Cultural assets can be people, places, events, and organizations, both past and present, that serve as anchors within any given community. In short, things “that define the identity of the neighborhood, according to the people who live there.”
Once the stories are collected, the center pairs artists with community partners to initiate projects that address these specific needs or desires, and in the process inform various community policies and programs. Since its inception in 2015, the center has implemented about 70 of these culture mapping projects in Santa Monica alone, and recently have been funded to expand the program to other communities all across California.
It’s a testament to Williamson’s belief that art plays an important role in community engagement and well-being. “Especially now, people are searching for meaningful connections and a sense of belonging—and arts and culture provide an important way of doing that,” Williamson concludes.
Another noteworthy event returning to Santa Monica for its fourth edition is “Frieze Los Angeles,” the prestigious international art fair, featuring over 120 of the world’s leading galleries. “Santa Monica airport was selected for its abundance of space and flexibility that meets our ambitious plans for the fair, allowing us to welcome innovative art and ideas across all forms of creativity”, explains Christine Messineo, director of Frieze New York and Los Angeles. Frieze Los Angeles takes flight February 29 through March 3, 2024.