On Track at Bergamot Station
A masterstroke of development transforms a sprawling industrial complex into a Santa Monica landmark and one of L.A.’s primary cultural destinations
By Andrea Kitay
That Los Angeles is home to dozens of world-class art galleries and museums is hardly newsworthy. Nor is it remarkable that Santa Monica’s contemporary art gallery complex, Bergamot Station, is located just two-and-a-half miles from world-famous Ocean Avenue. What is surprising is that the bustling Bergamot Station is still Santa Monica’s best-kept secret.
The appeal lies not only in its convenient location, next to the Santa Monica Freeway, and the casual ambience of its open courtyard and strolling paths, but in the myriad galleries housed in one location, with art works ranging from the affordable to the astronomical. Self-contained, Bergamot makes easy work of what otherwise might be a grueling day of gallery hopping.
Some galleries represent a single artist, some work with many. Typical of the latter is the edgy James Gray Gallery, which represents dozens of artists in every genre, including painting, photography, and sculpture. “We go all over the place,” says owner James Gray. “What sets us apart is the diversity of the work we exhibit. Within each room in our gallery we will display completely different styles, with prices ranging from $500 to $500,000. We pride ourselves on having something for everyone.”
Gray leads me to an Andy Warhol serigraph, then points out Eva Sobesky’s handcrafted “seating pebbles,” which double as chairs. On other walls, I spy Mark Ryden’s tight painting technique and subversive subject matter in “Blood, Sweat, and Tears,” and local artist Jeff Gillette’s works, which render the psychological and emotional impacts of a consumerist society with cartoon subjects like Disneyland and its characters in a state of complete devastation.
Later, sipping a cup of java at the Bergamot Café, I can see some of the galleries that surround the open-air courtyard. The Santa Monica Museum of Art, a tiny museum and gift shop stocked with amusing trifles like rubber chickens and classic T-shirts are at the opposite end of the complex from the café, where healthy, affordable eats and a dizzying variety of beverages are served. Ties are optional, jeans are the norm. Block and corrugated steel buildings painted with vivid yellow accents belie the buildings’ streamlined interiors, where gallery spaces are broken up with white interior and demising walls. Skylights supplement track lighting hanging from open beam ceilings, or, in some cases, the corrugated roofing itself. On-site parking is ample and admission is free. Short of the beach, this family friendly destination is hard to beat in Santa Monica.
Bergamot Station’s genesis as a gallery complex began after its original use as a station on the Red Line Trolley between Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Pier ended in 1953. Subsequent uses as a factory and warehouses were short-lived, and the abandoned property was purchased by the City of Santa Monica. In the late ‘80s, with the sprawling eight-acre site unused, the City approached Wayne Blank, developer and co-owner of the Shoshana Wayne Gallery, to develop an artistic use for the property. Blank took on the Bergamot project, retrofitting the warehouses as galleries while maintaining a rustic industrial tone. The new Bergamot Station officially opened in 1994.
Whether Bergamot Station as art complex was genius or serendipity is something to ponder. Either way, the timing seems to have been perfect. According to Michael Goldstrum, the director of the 40-artist cooperative TAG Gallery, the Los Angeles art scene is undergoing something of a renaissance. “Many artists were priced out of New York,” he explains, “and many arts institutions, due to the lack of traditional funding, have been forced to find more creative ways of involving the community … Street art, which had a major boom in Los Angeles at the turn of the millennium, has been accepted by the art establishment. And in this era of tighter financial circumstances, the more civic nature of Los Angeles lends itself to artists and communities working together.”
As Bergamot has matured, its attendance has grown. Gray tells me that roughly 50,000 visitors—tourists, students, art collectors, and the occasional celebrity—stream through the gates each month. When you tour the galleries, plan to be delighted and surprised, perhaps even annoyed, as some contemporary pieces may challenge your personal notion of art. Most galleries have a table at the entrance, and organized ones provide a sheet describing each item’s title, medium, size, and price. Be sure to grab a sheet as you enter each gallery, because unlike museums, most do not individually identify pieces with placards.
At the TAG Gallery, local artists pool resources to show their work. “The TAG Gallery is a strong and unique model for arts in this economic era. It represents the actuality of thinking locally and acting globally,” says Goldstrum. “Santa Monica is a leader in embodying this philosophy, so showing only local artists works well with the city’s ethos.” Many of TAG’s artists are active in the community, donating their work and time to groups such as Heal the Bay, Inner-City Arts, the Everchild Foundation, the Los Angeles Orphanage Guild, Cure Congenital Muscular Dystrophy, and the Robert David Lazarus Pulmonary Rehabilitation Fund.
Most galleries change their exhibits fairly frequently, exhibiting the work of one or two artists at a time for four to five weeks. At the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Patrick Nickell’s sculptures of bright, colorful painted plaster over metal armatures mounted on simple painted wood tables share space with April Street’s massive, surrealistic acrylic on canvas paintings. In the Richard Heller Gallery, Victoria Reynolds’ oil on canvas paintings are exhibited under the name “Flesh to Fauna,” leaving the question of just exactly what you’re looking at open to interpretation.
One thing is certain: Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station is coming up in the art world. Its new model of urban cooperation makes high quality art accessible, affordable—and yes, even fun. Chances are, it won’t remain a secret for long.
BERGAMOT STATION ARTS CENTER
2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica, California. For detailed information, log on to bergamotstation.com or call 310-829-5854.
WHERE TO STAY
ART DECO BY THE SEA A couple miles west of Bergamot Station, the legendary Santa Monica Pier stretches into the Pacific. Overlooking that storied coast you’ll find Broughton’s Art Deco landmark, The Georgian Hotel. Original period details meet modern amenities at this refurbished California classic built in 1933. 1415 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, CA; 310.395.9945, broughtonhotels.com
A-LIST COMFORT A time-honored tradition, The Sportsmen’s Lodge offers country comfort in the heart of the city. Centrally located, the property is just 15 minutes from Santa Monica beach, Beverly Hills, and Hollywood. (In Hollywood’s heyday, this was #the# hangout for stars like John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Bette Davis. 12825 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, CA; 800.821.8511, broughtonhotels.com