For nearly a quarter century, Bergamot Station remained the pre-eminent contemporary art center in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, California and beyond. A model of combined civic and private commerce, Bergamot Arts Center, which opened in 1994, was an innovative concept, a meeting place embraced by the contemporary art world. It all hit a wall of reality, coming to a halt during the holidays of 2016.
For almost two years, the swirling prospect of redevelopment had been sweeping Bergamot and its gallery owners and employees into flux, dividing them into factions, unearthing caution and distrust that became as palpable as the ocean breezes wafting daily through the enclave. This past December, the Bergamot buildings siding Michigan Avenue were sold by Bergamot co-founder Wayne Blank, co-owner of Shoshana Wayne Gallery, for $35 million. The new owners imposed steep rent hikes, coinciding with a 70 percent increase in property taxes. This prospect was foreshadowed by the original 1994 lease, a cursory agreement by which the City of Santa Monica established that the galleries would have to leave whenever the City was ready to proceed with major rail projects, principally along the Exposition Line. With the Expo Line completed earlier in 2016, ending near the original (1875) terminus of the Los Angeles & Independent Railroad along Colorado Avenue, the City could then leverage Bergamot Station in its future commercial plans.
The Bergamot Station of today, therefore, is a result of a tumultuous history, a history of public commerce, private business and railroad industry, its array of structures a testament to changing times when trucks took over from where railroad lines ended and eventually disappeared. By 2000, industrial Santa Monica had regrouped into a hotbed of creative ventures, like the Water Garden, Rhino Records and Santa Monica College of Design Art & Architecture which precipitated the arrival of offices for Sony, Universal and MGM. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s Robert Berman, Ruth Bloom and Fred Hoffman, among others, located their galleries in the neighborhood of the old Bergamot rail yard, establishing a de facto art district in Santa Monica’s industrial corner. In its first decade or so, Bergamot saw a steady stream of activity supporting the arts. There were bi-annual international shows hosted by most major galleries, regular season-opening events and robust programs at the Santa Monica Museum of Art (the second largest vendor at Bergamot after the Track 16 Gallery). SMMOA relocated from its Main Street Santa Monica location, becoming a harbinger of what was to come. After a lengthy rent dispute, the Museum left in 2015. Meanwhile, Track 16, owned by Bergamot co-founder Tom Patchett, was swallowed up by eminent domain and razed to accommodate the train station.
Substantially reorganized, SMMOA will reopen in downtown Los Angeles in September of this year as The Institute of Contemporary Art LA
(ICA-LA). Track 16 re-emerged in Culver City soon after shuttering at Bergamot (and may end up in DTLA as well). Down two major components of the Bergamot Station identity, the landscape of the complex was indelibly reshaped.
“After years of public meetings, development proposals and a year-long advisory committee study, galleries are still in the dark about how Bergamot will be developed,” said William Turner, owner of William Turner Gallery, one of several Bergamot gallery owners interviewed for this article. “We remain concerned that the city’s development goals are out of scale with the site and will threaten the preservation of galleries and Bergamot’s identity.”
Gallerist Robert Berman agrees. “So we are asking for leases,” he said. “You can’t have a business without a lease; a lease protects the city and protects us. Give us direct leases, keep us independent, don’t censor us. There is no place like Bergamot in America; we function as a collective of art and education.” Building Bridges Art Exchange, Bergamot’s only remaining non-profit contemporary art organization, also wants to stay. With creative partners worldwide, as well as traveling, exchange and educational programs, BBAX benefits students and artists from all over the region. Founding Director Marisa Caichiolo explained, “With the diversity issues, and the forces against them we see in this country right now, the opportunity to be here with 30 other approaches in one community is very important to understanding culture.”
Ruth Bachofner Gallery and bG Gallery are two dealers in one of the newly bought buildings with two different approaches to the issue. “I have had the gallery since 1984,” Bachofner told Fabrik. “With the public side of the lease ending, you don’t know what’s going to happen.” Bachofner closed her gallery in March and is not looking back. “Why drag it out?” she added.
A relatively new Bergamot tenant, Om Navon Bleicher, owner of bG Gallery, said he hopes the new owners “…will see the importance of maintaining galleries and businesses compatible with the Center integral with their need to make back their considerable investment.” Expressing his desire to stay, he added, “Whether we make long-time roots will depend on how the station will come together as a whole.”
The exodus of galleries also leaves exhibiting artists up in the air. One bG artist, Gay Summer Rick, commented, “People in search of art have made Bergamot a destination. The uncertainty around [the] development has been unsettling and planning is a challenge. I’ll have a solo exhibition this fall, but there are a lot of unknowns. Where do we tell people to show up in the fall? I don’t have the answer.”
Also challenging is Bergamot’s current unsettled situation with its potential developers and the City. All existing and future projects can potentially take advantage of the Expo Line stop now in operation at 26th Street/Bergamot Station. Whether they will, and what those projects are, remains unclear. Bergamot Station was a good answer to questions posed by the circumstances of a decentralized art world in the post-Reagan, post-‘80s economies. Gallery districts proliferated around the country, as did art fairs, e-art commerce and the secondary market. Now, however, with the threat to the Art Center’s existence and even legacy, it remains to be seen if Bergamot will weather the storm.