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Bergamot Station Gallery Owners Guardedly Optimistic About New Transit Station  

By Melonie Magruder
Lookout Staff

August 23, 2011 – Santa Monica has gone to great lengths to engage the public as a primary partner in deciding the breadth, scope and character of the Bergamot Area Plan, an implementation of the city’s Land Use and Circulation element (LUCE). Residents and city council members have weighed in.

But some of the more salient observations have come straight from the horse’s mouth – the artists and gallery owners of Bergamot Station.

The Bergamot Area Plan is being developed partially with a federal grant from Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and is designed to integrate the construction of a transit station for the coming Expo Light Rail line with a redeveloped, mixed-use, commercial/residential district that is pedestrian-friendly and affordable, while maintaining the individualistic flavor of the neighborhood.

All that and art, too.

Most of the gallery directors have attended the public meetings that have been held over the past year to educate residents and solicit input on the project. The general consensus from the last meeting was that Bergamot Station should not lose its character as an “artistic epicenter,” a characterization readily evident in a recent afternoon visit to Bergamot Station.

Melissa Williams, the assistant director of the Little Schomburg Gallery of Functional Art, said that she got the feeling the community wanted Bergamot Station to maintain its identity.

“I expect the transit station will certainly bring more people here on a regular basis,” Williams said. “But everyone’s concerned about a Starbucks showing up on every corner. There’s an uncertainty about what will happen to the real Bergamot.”

Warehouse buildings redesigned into quirky gallery spaces have been operating since Bergamot Station Art Center opened in 1994, anchored by the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

On a recent Friday, SMMoA visitors were watching the latest project – artist Stephen Keene’s “Pop Icons” and his painterly efforts to create almost instant nods to cultural icons, whether a portrait of Frank Sinatra or homage to Van Gogh.

Asuka Hisa is the director of education at SMMoA and sees the new development as a positive opportunity.

Asuka Hisa hopes for lively local vibe at
Bergamot Station. Photos by Melonie Magruder

“The first stop in Santa Monica of the Expo line will be a gateway to the arts,” Hisa said. “The challenge is in maintaining the integrity of the center. We need to keep the vibe local, not create a shopping mall.”

One of the biggest advantages is the potential for greater nighttime activity, Hisa thinks.

“Now, not much happens after six o’clock,” she said. “But with the addition of maybe a couple bars and restaurants, and better pedestrian access on Olympic, it would be fantastic. It can be a thriving creative community that just happens to have a train running through it.”

Elsewhere, shipping trunks were being loaded into galleries, the sound of hammering and power drills indicated an upcoming opening, and the breath of creativity permeated the air. Most of the gallerists seemed cautiously optimistic that any eventual plan will preserve that unfettered artistic ambiance.

Laurie Frank, of the Frank Pictures Gallery, said that Santa Monica has never really appreciated Bergamot Station as a proper “jewel in the crown.”

“The galleries here really are purveyors of fine art,” Frank said. “But Bergamot Station has suffered from not having any real cafes or bars (there is the Bergamot Café that offers pastries and light beverages). A hotel would be good. If they maintain our distinct character, keep our buildings and develop outside of the center, there’s a lot of opportunity to bring art to the people.”

But not everyone was as sanguine. Jay Wingate is the associate director of the Luis de Jesus Gallery and said he has seen a lot of the “cutting edge” galleries immigrate to other city centers.

“Many of the real provocative galleries have moved to Culver City,” Wingate said. “Art in L.A. has long been in a flux. After 17 years here, you would expect some change. And I think the Bergamot plan is still evolving. But, ultimately, I think the new transit station will only make Bergamot a more commercial center. It will bring more traffic, but you will be giving up a lot of its real artistic integrity.”

But perhaps the clearest assessment came from Robert Berman of his eponymously named gallery.

Robert Berman here for the long haul.

“Nobody knows anything,” he said. “We hear a lot of different talk. I’m here for the long haul – they’ll have to carry me out. But whatever they do, if it’s not good for everybody, it’s not good for anybody.”


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