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LA Gallery History Part 2 of Margo Leavin in Conversation with Shaun Caley Regen

Installation view, Ellsworth Kelly:The Concorde Series & Painted Wall Sculptures, 1982

Part 2 of Margo Leavin in Conversation with Shaun Caley Regen

As a pillar of Los Angeles’ art community and one of its primary beacons to the world since 1970, Margo Leavin’s exemplary career indelibly marks not only the ongoing LA museum and gallery scene, but also the city’s now-cemented stature as an internationally vital node for contemporary art. For over four decades, the Margo Leavin Gallery consistently mounted shows that demanded reverence from well beyond its West Hollywood home, becoming the LA stronghold for a range of artists that now read as canonical: Claes Oldenburg, Alexis Smith, Willem de Kooning, Sol LeWitt, Lynda Benglis, Martin Puryear, John Baldessari, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain, Sherrie Levine, Hannah Wilke, Roni Horn, Rudolf Stingel, Dan Graham.... The list of famous names goes on and on, evincing Leavin’s commitment to the vanguard and her skill as a businesswoman. After cementing LA’s art world significance, asserting the imperative for nonmale gallerists, and sharing countless encounters with an era’s most vivifying artworks, Leavin closed her capacious, uniquely beautiful space in 2012. Her undisputed legacy now continues in her support for further generations of artists, as attested by the recently opened Margo Leavin Graduate Studios at UCLA.

Even before stepping out of the limelight, Leavin granted precious few interviews about her legendary history. Here, she talks to Shaun Caley Regen, whose own career as the co-founder and president of Regen Projects makes her an LA art institution in her own right. As Regen describes the impact Leavin has had on her own achievements, the two discuss the breadth of Leavin’s work, from the improvised early days to the evolution and realization of Los Angeles’ indispensable art identity.

Margo Leavin opened her gallery on N. Robertson Boulevard in West Hollywood in 1970. In addition to fostering the lively local art community, she also became the primary LA exhibitor of many New York artists. From the beginning, her shows featured an eclectic roster of the period’s most significant artists. In this first section of a two-part interview, Leavin and Shaun Caley Regen discuss the origins of Leavin’s gallery, and how she established such a powerful institution in a male-dominated art world.

Installation view, Alexis Smith: Jane, 1985

Margo Leavin steered her gallery through decades of art market boom and tumult, maintaining banner exhibition schedules year after year on N. Robertson St. When she finally decided to close the doors, in 2012, it was only to continue to invest in the ongoing, now-thriving LA arts community she has nurtured for so long. In this final section of a two-part interview, Leavin and Shaun Regen discuss the nimble business acumen required to maintain a gallery over such a long period, the uniquely creative character of Los Angeles, and the next generation of artists that continues to inspire.

Shaun Caley Regen: As the 80s roared in, were you selling art? Were you solvent?

Margo Leavin: Yes. And whatever was earned went right back into the gallery. The beginning of the 80s was difficult, but as the economy came back the art market expanded exponentially, hitting a high in ’89, only to fall back into recession in 1990. It was during the rise of the market that I purchased the property, remodeled the buildings, and had at least two, sometimes three full exhibitions on view at all times. Over the 43 years of the gallery we had something like 500 exhibitions!

SCR: Money was different then.

ML: Money was different and at the time we were negotiating with Duquette I was both cautious and nervous. I remember a meeting with him when he said, “I don’t want a down payment.” Afterwards, I said to Wendy, “That’s it. That’s the money that we have to fix up the property!”
In 1989, we had a beautiful David Smith drawing exhibition, our first of several. It was during the time of the LA International Contemporary Art Fair, and the gallery was very crowded with collectors and dealers from all over. I had just hung up the phone after concluding the sale of a de Kooning painting for $1.6 million. I was over the moon, but I had promised the buyer not to mention it to anyone. Within minutes a prominent NY dealer came up to me and said: “Thank you so much, that is the most that any woman dealer has ever sold a work of art for. Thank you for doing it.” Because it established a milestone. And word travels quickly in the art world.

SCR: Did you go to the NY auctions?

ML: Yes, all the Fall and Spring sales, and some in between. When I first started going in the 70s, the audience was almost entirely dealers, and by the mid-80s it was collectors and consultants. That’s the one thing I have not been able to pay attention to since I closed the gallery.

SCR: I feel the role of the auction houses has changed immensely over the years.

ML: Oh, indeed it has. An auction house specialist came out, in the early 00s I think, with a remark about how they would put the middleman, by which she meant the dealers, out of business. Collectors and even artists started putting up work at auction. Nothing came back to the galleries at a time when we really needed it and wanted it.

Installation view, Tony Smith: Selected Sculpture, 1985

SCR: As wonderful as LA is, it is always in the process of becoming a great city. It’s never quite achieved that status.

ML: I think the key here is that LA is always becoming, always changing. When I opened the gallery. there was no MOCA, no Getty Center, no Hammer, no Disney Hall, no Broad, no LA Opera, no Santa Monica Museum (now ICA), no Pacific Design Center, no Convention Center or Staples Center… and no West Hollywood. We have all of those venues now and soon the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, and even a new LACMA. We have thriving art schools, some of the best in the world, with international students and faculties. Artists are staying here, artists are coming here to work. Galleries have opened at an incredible pace. GalleryPlatformLA has over 80 participating galleries—that’s amazing!

SCR: More and more people are collecting here, that’s changed. And really great that both international and NY galleries have opened here. I think it’s helpful to have them here. It’s more competition. (Laughs).

ML: It is more competition, but that is a good thing if, as you say, there are more collectors here.

SCR: What would be your advice to a young gallerist?

ML: I admire the fact that there are so many people entering the field. I don’t know if it is possible to start with absolutely nothing anymore. To be sustainable you have to be prepared to hire staff, pay medical, and have a future financial program set up whether it’s a pension plan or profit-sharing. First seeking advice from an accountant and a lawyer wouldn’t be a bad idea. You can’t have rent starting at $450 a month anymore, or immediately start selling works over $40,000. You have to work your way up for that.

SCR: I think one of the reasons so many interesting artists came out of the early 90s is that there wasn’t money anymore. And they weren’t making art to be art stars, but there was a kind of humility in wanting to put your work into the world. I think today that has to change, but also so much has happened with the virus, with the Black Lives Matter movement, with all of these things. The world needs to wake up, and that includes the art world.

ML: More now than ever before.

SCR: I think it’s unprecedented, and I hope that the next generation of artists respond to that in a meaningful way. I feel like they have to. You have facilitated all of those young students in the new UCLA Margo Leavin Graduate Art Studios. (Laughs).

ML: (Laughs) Right!

SCR: Let’s talk about that. A year ago, the UCLA Margo Leavin Graduate Art Studios opened. How did this tremendous act of philanthropy come about?

ML: After I sold the gallery property, I had the freedom to do something meaningful. In a conversation with Christopher Knight, I told him that I was looking for something significant to do, and he mentioned that Lari Pittman was always complaining about the conditions of the UCLA studios. I had been to the old UCLA studios a number of times, and I just couldn’t go back. They were in such terrible shape. I didn’t think the artists had proper, or even reasonable, working conditions. So, I started thinking about it.

SCR: Silke Otto-Knapp just told me they call it “The Leavin.” So much more glamorous than “Warner studios.”

ML: By the way, there are additional naming opportunities at the Grad studios. I’ve always supported civic, political and cultural organizations, but I wouldn’t have what I have now if it weren’t for the artists I worked with. I thought it should be given to the next generations.

Installation view, Gary Simmons: If Memory Serves, 1998

Installation view, Sol LeWitt, 2001

SCR: You chose education and you chose the future. Did you go to UCLA?

ML: I started at Berkeley and graduated from UCLA.

SCR: So you’re not one of those people who makes their money here and leaves it elsewhere?

ML: Absolutely not. I know that happens often in LA, but I’m a strong believer in giving back.

SCR: I haven’t totally figured it out, but I like it still.

ML: Oh, here? You’ll never figure out LA. (Laughs). I come from a very liberal background. When we moved to LA, I said to my parents, “How can we move to a segregated city?”

SCR: I wasn’t here during the 60s riots, but of course I was here for Rodney King.

ML: There were few substantive changes after that. It’s hard to know how to address all the problems of LA or any major city, how it will ever be possible to solve them. There are still so many underlying issues that need to be brought to light: communities are divided by freeways, vast distances, economic disparity, and lack of education and cultural understanding. The protests going on now are different from the previous in that they are global, multi-racial, multi-generational, more focused and purposeful.

SCR: Does UCLA have scholarships addressing diversity?

ML: Yes, of course. For details you’d have to ask Jennifer Wells Green, Executive Director of Development, or Brett Steele, Dean of the School of Arts and Architecture. I do know the Elaine Krown Klein Fine Arts Scholarship Fund is for disadvantaged and underserved students. But the question remains: how to get members of any population into college, apply for scholarships and develop their talent. The real problem is the entire education system: where to begin?

SCR: UCLA was recently voted the top art school in America, which is amazing. That was always a great draw in LA, the wonderful art schools. Because LA is so vast geographically, there was never a place for artists to congregate, and the schools became that place for artists.

ML: It’s wonderful. I think artists here also look after each other, which is really quite special. If a curator comes, they make a recommendation of another artist... maybe that’s done everywhere, but it’s not quite as competitive as what I see in NY. Also, the teaching staff at UCLA is extraordinary. In Europe it’s considered an honor to be able to teach. It never had been in America, it was always considered a means of support. I’m so pleased to see this changing.

SCR: Or that old, unfair adage, “those that can’t do, teach.” Remember that?

ML: (Laughs). I do.

Installation view, Roy Dowell: A Survey Exhibition, 1981-2005, 2006

SCR: There is a true generosity in the schools with artists teaching. And the histories of the various schools, from Art Center, CalArts, Otis, USC, UCLA. I’m so thrilled about the Leavin Graduate Art Studios. It’s so incredibly beautiful what you have helped to create, and what the architects Johnston Marklee did.

ML: Thank you.

SCR: Was that a big competition?

ML: No, it was not. Lari Pittman brought the state of the studios to Russell Ferguson’s attention. Russell, then Chairman of the Graduate Art Department, was responsible, I believe, for bringing in Johnston Marklee. Eli Broad gave a small amount for the initial model and exploration of the idea. That was in 2005, and then they weren’t able to raise the necessary funds.

SCR: You had to step in and save the day?

ML: Yes, I felt it was absolutely necessary.

SCR: It was so exciting when they opened. You gave a magnificent speech, and it was special to see the community come out for the opening.

ML: That was a great evening! I wanted to thank everybody, that was important. Johnston Marklee has a very special way of working, they went directly to the students and faculty to find what they really needed. I was interested in a building with an atmosphere of community and creativity. Johnston Marklee met everyone’s needs in a stunning building.

SCR: They have beautiful studio spaces and public spaces. Are the studios closed now due to Covid?

ML: Yes. The university is closed for classes, but because the studios are off campus it might be that they will be able to reopen. I certainly hope so.

SCR: This is temporary, but it might last a long time.

ML: I hope I’m around to see some results. I did receive a really lovely letter from an artist who had studied with Lari Pittman and recently graduated, Alex Heilbron. She sent me images of her work. She’s a good artist.

SCR: What’s this world going to be like for those young artists?

ML: Well, they could produce their best work in this time of crisis.

SCR: I’m waiting! (Laughs). It’s interesting right now with everything that is happening. The world is going to look very different in 10 years.

ML: Education is so crucial. There aren’t enough Latinx, or Black, or Asian curators, dealers, or members of the art world support system. How do we train people to get into the art world and into the museum world? You can’t make the world happy about everything and you can’t just diversify because this is the moment. You have to have trained people.

SCR: Who want to be trained in that field.

ML: Exactly. And how to get them to that.

SCR: Look at what the field has been forever. There’s a long history. We need to look backwards and forwards and really pay attention. You always had such a diverse program from the 70s, that this was clearly something you thought about and it has been something I have thought about as well.

ML: It’s important. I would like to see cross-departmental collaboration in education, and I have proposed that the UCLA Grad Studios have a regular lecture program. I know the students are interested in learning about how galleries operate, but what about art history or world events? An exchange of ideas, some intellectual provocation. There are provisions for establishing an artist residency which will certainly bring in different points of view. And there should be a curatorial training program within the University. In the late 50s there was an exceptional UCLA extension class which could be reimagined for today. “Looking at Modern Paintings” was developed and led by Henry Hopkins and other specialists in various fields of art history. It was attended by many existing and yet-to-be important collectors. As difficult as some of those collectors could be —and let’s face it, they were difficult— they learned. They knew what they were looking at and knew how to talk about it.

Installation view, John M. Miller: Yesterdays, 2011

SCR: Are you still collecting?

ML: Right now, I’m working hard on giving my collection away! With the gallery archives now at the Getty, I’m spending quite a bit of time filling in information. I definitely look forward to museums and galleries fully reopening, and to the great pleasure of simply looking at art again.

SCR: It’s nice to be here in your home because it’s so personal, and such a testament to your history. There are so many beautiful artworks including John Baldessari, Jasper Johns, Ad Reinhardt, Lynda Benglis, Martin Puryear, Alexis Smith, Claes Oldenburg, it’s almost as though your friendships with these artists are encapsulated on your walls.

ML: Thank you, Shaun, this has been so interesting!

SCR: Thank you, Margo. You’ve set such a high bar for our city and our profession. With grace, intelligence, diligence, wit, connoisseurship, empathy, and incredible generosity you are an inspiration. Your contribution to the city and the arts will leave a profound impression for many decades and artists to come.

UCLA Margo Leavin Graduate Art Studios 2019. Photo Credit: Louis Heilbronn

Images courtesy Margo Leavin Archive, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2015.M.5)