Scene Stealer: Underground Art, Architecture and Design is Booming in Los Angeles

“It’s mainly tacos and stray dogs and really nice people”, observes Sojourner Truth Parsons, a painter who occupies a light-filled loft in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights district. Parsons is part of a new crop of achingly cool artists, designers, gallery owners, collectors and culture vultures who are moving to downtown Los Angeles and the Arts District – a cluster of forbidding, abandoned factories and warehouses, industrial spaces, parking lots, strip malls, concrete and barbed wire. The area is scrappy, desolate, and ripe for reinvention as the city’s prime arts and culture hotspot.  It is also home to Sparano + Mooney Architecture where we have been based for almost 20 years.

Los Angeles Arts District. Photography courtesy At Mateo. © At Mateo.

About ten years ago we made the decision to move our architectural practice from the westside to downtown Los Angeles to be closer to our clients and make commute to work easier for our team.  After an exhaustive search for cool space, we were thrilled to find a studio at the Brewery.  This 500+ live-work development in Boyle Heights, just east of downtown was filled with creative people including architects, designers, filmmakers, artists, fashion gurus, photographers and graphic pros.  We felt right at home and have thrived producing great architecture from our 2-story raw warehouse in one of the world’s largest art colonies.  The Brewery encompasses twenty-one former warehouses – with an old Edison power plant chimney dating to 1903 – house work studios, living lofts, restaurants and galleries. Its history dates back to the turn of the century as the Edison Electric Steam Power Plant and then as a Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery.

The vacancy that characterizes many downtown Los Angeles neighborhoods is precisely what appeals to burgeoning creatives – a blank slate upon which to exhibit arcrylics by Yunhee Min, project a film titled Mommy by Maggie Lee, or host a performance by fashion designer Barf Queen. Influential galleries from New York and London, including Venus Over Los Angeles, Maccarone and Ibid are opening alongside local natives with impressive pedigrees, such as Wilding Cran (owned by Anthony Cran and Naomi deLuce Wilding, the granddaughter of Elizabeth Taylor). And, naturally, the DIY artist spaces tucked in disused alleyway garages feature prominently too, perhaps in large part to their raging, late-night opening parties – exhibitions in themselves, with food trucks, beer, coffee and kombucha on tap, kiddie pools filled with Kool-Aid and topless catering staff. The (relatively) cheap rents and sense of community help, too. 

Sterling Ruby's "Trains" at Night Gallery

Sterling Ruby's "Trains" at Night Gallery. Copyright © Night Gallery


This social energy is the essence of the locale. As Jeffrey Deitch, the former Director if the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, has noted, “The social aspect is essential for artistic innovation. Artists working in isolation rarely have the same achievement”. 25-30 year olds ride their bicycles and skateboards, walk their small dogs, patronize and socialize at trendy restaurants and coffee shops, perpetuate a throbbing youth culture and activate the neighborhood. They frequent the populist galas that have become de rigeur, and have displaced the Hollywood glamor that used to characterize LA. “Culturally we’ve always been overshadowed by the film industry, and now the art world is at a weird parallel with it”, said Sterling Ruby, one of LA’s most renowned artists, who occupies a 4-acre studio complex in industrial Vernon, CA, just north of the Arts District. The uber-modern Broad Museum, designed by starchitects Diller Scofidio & Renfro, has recently opened downtown and guests have included Owen Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted an Art & Film gala sponsored by Gucci and attended by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jared Leto; and international powerhouse gallery Hauser & Wirth has partnered with Paul Schimmel, former Chief Curator at MOCA, to open a sprawling arts complex in the District. An outpost of glitzy Soho House, with its rooftop pool, hotel and restaurants, is opening on South Santa Fe Avenue. Loft apartments have risen there too: a two-bedroom unit is on the market for $1.175 million. Now, blue-chip galleries and adventurous collectors mix with emerging artists, groupies and industry pros. Tides are shifting.

Despite this development, the area’s zany character remains. “It’s all about discovery and taking chances and hopefully finding something revelatory”, states Mieke Marple, Partner at Night Gallery on East 16th Street. Let’s hope that the dream lives on, the tacos remain stuffed and the stray dogs continue to roam free… 


1.       “Art Scene Heats Up in Downtown Los Angeles”, Julia Chaplin, The New York Times, 12 February 2016 (online), 14 February 2016 (in print)