When Frieze opened in Los Angeles in 2019 it had a distinct advantage in the sprawling city — the fair pooled the city’s fragmented art scene into one place. Now, gallery entrants to a growing hub in midtown Melrose Hill have ambitions to create the cluster effect all year round.

The emergence of Melrose Hill as the hottest creative zone is something of a surprise. Close to the roar of Route 101 and previously the domain of furniture and clothing outlets, the three blocks of North Western Avenue would seem an unlikely spot. But over the past few years, a steady stream of cutting-edge galleries have opened in its distinctive low-rise 1920s buildings — and with more to come.

“It is a village environment with walkable, tree-lined streets and a real sense of community,” says Olivia Barrett, founding director of LA’s Château Shatto, which moves after 10 years downtown to North Western Avenue this September. She says that Frieze’s early editions, held in the nearby Paramount Studios, prompted her to think about a move. “It really struck me as a democratic area,” she says, set between LA’s east — where many artists live and work — and the collecting communities in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. Barrett, like many of the Melrose Hill entrants, will show at this year’s fair — now in Santa Monica Airport — with a mixed booth of its artists including Zeinab Saleh, Fiona Connor and Alan Lynch, whose estate it represents.

A painting depicts the pillows, duvet and pearl necklace placed on a bed, all rendered in white and light blue tones against a blue background
‘I don’t need a seance when I have dreams’ (2024) by Zeinab Saleh at Château Shatto © Courtesy the artist/Château Shatto

Barrett is just one of the latest to commit to the cluster this year, with others including Emma Fernberger, who opened last month, and Southern Guild, which became the first South African gallery with a permanent US space when it opened in the same building as Fernberger on February 22.  

Behind the scenes has been Zach Lasry, a property developer who receives rare praise from the gallery community. Lasry is, it seems, everything you could want from an LA real-estate figure. A millennial former filmmaker and actor (his credits include The Wolf of Wall Street), he is also the son of a billionaire hedge fund manager — now a partner in his son’s thriving commercial property venture.

Lasry junior happened upon Melrose Hill soon after moving from New York. He was struck, he says, by its “single-storey buildings that aren’t swallowed up by the architecture behind them, so give the opportunity for more intimate experiences”. He and his family now own 15 of Melrose Hill’s buildings and warehouses, which they began to lease out in 2019. 

The timing coincided with Frieze’s arrival in town which, despite the interrupting pandemic, has helped motor LA’s emergent commercial scene. “Art fairs bring a critical mass of galleries, so the local audience can see more than one thing,” says David Zwirner, who opens his LA flagship in a gallery-owned new-build in Melrose Hill later this spring. “Our industry’s business model is based on proximity [to other galleries].”

Much of the credit for the latest influx into Melrose Hill has gone to Zwirner, who — following the likes of LA’s Morán Morán and New York’s Sargent’s Daughters — leased two Lasry spaces on North Western Avenue last May. Zwirner is committed too to Frieze LA, during which he says “the energy is fabulous” and for which he is bringing a mixed-artist booth including new works by the American Joe Bradley, whom the gallery started to represent last year. His LA galleries will have coinciding shows anchored by the West Coast minimalist John McCracken.

Of the Melrose Hill neighbourhood, Zwirner says: “It still has some grit and lots of bespoke businesses. It feels very conducive to culture.” Trevyn McGowan, founder of Southern Guild, scoured LA for a suitable area and settled on Melrose Hill because of its “powerful” community, which “doesn’t feel contrived”.

A young woman standing on the left of an audiovisual installation in a darkly lit room watches two young rappers sing
Installation view of ‘ISDN’ (2022) by Stan Douglas at David Zwirner © Courtesy the artist/David Zwirner. Photo: Elon Schoenholz

Lasry says he didn’t start out specifically with galleries in mind but found that they embodied the type of tenants he wanted. “Whether a restaurant, café, grocery store or gallery, it’s about being super high-quality and independent. It can be so deflating when areas get overtaken by corporations and can turn into something akin to a shopping mall.”

His rents are pitched at “attractive” levels, he says, helpful to LA’s still emergent art scene, increasingly operated by fellow millennials. He compares the Melrose Hill rates to the swanky Larchmont Village in Central LA, less than two miles away. “We are at a significant discount,” he says.

Lasry is fortunate to have avoided concerns about gentrification, pertinent in Los Angeles where other areas have faced protests from disaffected residents and business-owners amid increased homelessness. There are still concerns. “In many ways this seems like a textbook case of art-washing, or the strategic use of the arts as a vehicle for real-estate speculation,” says Maga Alcázar, a community activist from Boyle Heights and doctoral candidate at UCLA. Lasry says that the bulk of the buildings he bought were already vacant; his focus, he says, is on deepening the community spirit as collaboratively as possible.

His gallery tenants are believers. Many of Melrose Hill’s longtime restaurants are still in business, Barrett notes, and now have a new crowd to cater to. James Fuentes, who opened there just ahead of Zwirner in 2023, says: “Zach Lasry’s vision was a radical concept for LA, to have an ecosystem to support staying and socialising. From the moment David Zwirner opened, increased foot traffic became tangible,” he says.

A man walking past a white, linear building on a quiet street approaches a red sign that reads ‘William Kentridge’
Outside view of James Fuentes art gallery in Los Angeles © Courtesy James Fuentes. Photo: Naho Kubota

The effect doesn’t stretch very far, mind. McGowan and Fuentes confess to the benefits of their gallery’s parking spaces, still important in LA, while Anat Ebgi, who opened just over a mile away from the Melrose Hill blocks in 2021, finds that “people are still driving to Zwirner by car and then leaving”.

Lasry does not offer a vision beyond North Western Avenue, though, describing the confluence of Melrose Hill’s architecture, wider generational shifts and LA’s growing cultural credentials as “miraculous”. Lasry summarises: “I found an accessible place with a bunch of vacant old buildings and enough creative people and businesses to come and share in what could be a spark of something. I’m not sure that can be replicated.”

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