How David Zwirner Turned a Forgotten Block in LA Into Prime Real Estate
Jun 29, 2023
By Nate Freeman
Last Tuesday, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Melrose Hill, the once desolate stretch of Western Avenue right below Melrose had what could have been the biggest gathering ever seen by the area. Around 6 p.m., a wave of hundreds of people flowed to the block for the opening of mega-dealer David Zwirner's first galleries on the West Coast. In one building were new paintings by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, an LA-based artist fiercely in demand, partially because she makes only a handful of works per year. Despite the fact that she's been showing at museums for a decade and has seen her work sell for $4.7 million at auction, this was her first solo gallery show in the United States—and her first with Zwirner since joining the gallery five years ago.
Despite the momentous occasion of an industry megalith touching down in Tinseltown, Angelenos in the art world have been talking less about the galleries themselves and more about their location. Every member of this ETA-obsessed populace seems to have an opinion about why Zwirner chose to be here, far from the downtown vibes established by the Hauser & Wirth gallery a decade ago and the West Hollywood hub where, well, there's another Hauser & Wirth now. And if you’re driving from Larry Gagosian's longtime West Coast HQ in Beverly Hills, it’ll take 22 minutes with zero traffic, but easily an hour in rush hour.
Zwirner, however, has a secret weapon: a young 30-something named Zach Lasry, an actor and filmmaker who happens to be the son of billionaire Marc Lasry. Zach Lasry first got involved with the neighborhood in 2019 and, despite his lack of experience in real estate development, started buying up buildings, intent on making a gallery hub in the City of Angels that would be that unimaginable thing: walkable. If he gets his wish, one day there will even be a hotel.
"It gives your body agency," he said. "You’re like, Wow, I can just stay there and then use my legs to get to the interesting thing? I don't have to become a bionic person in my car?"
Just a few months earlier, the neighborhood was not exactly ready for prime time. It was a Monday afternoon in early September 2022, and Lasry was taking me around the dozens of Deco buildings lining Western or snaking around Melrose that he’d either bought outright or leased. Zwirner senior directors Alex Tuttle and Robert Goff were in the two preexisting structures they were leasing, both of which needed plenty of rehabbing and were reimagined by the architect Annabelle Selldorf. Another Zwirner structure was being built from the ground up by Selldorf on what before was nothing but a parking lot. In September, those on-site were dealing with the structure's foundation, with the opening a year out. When I visited in September, the first spaces in preexisting Deco buildings were set to open in February, but the date was pushed back to late May. The Selldorf building will apparently open in the fall. When I saw it recently, I noticed it had sprouted a few stories, but it was still a construction site.
But Lasry wasn't there to just show me the Zwirner spaces. Within three blocks, galleries including Morán Morán and Clearing were already open with exhibitions welcoming viewers. Nearby were near-complete spaces that were set to be inhabited by New York transplants such as Sargent's Daughters, Shrine, a new gallery from dealer Emma Fernberger, and the second-ever space for James Fuentes. The acclaimed Filipino eatery Kuya Lord sat across the street from a space that will house the second location of Dimes Square pie-slinger Scarr's, and the womenswear brand CO will have an outpost right next to the Zwirner spaces.
A block south, at the future home of the long-standing City of Angels nonprofit LAXART, director Hamza Walker was hanging in his empty space, mapping out for me the general layout: the offices, the galleries, the patio out back. We walked by a former furniture wholesaler—it's being cleaned out to house Color Club, a Giorgio's-inspired nightclub designed by the Haas Brothers that is said to count longtime Haas family pal Leonardo DiCaprio as an investor—and checked out Vitru, a gym where, on the morning Lasry and I were strolling around, Sam Rockwell happened to be working out with a personal trainer. On the south side of Melrose, west of Western, we walked by a strip of apartment buildings with retail occupying the ground floor. For these, Lasry had asked Miggi Hood—the architect and designer best known for restoring a Modernist house in Mexico City into the boutique hotel Casa Pani—to act as an architectural design consultant, so she could make sure certain building façades got the right treatment to honor Old Hollywood.
A block later, we ran into Geoff Anenberg and Tyler Stonebreaker of the hotly in-demand design firm Creative Space, which specializes in taking old historic buildings and gussying them up for galleries and hip eateries. It makes sense that Lasry called them up to help get Melrose Hill ready for celluloid, but he didn't expect them to fall so deeply in love with the area that they would move their own business to Melrose Hill. But that's what they did. We walked through the building as workers poured concrete to create an open-plan urban design laboratory.
"We’ve worked on a lot of projects all over the city, but they never screamed out: We have to move our office here," Stonebreaker said, walking through the space. "But with this, we saw the space and said, we have to move."
Lasry had never bought a building before when he started driving through this quirky part of town, going from his Silver Lake digs to his girlfriend's place, which was nearby. On Melrose, clusters of Craftsman homes built as early as 1911 lay nestled in trees and back roads, hidden enough to bewilder the pizza delivery guy, according to the LA Times.
And he kept focusing on the strip of Art Deco buildings on Western, some of which featured striking period designs untouched since the ’20s. Many were built as prop warehouses for Paramount Pictures, which has its studio back lots a few blocks down on Melrose. After repeated visits, Lasry was infatuated enough to raise the idea of buying some with his father, who, like his son, had little experience in real estate, though plenty of experience in other arenas. Marc Lasry was at the time an owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, and he is still a significant donor to the Democratic Party; he and his sister Sonia Gardner are also the cofounders of Avenue Capital Group, the investment firm with about $12.5 billion worth of assets under management.
"One of them went up for sale, so I went to my dad and my aunt and I was like, ‘I think we should buy one of these buildings. It's really cute. I think this neighborhood has a lot of potential,’" Lasry told me.
At this point we had stopped to grab sandwiches at lunch spot Ggiata, featuring authentically New Jersey Italian subs, with the owners straight out of Montclair.
"And then three other buildings went for sale the next week, and it was just like, ‘Hey, seems like these are really good prices. Why don't we just dip our toe in?’" Lasry said. "And it snowballed from there."
Then came the pandemic, a time when it was extremely difficult to lease storefronts, as it involved a lot of being in close quarters with potentially infected humans.
"Basically everything was done, but people couldn't see any spaces," Lasry said. "You weren't even allowed to go inside the buildings. It was illegal."
Creative Space had signed on as the development partner, and the firm leaned on its long history of reinventing spaces for galleries—most famously turning an aging former flour mill in the arts district into Hauser & Wirth's groundbreaking LA gallery that houses multiple viewing spaces as well as a bookstore, a 25-foot-tall tree, a wildly popular restaurant festooned with doodles by Henry Taylor, Paul McCarthy, and Rashid Johnson, a gift shop, and, just for good measure, a chicken coop. For galleries looking to relocate, taking a tip from Stonebreaker was always a safe bet.
"And then Geoff called me up and was like, ‘Al Morán was looking for a space, Al and Mills,’" Lasry recalled, referring to the Morán Morán owners. "So that was the beginning. The pandemic felt like it was waning a little bit, so I think people were excited and saying, ‘Oh, it seems the pandemic's coming to an end.’"
Stonebreaker also had another potential signee. He had become friendly with Goff, a director at Zwirner who for the last few years had been based out of Los Angeles, and showed him a portfolio of available spaces on either side of Western, right below Melrose. Goff liked the idea enough to pass it along to the guy with his name on the door, and Zwirner was intrigued.
"Tyler called me up one day and was like, ‘I think David had a very specific kind of space that he wanted’—he wanted to be on a certain latitude so that the light would hit the space the right way, so that corner was the only thing that fit for him," Lasry said. "And we had it under contract at that point, but Tyler asked me if there was any interest in showing it to David. I was like, ‘Yeah, definitely, obviously.’"
Things escalated quickly, as Zwirner shared the news of the potential space with his son and daughter, Lucas and Marlene Zwirner, who both work at the gallery as head of content and a director, respectively.
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"Tyler mentioned it, and then about three days later, David, Lucas, and Marlene flew out here and they met with me, my dad, and my sister Emma," Lasry said, adding that his sister was an associate director at the art advisory firm Beaumont Nathan. "And it was just two families hanging out. We all got along really well. David then called me up two days later and was like, ‘I’m in.’"
The gallery held off on officially announcing the new location until February 2022, but in the year prior, gossip about it reached a fever pitch—I broke the news in my old Wet Paint column in April 2021, years before the actual opening. LA had already felt like a bona fide art market town by the time Frieze opened its outpost there in 2019, but Zwirner's impending arrival kicked off a veritable gallery-space gold rush. In 2022, powerhouses such as Karma, Lisson, Hauser & Wirth, Sean Kelly, Marian Goodman, and Pace announced new galleries in LA, and Gladstone announced that it would open an office.
But none of those galleries opted to join Zwirner in Melrose Hill, and reps from several of them told me they had checked out spaces in that hood only to settle farther west, closer to the collector havens of Brentwood and Beverly Hills. Lisson executive director Alex Logsdail made explicit that the location was key when he chose to open a space in the building that formerly housed The Zone, which Yelp once described as "the most popular sex club for men in Southern California."
"It's in the middle zone of LA, close enough to Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Westside, where a lot of collectors live, and 10 minutes from any hotel that art buyers from overseas would stay in," Logsdail told the Financial Times.
Reps from Zwirner told a different story. By opening their gallery in Melrose Hill, they’d be aligning themselves with the artists who live on the east side, not just the collectors who live on the west side. The divide is something that David Zwirner himself has been aware of for decades, since he used to go all the way out to East Pasadena to hit up the sprawling studio of the late Jason Rhoades, one of the gallery's first artists and the dealer's close friend. In 2006, Rhoades hosted a series of now legendary dinners-slash-performances, cohosted by a young Alex Israel, at his new studio at 3113 Beverly Boulevard in Filipinotown—just a nine-minute drive from the gallery Zwirner has now opened nearly 17 years after Rhoades's death from an accidental overdose and heart disease at age 41.
And accordingly, last Tuesday's opening drew a mix of artists, dealers, collectors, and movie stars—Owen Wilson, the art-collecting king of Hollywood galleries, was there, of course. LACMA director Michael Govan stopped by, as did MOCA director Johanna Burton, Broad director Joanne Heyler, and Sandra Jackson-Dumont, director of the new Lucas Museum, set to open in 2025. Fellow dealers came from their outposts in other parts of town to pay respects—Jeffrey Deitch and Tim Blum were there—and appearances were made by collectors such as Benedikt and Lauren Taschen and Beth DeWoody. And of course Marc Lasry showed up. But the artists turned out as well, including Jonas Wood and Shio Kusaka, Barbara Kruger, Diana Thater, Calvin Marcus, Laura Owens, Toba Khedoori, Jennifer Guidi, and others.
It's become exactly what Lasry had in mind when he started buying up the buildings.
"I thought, I could be someone who is able to help shape environments where creative people can feel really inspired—that's the ultimate goal," he told me, finishing his Italian combo at Ggiata, right at the heart of his burgeoning gallery-heavy neighborhood that's walkable to boot. "It's like, how can we serve people who dedicate their lives to making interesting shit?"
And then, following the opening, everyone went to the gallery dinner at the Sunset Tower Hotel. Even though it was all the way over in West Hollywood, it was just a 12-minute ride—without traffic.
There's been a great deal of Ellsworth Kelly exhibitions to honor the centenary of the great artist's birth. MoMA has installed Sculpture for a Large Wall in the main atrium, and there's a show of his sketchbooks on the fourth floor. There's a grand spectacle of a show at Glenstone, the stirring private museum on farmland in Potomac, Maryland, and it amounts to the largest survey of his work since the artist's death in 2015. And then there's an all-out blowout in Spencertown, New York, where Kelly lived until his death, including private tours of his work spaces and a show of historic exhibition posters at the Spencertown Academy Arts Center.
But there is something special about celebrating Kelly's 100th birthday on his actual birthday, May 31. And that is why the collector Lonti Ebers and the dealer Matthew Marks gathered a selection of people at the newly restored Lever House—it got an 18-month, $100 million reno—on that special day, to see nine sculptures made in the last decades of his life installed at the base of the classic Art Deco building and in the lobby, with the loans facilitated by the artist's estate—alongside the building's owners, Brookfield Properties and WatermanClark—and the art adviser Jacob King.
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"Ellsworth would have both loved this day and hated it," said Jack Shear, Kelly's widower and the executive director of the artist's foundation. "He always hated his birthday, but he loved having exhibitions of his work."
After the tour, we were ushered into Casa Lever, which will reopen next week after a six-month hiatus and be run by the Sant Ambroeus people, who have taken over operations. At one table was soon-to-be Whitney director Scott Rothkopf; at the table over, MoMA curators Michelle Kuo and Stuart Comer. Collector Eleanor Heyman Propp held court at a table with Andy Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs. Casa Lever's also got a new patio made possible by a brand-new stainless steel door connecting it to the Lever House lobby. When it opens next week, there's no doubt it will be slammed daily as soon as the bankers in the neighborhood leave their Park Avenue offices.
After months of endless rumors, Sotheby's finally confirmed Thursday that it will be purchasing 945 Madison, better known as the Breuer building, from the Whitney Museum of American Art, and moving all of its auction operations to Madison Avenue starting in the fall of 2024. And the building will cost the house and its owner, French telecom billionaire Patrick Drahi, a figure said to be around $100 million, or $47 million more than the top lot at Sotheby's this year. Several questions remain unanswered. Reports say that Sotheby's will build out a large sales room somewhere in the historic museum building, and because the building itself doesn't have landmark designation (it's in a landmarked district), significant changes could be made to build out the nave of the art-selling church somewhere within its five stories.
People are, somewhat understandably, apoplectic that what's only existed as a hallowed institution—whether it was hosting shows by the Whitney or The Met or the Frick—will now be home to a cutthroat commercial entity. "Money lenders in the temple…😟," wrote Hall Art Foundation founder Andy Hall. But one also has to ponder: For a price tag of $100 million (which seems, frankly, kind of…cheap?) this thing could have been bought by a crown prince and turned into a quaint little pied-à-terre. Or a Prada store—the luxury industry giants certainly have $100 million lying around.
Another issue is whether Sotheby's will sell its York Avenue building that it bought from Aby Rosen in 2009 for $370 million. Presumably, that price tag would be higher now. There's also a little matter of exhibition space. The Breuer building has 30,000 square feet of space to put art in, while Sotheby's has been playing with 90,000 square feet at York Avenue. Also—hypothetically speaking—remember that time you were perusing the Frick Breuer and thought, Wow, that's a dope Fragonard, I’m going to text a picture of it to all of my friends, and then realized you had no cell service? That's right, there's infamously problematic cell service in that building. Good luck selling art without a solid cell signal.
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From the Archive: Diana and the Press (1998)Last Tuesday, David Zwirner Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Larry Gagosian Zach Lasry, Marc Lasry. Just a few months Alex Tuttle Robert Goff Annabelle Selldorf. Emma Fernberger, Hamza Walker Leonardo DiCaprio Sam Rockwell Miggi Hood Geoff Anenberg Tyler Stonebreaker Lasry had never Sonia Gardner Henry Taylor, Paul McCarthy, Rashid Johnson, Al Morán Mills, Lucas Marlene Zwirner, Emma, he gallery held Alex Logsdail Alex Israel, Owen Wilson, Michael Govan Johanna Burton, Joanne Heyler Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Jeffrey Deitch Tim Blum Benedikt Lauren Taschen Beth DeWoody. Jonas Wood Shio Kusaka, Barbara Kruger, Diana Thater, Calvin Marcus, Laura Owens, Toba Khedoori, Jennifer Guidi, Lonti Ebers Matthew Marks Jacob King. Jack Shear, Scott Rothkopf; Michelle Kuo Stuart Comer. Eleanor Heyman Propp Joel Wachs. Patrick Drahi, Andy Hall. Aby Rosen