Arts & Entertainment

Arts and transit: Can they both thrive at Bergamot Station?

The 26th Street/Bergamot station is one of seven new stations along the Expo Line extension which opens on Friday, May 20, 2016.
The 26th Street/Bergamot station is one of seven new stations along the Expo Line extension which opens on Friday, May 20, 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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For two decades, Santa Monica's Bergamot Station has been a hub for Southern California's visual art scene. Home to more than 30 fine art galleries and other creative businesses, it has a vibe almost every gallerist working there considers irreplaceable.

Now, it's also home to a new stop on the Expo Line extension.

The arrival of the train – as well as related development the city of Santa Monica wants to build to accommodate the 3,400 riders expected to use the station each day – has brought with it a mix of excitement and anxiety about how the atmosphere will change now that the arts center is also a transit hub. 

While some see this as a chance to revitalize the arts scene at Bergamot Station, others worry making the area more accessible could actually doom its galleries.

"It is a time of joy and a time of huge stress," said Robert Berman, who owns one of the more than 30 art galleries in the complex.  

On the one hand, "we’re open up to a chance of people from all parts of Los Angeles to come and see the art that we’re showing and even hopefully buying some," Berman said.

On the other hand, proposals to bring more retail, office space and even a hotel to the area are sparking fears among gallery owners that Bergamot Station's artistic flair will erode until the space becomes just another strip mall.

"We can’t survive that kind of construction," said gallery owner Lois Lambert. "Plus the fact that they change the whole character of what we are."

A looming threat

Wayne Blank says the train – and the development it might bring – has been on his mind since he founded the arts complex 22 years ago. 

"In the beginning, I knew that we were short-term," Blank said. "Maybe the train will come and we’ll have to leave."

Over the years, he transformed what was once a stop on the old Red Car railroad system in Southern California, and then a water heater factory, into a robust home for galleries, non-profits and other arts-related businesses. Blank said he believed the stronger the arts scene that grew there, the more successfully it would weather change. 

"From the very beginning, I felt that if we add enough to the equation for the community, they’ll want to keep us," he said.

Now that the change is here, Santa Monica officials have said that they are serious about preserving the fine arts scene. But they also point out that the area doesn't have many of the services that regular transit consumers rely on.

For example, while the lot boasts constantly-changing exhibits of photography, contemporary paintings, impressionist work, sculpture, and Latin American art, there's only one small cafe and no other retail. 

Bergamot Station is home to more than 30 fine art galleries. It's also home to one of the newest Metro stops, an arrival that gallerists see as both a great opportunity and a threat.
Bergamot Station is home to more than 30 fine art galleries. It's also home to one of the newest Metro stops, an arrival that gallerists see as both a great opportunity and a threat.
Omar Bárcena/Flickr

‘Real progress’ 

Blank owns a third of the property and leases the rest from the city of Santa Monica. The lease is up in December 2017 and plans for what happens then are very much in flux.

The city has been in talks with the community for years about development plans and just concluded a year of meetings with an advisory committee. The city has yet to select a development plan, but the City Council choose a developer two years ago and a committee has put together a detailed report with recommendations for sprucing up the area. The proposal calls for retail space and a bike shop. The most contentious part of the vision is a hotel that would eventually displace one of the buildings.

Even before the development begins, gallery owners have an immediate point of concern: parking. Bergamot Station has always been a destination, with a free parking lot for the people coming to the galleries.

But no additional parking structure has been built for the Metro riders and gallery owners worry that their spaces will be taken up by people who just want to snag a spot and hop on a train headed downtown. 

The City Council committee convened to examine development proposals reported that it sees "ensuring that Bergamot remain a safe harbor for the fine arts for the next 50 years as essential."

"We’re going to see if that’s the case," said gallery owner Berman, who like other gallerists said that he is hopeful but skeptical. "We’re very excited and we would like to be here another 22, 25, even 30 years."

But to be proactive, about 30 of the businesses currently operating at Bergamot recently formed an association, now called the Bergamot Union, to fight for a larger say in what happens. The union is counting down the months (there are 19 left) until Blank's lease expires and is hoping the city will consider giving it to their group. 

"We’re not against progress," said Jeff Gordon, owner of the screenwriting school Writer's Bootcamp, located in the complex. "We just want it to be real progress." 

Arts hubs move around 

While most of the business owners are digging in their heels, some have gotten out. 

The Santa Monica Museum of Art, for example, left Santa Monica last year after 18 years at Bergamot. It will be reopening in downtown L.A. next year with a new name – the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

And Rosamund Felsen, whose gallery was a mainstay at Bergamot for decades, also moved downtown last year. 

"People just have to accept the fact that it’s over," said Felsen. 

Felsen says she left in part to due to her monster commute from Los Feliz, but she also sees all this as just another part of the business – arts hubs move around.

"When I first opened the gallery, the center where all the galleries were was on La Cienega, between Melrose and Santa Monica," she said. "And that ended."

Lots of galleries moved to Culver City several years back, and now downtown L.A. is the place to be. While some believe the Metro will unite Santa Monica with the downtown arts district, Felsen doesn’t think that will happen.

"I have to be realistic: art collectors don’t take the train," she said, chuckling. "Yet, anyway."

But whether there are art collectors among the thousands of Metro riders the city expects at the station or not, Berman believes they've created a space with an irreplaceable atmosphere that serves the community as a whole. 

"A lot of people think that this is a big money-making thing and it’s not that at all," Berman said. "It’s really an act of love where we are able to show art that we believe in."

This post has been updated to clarify the Santa Monica Museum of Art's relocation details.