Morning, noon and night, the halls of the Armory are abuzz with creativity as locals of all ages take advantage of the Center’s extraordinary art class offerings – from studio photography to Photoshop, collage making to animation, letterpress printing to drawing, painting and ceramics. These classes are in fact so synonymous with the institution that it’s possible to forget it’s also one of Pasadena’s most highly regarded contemporary art exhibition spaces, with over 3,500 square feet of gallery space, an artist-in-residence program at One Colorado and a recent partnership with the Outpost for Contemporary Art in Highland Park. And that doesn’t even include public spectacles like Richard Jackson’s artful plane crash at the Rose Bowl last January.
But if anything can serve as a vivid reminder of the breadth of talent and vision that has passed through the Armory’s doors since it opened in 1989, it’s the biannual Off the Wall art auction. Always a great source of high quality work at reasonable prices, this year’s auction, scheduled for February 23rd, marks the first time a host committee of gallerists and curators from beyond Southern California has been brought in, expanding the scope of the event.
Chief Curator Irene Tsatsos, who replaced Jay Belloli as Director of Gallery Programs in 2010, heartily supported this effort. “I liked the idea of helping to create a steering committee comprised of people who are participants in an art world that’s broader,” she says. “People who have an eye for adventurous art and people who are influencers, who have the ear of those we want to bring in, so we’re pragmatic in that way…Likewise, bringing in artists who are part of a dialogue going on well beyond the region. I think this is a way to draw in audiences who perhaps are aware of what we’re doing but don’t necessarily follow us regularly.”
A veteran of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in Hollywood and coordinator of the 1997 Whitney Biennial in New York, Tsatsos came on board just as Los Angeles was gearing up for Pacific Standard Time, which kicked off in late 2011. Presenting art from 1945-1980 at more than 60 Southern California institutions, this Getty initiative brought many of Pasadena’s groundbreaking contributions to light; it resulted in a renaissance of sorts for the city that had actually led L.A.’s contemporary art scene with the first Pop Art museum exhibition and a Marcel Duchamp retrospective, both curated by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum.
While Jay Belloli curated 46 N. Los Robles: A History of the Pasadena Art Museum at what is now the Pacific Asia Museum, the Armory presented the heady and provocative Speaking in Tongues: Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken, 1961-1976, plus the aforementioned Jackson plane crash, which Tsatsos cheerfully describes as “a smash success.”
As they were back in the early ‘60s, the eyes of the art world were once again on Pasadena. Annie Wharton, co-director of the Wharton and Espinosa gallery in the Pacific Design Center, is one of this year’s selection committee members, and she – and her artists – have taken notice of the Armory in particular. “I have a lot of respect for the programming they’re doing at the Armory,” says Wharton. “I think their new initiatives are very forward-thinking.” She adds, “Everybody we asked very generously donated because I think they all believe in the vision of the Armory.”
Wharton and Espinosa nominated emerging artists like Rachel Kessler, Eli Langer and Brendan Threadgill. Their works will hang in the auction alongside pieces by present and past artists-in-residence like Gregory Michael Hernandez and Eve Fowler, teaching artists like Olga Koumoundorouos and Christina Pierson, and work from legends such as Larry Bell and Ed Ruscha, whose Pasadena connection goes back to that first Pop survey; Chris Burden, whose Small Skyscraper presided over the One Colorado courtyard last fall; and Steve Roden, the Pasadena visual and sound artist who had a 20 year survey at the Armory in 2010.
“They’ve tended to champion artists who are more like underdogs,” says Roden. “They were certainly the only institution that would put something like that together…I’d probably have to wait another 20 years for MoCA or LACMA to give me a survey.”
Because of this kind of support early on, big name artists remain loyal. Roden, for one, has donated a piece to each of the last five auctions. For younger artists, it’s a great way to get exposure, and unlike many other benefit auctions, artists participating in Off the Wall get 25% of the sale price if they choose, which can cover prohibitive production costs. Prices typically range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
On top of the art, which can literally be taken “off the wall” by the buyer, entertainment might include anything from live painting to deejays, performances by high school bands or miniature horses prancing about. As Executive Director Scott Ward recalls there was even once an actual “nude descending a staircase.”
“It’s a really fun way to support the organization,” says Tsatsos. “And the food is incredible!” she adds.
Armory board member Gale Kohl, the owner of Gale’s, facilitates the food component, soliciting contributions from restaurants around Pasadena – more than 20 this year – which her staff prepares, plates and serves with help from volunteers. The event usually draws around 350 guests, and of course the hope is that they will be inspired to return.
With the growing decentralization of the LA art scene, Tsatsos is hopeful. “For a while everything was at Bergamot, but everything is nowhere now. It’s not just Culver City, it’s not just the 6150 [Wilshire] cluster. People really are having to travel.” And, she notes, “Our audiences are finding that the travel is worth it.”