Big Plans for ArtCenter as the Pasadena-Based Art and Design College Expands Downtown

ArtCenter DTLA opened the he Old Bank District on May 18. 

In May 2018, the leaders of Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design and Downtown development firm Gilmore Associates entered into an “exploratory agreement” for the Gilmore group’s Main Museum in the Historic Core. Although many people were stunned when the facility abruptly shut down in December, ArtCenter clearly saw something it liked.

This month, Gilmore Associates and ArtCenter announced plans for the Pasadena institution to take over the bottom two floors of the Hellman Building at 114 W. Fourth St., and on May 16, ArtCenter DTLA officially opened, with the exhibit Going Clear displaying work from students in the Masters of Fine Arts program. The college has inked a 10-year lease on the space for $1 per year.

The move adds an element of both excitement and uncertainty in the Historic Core. ArtCenter leaders describe the deal for the 6,250 square feet of space on the ground floor and mezzanine levels of the building as a unique opportunity.

ArtCenter’s initial agreement last year was described as a way to provide financial support for the museum in exchange for some display space. Provost Karen Hofmann said that the kind of contemporary programming that had been underway in the space fit with the institution’s goals.

“We were doing lots of things we saw as mutually beneficial outreach that would be better if we could be on the ground in Downtown L.A., and engage the city and Southern California as a whole rather than from just being in Pasadena,” Hofmann told Los Angeles Downtown News.

Going Clear, which will be up for a month, will help the college gauge how best to use the Downtown space, according to Hofmann. An exploratory committee is evaluating the options for the Hellman Building long term.

Hofmann said the space will hold a mix of exhibitions and classes for ArtCenter’s undergraduate and graduate programs. It will also be the site of ArtCenter Expansion, a program the college runs that offers educational and workshop opportunities to the public.

Unfulfilled Plan

ArtCenter DTLA replaces the Main Museum. That project, originally announced in 2014, was Tom Gilmore and his business partner Jerri Perrone’s plan to transform the Hellman Building and the adjacent Farmers and Merchant’s Bank building, as well as a parking structure, into a multi-level contemporary art museum, complete with a rooftop sculpture garden. Architect Tom Wiscombe had been hired to handle designs.

The first component, dubbed the “Beta Main,” opened in October 2016. A small staff was hired and there was a lineup of well-regarded shows, including ones that engaged the local creative community. However further plans never materialized. The December closure caught many in Downtown unawares.

When asked for comment, a representative for Gilmore said that he would not be speaking about the deal with ArtCenter, and referred questions to the school.

ArtCenter joins other higher-education options in Downtown Los Angeles. Cal State Los Angeles has an outpost at Eighth Street and Grand Avenue and the Southern California Institute of Architecture has a headquarters in a former train depot at Third Street and Santa Fe Avenue.

ArtCenter was founded in 1930, and originally called Los Angeles home. It relocated to Pasadena in 1976, where it operates two campuses.

Local leaders predicted that ArtCenter’s expansion into Downtown will benefit the wider neighborhood. Blair Besten, executive director of the Historic Core Business Improvement District, said having the college in the area long term will continue the momentum of the local arts scene, which has seen arrivals in recent years including the Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles gallery and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, both in the Arts District.

Jessica Lall, president and CEO of the Central City Association, agreed on the potential benefits for the local creative community.

“It is exciting that a prestigious art college will join the many other excellent educational institutions in Downtown and that we will have another partner to help foster a diverse talent pool for the region,” Lall said.

ArtCenter operates multiple exhibition galleries for students and faculty at its Pasadena campuses. Hofmann said the Downtown outpost will be “more experimental” than those galleries. She said that ArtCenter admired the Main Museum’s mission to showcase local contemporary artists and wants to carry on that goal.

The Old Bank District location also puts students near Downtown’s main galleries, as well as events such as the monthly Art Walk.

“I think there’s a desire from a student perspective,” Hofmann said. “If I’m an artist, especially at the graduate level, I want to see my work out in the world in a meaningful way, and this helps us enable and empower our students to express themselves in a much broader way.”

Hofmann said ArtCenter will evaluate the space over the next few months, and will then roll out a calendar of classes, exhibitions and programming for ArtCenter DTLA for 2020-2021.

nicholas@downtownnews.com