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Christie's Auction House Opens Flagship L.A. Art Space

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Christie's Beverly Hills opening cocktail party on April 19. (Photo courtesy of Christie's)
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The arrival of venerable Christie's auction house to Los Angeles may seem like an unlikely fit; after all, the L.A. art scene is known for its informality, and local movements from Chicano mural art to 1970s "lowbrow art" have tended to emphasize the cutting edge over the conventional. At 251 years old, the British auction house is determined to shed its staid image and forge a West Coast identity that skews young, with last week's Beverly Hills opening drawing a diverse crowd that seemed more interested in snapping selfies with the Picassos and Magrittes on display than purchasing them.

In a moment that epitomized the casual nature of L.A.'s art scene, one guest at the Christie’s opening on Wednesday night kicked off her leopard-print Jenni Kayne flats and hopped up on a banquette to get an unobstructed Instagram view of singer Kelela's live performance. (It's hard to imagine that happening at the auction house's Rockefeller Center New York mothership).

As with the abstract-expressionist Cy Twomblys hanging on the walls around us, there turned out to be more to the Instagrammer than first met the eye; she introduced herself as Dr. Aimee Martinez, a clinical psychologist and local art collector who focuses primarily on Latin American art. "I don't fit the typical projection of an art collector as being esoteric, elitist, old," Martinez noted, describing Christie's as a far more traditional venue than the small galleries she normally peruses, but still surprisingly accessible to LA's avant-garde art crowd. "The arrival of a legendary auction house like Christie's is very reliable and safe for L.A. collectors, but they're not as austere as, say, Sotheby's, and it's nice that they know how to throw a good party."

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Christie’s new Los Angeles flagship in Beverly Hills. (Photo courtesy of Christie's).
Christie's two-story, 5,400 square foot space is curated more like a boutique La Cienega gallery than a stuffy private auction house; one of Jean-Michel Basquiat's chaotic portraits hangs alongside a set of gloomy Francis Bacon triptychs on the ground-floor gallery walls, and upstairs, a Miró statue rests on a corner windowsill between an iPad and a stack of Patek Philippe watch catalogs. (Don't be fooled by the casual placement, though; the discreetly listed asking price for the Miró starts at $400,000).

The multipurpose space was designed by Thai architect Kulapat Yantrasast, a founding partner and creative director at the L.A.-based design firm wHY. Yantrasast, who W Magazine heralded as "the art world's latest go-to architect," is having a major moment: wHY repurposed Wilshire's landmark Scottish Rite Masonic Temple into an art space for the highly anticipated Marciano Art Foundation (opening in May), and Yantrasast is also designing the forthcoming Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which will open in the Arts District this fall.  

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Christie’s interior. (Photo courtesy of Christie's).
Back at Christie's in Beverly Hills, guests gathered on the rooftop to watch live performances from DJ Wade Crescent and musician Melo X, who co-wrote the songs "Hold Up" and "Sorry" on Beyonce's 2016 album "Lemonade." The last act of the night, Ethiopian-American R&B/electronic/grime singer Kelela, drew an audience all her own: "I would never be at Christie's in Beverly Hills if it weren't for Kelela," confessed one young man draped in athleisure, drawing a nod of agreement from the red-snakeskin-clad woman beside him.

The youthful draw of an artist like Kelela was exactly what Sonya Roth, Managing Director for Christie's Western Region, hoped for when she planned Wednesday's opening. The fact that Christie’s Los Angeles will not hold auctions is “a real departure for the company,” Roth told the Hollywood Reporter, and indeed, the Beverly Hills space looks more like a small-scale version of Los Angeles museums like LACMA or MOCA (where Roth previously served on the Directors Council) than a typical auction house.

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Roth sees Christie's expansion into the Los Angeles art scene as an opportunity to engage communities beyond the rarefied world of fine-art collection, with a range of open events already planned for the Beverly Hills space (including a screening of the Andy Warhol documentary Brillo Box..) "L.A. is such an exciting place for art because it doesn't have as much of a commercial paint as some other established cities, so it's still really driven by creativity," Roth, whose husband heads up United Talent Agency’s fine art division, told LAist, adding that her plan for Christie's Los Angeles expansion is to "tap into what's already existent in the Southern California art scene and focus on where art is going, rather than where it's already been."

Christie's is located at 336 North Camden Drive in Beverly Hills and is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed Monday).