Corona del Mar philanthropists Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. and Roberta Green Ahmanson will create an art gallery, studio space, and an artist-in-residence program in Los Angeles.
Howard is ranked 25th on our annual OC’s Wealthiest list (see stand-alone Special Report) with an estimated $725 million.
The work extends their efforts in Orange County, elsewhere in the U.S. and overseas to cultivate art and artists, helped by outside consultants and staff at Fieldstead & Co. Inc., the Ahmansons’ family office in Irvine.
Fieldstead devotes 2,000 of its 15,000 square feet to art, some owned by the couple; L.A. will have about 9,000 square feet available for art at opening, which is tentatively scheduled for late 2019 or early 2020.
“2020 is more likely,” said Roberta. She said they hope to have “pop-up shows” as early as next year in a “raw, unfinished space … We’re doing some things to make [the building] more accessible for [that].”
The threefold project comes under a nonprofit organization called WaterTable Trust.
Fieldstead Director of Special Projects Ann Hirou said the for-profit Bridge Projects Inc. gallery is envisioned “more as a project space than a gallery with a stable of artists.”
It’s on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. Art gallery Steve Turner Contemporary is a tenant, with 5,300 square feet of its own.
Filings show Angelwood Station LLC in Irvine bought it in May 2016 for $8 million. Hirou said ownership was later shifted to Bridge Projects LLC.
Subsidized studio space for artists is in an area popularly known as Frogtown and called Frogtown Studios. The site had been owned by City of Industry-based kimchi maker Cosmos Food Co. Inc.
Frogtown Studios LLC, an affiliate of Broadway Investments in Irvine, bought the 9,200-square-foot property for $3.25 million at about the same time as the gallery.
The home for an artist-in-residence is in Atwater Village near Silver Lake.
The three connect on a 20-mile circumference between Griffith Park to the north and downtown L.A. to the south.
The art gallery opens first.
Roberta said another “first” will be its relationships with artists.
“We know a number of young artists, and we wanted to provide a gallery that would focus on serving [them], putting how we treat our artists ahead of how much money they make, though it is a for-profit gallery.”
Hirou said the work is predesign-stage with concepts still being batted about, but Roberta was adamant on a main goal.
“We want to add something to the L.A. gallery scene,” she said.
It’s not the first time the Ahmanson name will boost art, nor the first family link between OC and L.A.
Howard’s father and namesake, Howard F. Ahmanson Sr., was among several others, including Norton Simon and Dorothy Buffum Chandler, who transformed L.A.’s cultural landscape in the 1950s and 1960s with their giving.
Ahmanson helped launch Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1958 with a $2 million pledge—$17 million in today’s dollars—and gave to other cultural causes.
He founded and led H.F. Ahmanson & Co., an insurance, banking, and real estate firm; its Home Savings & Loan was the start of Howard Jr.’s wealth following his father’s death in 1968.
Ahmanson Sr. hired Pomona-born artist Millard Sheets to design mosaics for Home Savings branches—and many of the branches themselves. A biography of him, “Building Home,” says his 1953 note to Sheets read in part, “If interested in doing a building that will look good thirty-five or forty years from now when I’m not here, call me.”
Former Home Savings branches are still recognizable for their artistry.
The elder Ahmanson also backed the Ahmanson Center for Biological Research at his alma mater, the University of Southern California. Both it and LACMA were designed by postwar modernist William Pereira, whose work can also be found at the University of California-Irvine, and whom Howard Jr. recalls as “a family friend.”
Two more repeat performances between Howard Sr.’s giving and Howard Jr. and Roberta Ahmanson’s arts initiatives are the bringing of a community into the workings of art and works of art into a community.
Howard Sr.’s commitment to LACMA, his biography said, combined a low-interest loan with stock in the company carrying the paper—the museum would eventually be “creditor and debtor on its own loan”—and over time the public would also come to support it.
Hirou said WaterTable’s goal is also “to have others support the work [and] not be dependent on one source.”
And the community is likely to attend salons at the gallery.
Fieldstead hosts regular “presentations, conversations, and questions” on cultural, artistic, and intellectual topics, “and good food, too,” said Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University who with wife, Lidija, attends them.
“They’re intellectual, philosophical people; interesting people and generous people,” Smoller said. “They’re people of means who’ve done well and want to do good.”
Salons of 150 to 200 people—“they have a full house,” he said—discuss “religion, music, local politics” and other topics in a whosoever-will-may-come atmosphere across faith, political, and cultural spectra.
“They travel all over the world, meet interesting people,” he said. “Their genuine desire is to elevate the quality of the conversation in Orange County.”
The Ahmansons are avowed Christians. The WaterTable work is not.
“We don’t intend it to be a faith-specific gallery, that’s not the goal; we want to create room for the conversation,” Roberta said. “We want to include artists of any faith and artists of no faith.”
So it’s salons, not sermons, painting, not preaching.
She said, “Howard and I have recognized for a long time, we live in a visual age. We communicate visually, receive information visually—from emojis to movies—so visual art becomes a very important language.”
The language of Christian faith “is operative for me, but I don’t expect it will be operative for everyone who comes into the gallery or who we show there.”
Hirou said the aim is to “encourage a place for people who love good art,” and WaterTable has drawn contemporary arts people to lead the project.
Cara Megan Lewis, previously associate director at Chicago’s Rhona Hoffman Gallery, joined as gallery director in August; artist Linnéa Spransy is on WaterTable’s board.
They’re “working hard, getting to know the art community,” Roberta said. “We’re the new kid on the block, and we need to know the neighbors.”