Endlessly envied for its ideal weather and downright derided for its plastic-pretty, pampered populace, Los Angeles is, nonetheless, the US’s most successful company town. Its exports – movies, television, sportswear, fusion-food trucks, the cult of celebrity and the siren call of a mythic, sun-kissed lifestyle – occupy imaginations across the globe. And although it may be built on artifice (it was, after all, once a desert), LA has of late come into its own as a world-class art destination, with a particularly robust appreciation for postmodernism and contemporary art.
While the average annual attendance at LA’s 106 museums is some 6m, in a six-month period from 2011 to 2012 the Getty Trust initiative Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980 drew nearly 1.8m to over 60 participating cultural institutions across southern California. A design-centric sequel, Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in LA, is scheduled to open in April.
The city’s art scene is always energetic. Last year the Hammer Museum in Westwood launched its own biennial, Made in LA 2012, showcasing new work by local artists. Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moca) in downtown gave an additional curatorial role to its director, Jeffrey Deitch, a former Manhattan gallery owner who has endured a rocky settling-in period at the institution, despite (or perhaps because of) staging crowd-pleasing Dennis Hopper, James Dean and graffiti shows.
The mid-city Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) has been very active recently, installing the award-winning Ray’s and Stark Bar, as well as outdoor works by Chris Burden and Michael Heizer. It also opened the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Pavilion, designed by Renzo Piano as a complement to the 2008 Broad Museum of Contemporary Art. Not to be outdone, patron Eli Broad began work on a $80m-$100m art museum, The Broad, on the same stretch of Grand Avenue as Moca and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Navigating the City of Angels, with its additional 370 art galleries, can confound even the most intrepid. Avoid frustration by booking a driver, particularly if you’ll be sampling fresh-ingredient handcrafted cocktails at the clubs and bars. Gourmets will find epicurean satisfaction all over town, as celebrity chefs and home-grown talents redefine comfort food and haute cuisine alike with a mash-up of ethnic influences.
While across on the West Side of LA, you’ll find hotels that focus on ambience and indulgence. Tucked away in residential areas are the city’s Spanish stucco landmark properties such as the Dorchester Collection’s Hotel Bel-Air and the Beverly Hills Hotel. In October 2011, the former emerged from a two-year overhaul by designers Alexandra Champalimaud and David Rockwell as a 108-room contemporary retreat (arguably at odds with its storybook sylvan setting). By contrast, The Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows – home of the legendary Polo Lounge, and also fresh from a 100th-anniversary renovation – is pure throwback glamour, from the Rat Pack swagger of its porte-cochere to the gilded furnishings and balloon valances in its rooms.
Not far away, The Peninsula Beverly Hills has all of the brand’s doting service and Old World touches – such as afternoon tea – yet retains the hushed feeling of a weekend spent at a country estate. The hotel’s newest and most sought-after addition is a two-bedroom, $6,000-a-night Royal Patio suite in pale blues, ivories and antiqued mirrors by acclaimed designer Nancy Corzine.
The Peninsula’s polar opposite is the moody Chateau Marmont, hotelier André Balazs’ French Normandy haunt that perennially hosts a late-night, lobby-lounging art and Hollywood set. There are 63 late-1920s apartment-style guest rooms (Suite 64, with a terrace overlooking the Sunset Strip, is a classic) and two modernist bungalows on the hillside, amid tropical gardens.
Across town, two Santa Monica sister hotels offer ocean views and suite-to-sand beach access, as well as reasonable proximity to the Getty Center, Getty Villa (filled with Greek, Roman and Etruscan treasures), Hammer Museum (for impressionism and works by LA legends John Baldessari and Llyn Foulkes) and gallery complex Bergamot Station. Casa del Mar is a 1920s Italian Renaissance Revival courtyard building, with a pair of two-storey penthouse suites and soul-soothing views. Just across the way, Shutters on the Beach is designed in a shingled New England-saltbox style and was decorated by Michael S Smith, who worked on the White House for the Obamas. It has balcony rooms that infuse beach-house ease with an English accent (including libraries), a decadent spa with Japanese and Turkish treatments, and a low-key lobby with a fireplace and jazz.
LA’s restaurants have always had an impressive cross-pollination of culinary influences. Ricardo Zárate, a veteran of Axis at One Aldwych and Zuma in London, helms Picca, blending the zesty heat of his native Peruvian aji amarillo peppers into ceviches and anticuchos (grilled skewers) with the presentational flair of a sushi chef. Dimly lit and clubby, Picca sits one storey above the two-year-old trattoria Sotto. LA is devoted to Italian food, with restaurants such as Mario Batali’s, Nancy Silverton’s and Joseph Bastianich’s always-packed Osteria Mozza and the much-anticipated RivaBella, the latest venture by Gino Angelini of Angelini Osteria. Despite this stiff competition, Sotto is already beloved for its strictly regional, earthy cooking and wood-fired Neapolitan pizza. For a more worldly, indulgent atmosphere and food, Wolfgang Puck’s newly refurbished Spago and José Andrés’ The Bazaar – with its deconstructed tapas and molecular gastronomy – are sophisticated alternatives.
Gallery-hopping presents even more dining options, and abundant retail opportunities. A tour of Bergamot Station’s 36 art and design spaces in Santa Monica, or a look at next-generation graffiti, animation and conceptual art stars at LeBasse Projects (one of over three dozen galleries in Culver City), is easily combined with a visit to Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice Beach. An eminently strollable strip of 1920s bungalows and austere glass boxes, it offers an overview of LA’s best stores: bespoke fragrance houses, custom denim ateliers, home decor and expertly curated fashion emporia, such as Guild, the West Side’s premier stockist of Ann Demeulemeester and Rick Owens’ Drkshdw diffusion line.
A suitably modern monorail transports visitors to the travertine hilltop complex of the Getty Center, one of the cultural jewels in the city’s crown. No retail therapy here; the draw is the depth of the collection, which spans antiquities and illuminated manuscripts and art from Manet to Mapplethorpe. It is, however, within striking distance of the Brentwood Country Mart, a quaint stable of eateries – including gourmet market-café FarmShop – and boutiques from local fashion luminaries James Perse and Jenni Kayne.
One could easily allocate a full day to exploring Lacma and the surrounding museums on the “Miracle Mile” of Wilshire Boulevard, which is near one of the city’s best-known shopping streets: the western end of Melrose Avenue, home to fashion landmark Fred Segal and the new boutique of LA design superstar Kelly Wearstler, stocked with her ready-to-wear designs, furniture and accessories. On adjacent Melrose Place, the Gray Gallery, a collaboration between Parisian interior designer Chahan Minassian and his cousin, LA jeweller Vram Minassian, showcases both delicate and brutalist design-art furniture, ceramics, lighting and fine jewellery.
La Cienega Design Quarter, Beverly Boulevard and West Hollywood’s The Avenues are the must-trawl zone for design junkies. Slightly off those beaten tracks, you’ll find an astonishing array of antiques and vintage furniture at JF Chen, and Californian modern decorative arts at Reform Gallery.
And finally, La Brea Avenue, a long-time locus of vintage clothing and surf- and skate-influenced sportswear, is undergoing a renaissance, thanks to menswear shops and general stores stocked with small-batch local goods. At its centre is Lab Art, which is staking its territory as the largest gallery in the US devoted to street art and related subgenres. It’s a claim, and a place, deeply inflected with LA-bred confidence and perfectly reflecting the city’s love affair with all forms of art.