Downtown L.A. moves fast. Amid the crush of the weekday work crowd, the city buses blazing down the street, and the towering office buildings casting ever-changing shadows on the city’s busiest sidewalks, it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle. But when you slow down and take a look around, there’s so much more to take in—often where you’d least expect it.
Art is everywhere you look in DTLA. Inside Hotel Indigo, you’ll find works that were carefully curated to reflect the creativity that defines the city’s urban center. And once you set out to explore, the possibilities for inspiration are endless. Walk down Grand Avenue and you’ll find a museum that houses one of the most important collections of postwar and contemporary art in the country. You can’t miss it—the Broad museum’s angular, “veil-and-vault”-style building is a work of art in itself. But other opportunities to take in art are a bit more elusive; for instance, an art market that’s taken root on the mezzanine level of a famous bookstore, a high-profile art gallery inside a former flour mill in the heart of the Arts District, and a library spilling with historic works of public art.
To guide you through DTLA’s art scene, we tapped Hadley Meares, an L.A. historian, culture journalist, and tour guide who calls the Arts District home. These are some of the must-see spots for art lovers visiting L.A.
With its vibrant murals and splashy graffiti, Los Angeles’ Arts District might feel as perfectly plotted as a movie set. But in reality, it blossomed as organically as a Live Oak from the L.A. soil. In the 1970s, as rents were on the rise across the city, artists who were at risk of being priced out began setting up illegal galleries and lofts in abandoned industrial spaces that were languishing in this corner of downtown. A lot has changed since then—you’re more likely to find blue chip galleries and million dollar condos than makeshift artist lofts—but the city blocks that span from the L.A. River to Alameda Street are still the nucleus of the city’s street art scene. If you’re looking for a crash course, joining L.A. Art Tours walking tour of the Arts District is the perfect way to take it all in. You’ll see 100 individual works of art, including one of Hadley’s personal favorites, the massive mural “Bloom” by artist HUEMAN, a tribute to the late artist Joel Bloom, the unofficial mayor of the Arts District. Even if you decide to take a self-guided tour, you won’t be disappointed. “I find myself just smiling and laughing constantly when I walk around the Arts District,” Hadley says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, here’s a new mural’ or ‘Here’s a new funny art project.’ ‘Oh, someone left an amazing hanging sculpture on this lamppost.’” End the day by browsing the work of local makers at the Arts District Co-Op or with a beer at Arts District Brewing Company.
On a cinderblock wall above an outdoor garden, a woman with a tattooed chest and arms, her hands in prayer position, seems to bless the courtyard beneath her. The mural, attributed to a tagging crew called Inner City Rebels, is one example of the Art District’s past and present coming together inside the massive complex that houses Hauser & Wirth. When the blue chip Swiss gallery set up shop in a former flour mill in the Arts District in 2016, care was taken to preserve the graffiti that had accumulated on the building’s brick walls in the decades since the mill ceased operation in the 1960s and artists took over the area. “They’ve incorporated the original history of the Arts District within the modern history of the Arts District,” Hadley says. That preserved street art is just one thing to see and experience at Hauser & Wirth. Inside the complex’s soaring white-walled gallery spaces, you can take in meticulously curated exhibitions of contemporary art, or you can sit down for a lunch of heritage American fare at Manuela, which sources seasonal produce from its muraled courtyard garden. Tip: Admission to the gallery is free—you can just drop in anytime—but if you happen to be traveling with a group of ten or more people, you can book a free guided tour of the current exhibitions if you email in advance.
Located in a grand former bank building on Spring Street, the Last Bookstore is probably most famous for its book tunnel, a gravity-defying—and highly Instagrammable—installation on the book store’s second floor. But after you pose for pics and browse the stacks, head to the mezzanine level, where the five artists who make up the Spring Arts Collective have set up their shops and studio spaces. Hadley is partial to artist Liz Huston’s Studio Shoppe, a gallery space/shop stocked with metaphysical goodies like crystals and tarot cards. (Note: The collective’s stores and studio spaces aren’t officially part of the Last Bookstore and maintain their own hours, so check before you visit.) Before you head out, also be sure to visit the store’s Art & Rare Books Annex. Besides books that are works of art in their own right, you’ll find a masterpiece of a mural, hand drawn in pencil by artist Nikolis Lord.
Stepping into Yayoi Kusama’s installation “Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” feels like disappearing among the stars. It’s just one way to immerse yourself in art at the Broad, a 120,000 square foot museum that’s home to works by Basquiat, Warhol, Kruger, Koons, and more of postwar America’s most influential artists. Since it opened in 2015, the Broad has helped put L.A. on the map as an art destination. “I think we were only considered as a place for movies and television, for Hollywood-slick productions,” Hadley says. “But over the last decade or two, it’s really become more and more obvious that Los Angeles is a center for really amazing, really talented, really groundbreaking artists.” The museum is totally free to visit, but if you want to experience Kusama’s Infinity room, be sure to reserve your timed entry ticket in advance.
Travelers might not think to visit the library when they come to L.A., but the city’s Central Library isn’t just a place for checking out books or flipping through ancient microfiche. The early art deco-style building is a monument to public art and California history. You’ll find sculptures by artist Lee Lawrie throughout the building—including a pair of regal black marble sphinxes on the landing of the north staircase—but the most eye-catching example is the chandelier in the main rotunda. The magnificent bronze sculpture comprises a stained glass globe surrounded by the signs of the zodiac, along with 48 lights, one for each U.S. state that existed when Lawrie created the sculpture. Look down from the chandelier to the upper walls of the rotunda, where you’ll see Dean Cornwell’s famous oil-on-linen mural depicting scenes from California history in four panels. “It’s just absolutely inspiring and gorgeous,” Hadley says of the Central Library. “It puts modern libraries and modern public works to shame.”