Art in the Speculative City: A Conversation with Susanna Phillips Newbury

December 20, 2021   •   By Kate Wolf

WHEN THE BUSINESSMAN and mega-philanthropist Eli Broad died this past April at the age of 87, his obituaries were generally not circumspect about the fact that he could be an exacting donor. “He regarded his donations as investments,” Elaine Woo wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “the success of which he would judge by their returns, whether in the form of scientific breakthroughs, improved test scores or higher museum attendance.” In The Art Newspaper, reflecting on Broad’s legacy as an art collector, Jori Finkel offered that “[h]is approach to art was curiously brisk, efficient and frugal, traits he brought to almost every interaction or transaction, which were hard to tell apart.”

In her recent book, The Speculative City: Art, Real Estate, and the Making of Global Los Angeles, Susanna Phillips Newbury examines how Broad’s many ventures were indeed “hard to tell apart”; Newbury pinpoints the ways in which they were actually outgrowths of the same thing: real estate speculation. In nuanced analysis, she finds a revealing continuity between Broad as a developer who dealt in the construction of homes in far-off regions of Southern California where no one yet lived, to his centrality in the redesigning of Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles — where over 6,000 mostly low-income residents where displaced after Bunker Hill was leveled — by funding the construction of Museum of Contemporary Art. (Broad, along with other prominent business leaders of the day, suggested the museum as anchor project to Mayor Tom Bradley in 1979 after redevelopment of the razed parcel had, after two decades, largely stalled out.) MOCA became the centerpiece of a plan that was, and arguably still is, in service of the city as “master user,” as Newbury writes, “implemented by private contractors, and organized by an intangible logic of strict compartmentalization on social, cultural, and economic levels.”

Though Newbury’s clarifying discussion of Broad’s legacy is part of what drew me to her book, the lens of The Speculative City extends far beyond any single person. It is, foremost, a study of the placement of art and culture at the center redevelopment in Los Angeles. Newbury writes about everything from the way in which artists — primarily Ed Ruscha, Lewis Baltz, and William Leavitt — captured and reacted to the phenomenon of speculation, to the selling of the image of modernism with the Case Study Program, the wholesale construction of the city of Irvine, the coded architecture of Frank Gehry, and the 2008 mortgage crisis. But Broad, as someone who played a sizable role in nearly every major art museum in the Los Angeles, and whose own namesake museum now sits on Grand Avenue itself, is inevitably a kind of shadow figure throughout the book, a pronounced example of the nexus of cultural image and the flow of private capital that still shapes Los Angeles — and so many other cities around the world to this day.

Last month, over email, I asked Newbury, a professor of art history at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, some questions about her project, as well as how she imagines contemporary art as something other than, in her words, “an instrument of finance.”

Photo: The Castle (Los Angeles, Calif.), 1966, 1968, Shulman, Julius, photographer, © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10).

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KATE WOLF: You were raised in New York, which has its own rich history of artists reacting to real estate speculation. Why did you want to write about Los Angeles?

SUSANNA PHILLIPS NEWBURY: I wanted to see how it worked somewhere different from New York, Berlin, or even Northeast Ohio — all places I spent time in earlier in my life — in part because of growing up in New York, and Brooklyn, even more specifically. When I returned home from college, I suddenly had newly arrived peers telling me about things like this “cool” family-owned movie theater in my own neighborhood — I was always like, “That’s where I saw Milo & Otis.” It seemed important to point out that one person’s discovery is another’s history. This was in the mid-2000s, and I was becoming very aware of the ways in which demand for urban spaces was shaped around image. I got some structural context for this during graduate school, especially reading Rosalyn Deutsche’s book Evictions and going down some critical geography rabbit holes.

But truthfully, the book was born in a seminar on photography and concepts of public space, and public space is weird in L.A. I’d seen Lewis Baltz’s New Industrial Parks in a formalist phase, and loved how vacant and composed they seemed. Same with Ed Ruscha’s photo-books, whose deadpan I desperately wanted to understand. I also wanted to spend some time living in a new city, and L.A. seemed sunny and charged, uncontainable in a way I hadn’t encountered before. Its artists, critics, and curators were friendly and genuine in their curiosity. I worked for a time at [the online magazine] East of Borneo as they prepared para-histories to accompany Pacific Standard Time exhibitions through hyperlinked archives that mimicked aspects of postmodern urban theory. I liked L.A.’s open-ness, which seemed different from New York’s cagier art world, and became sort of obsessed with reverse-engineering the histories of institutions that built it that way. Also, as I told a friend at the time, I wanted to try to understand L.A. in a deep cultural way — I think I said I wanted to understand the L.A. equivalents of the hilarious world of Brooklyn power brokers I heard about growing up. I guess I meant I wanted to be conversant enough in L.A. to understand the local evening news, which I love.

What are some of the essential changes to Los Angeles’s urbanism between 1950–1980 that lay the groundwork for the art you discuss in the book? How did the city transform during this time? The redevelopment of Bunker Hill is obviously at the heart of the story, but it’s just one example of the emergence of the megastructure, which comes up a lot here.

We can talk about L.A., but really what we’re looking at is a broader regional transformation across Los Angeles and Orange counties. The area boomed after World War II, with wartime production transitioning into domestic industrial application. Its population changed, with major influxes of residents from the South and Midwest, and, later, the Pacific Rim and Latin America. In the City of Los Angeles, this growth in industry and jobs, along with the jump-starting of a consumer market, spurred the development of areas like the San Fernando Valley, Lakewood, and elsewhere. D. J. Waldie describes it better than anyone as a turn to suburban obsession with the individual at the expense of public life. Instead of walking to the grocer among people, you drive to the supermarket and park your car. Instead of visiting the tailor, you head to the mall, a newish concept at the time. You write and edit your daily path in terms of personal desire.

All this development happened outside L.A.’s historic core, and with the establishment of competing economic centers in the Valley and elsewhere, Downtown languished, at least financially. Beginning in the ’50s, the city attempted to reverse this financial downfall by using federal money for “urban renewal,” predicated on planning and municipal revenue over all other factors. In other areas, such as recently agricultural Orange County, the same zeal for master planning as an efficient and cost-effective way to engineer urban life took root in the private sector. Nineteenth-century land grant families, like the Irvines, retooled as private corporations, leveraging the potential to develop landholdings against various mandates from the state: building highways and transit networks, establishing public universities to educate its population, and diversifying its economy away from agriculture toward leisure, technology, and retail. At the scale of tens of thousands of acres, development began to move toward the level of systems rather than streets or neighborhoods. What mattered was how parts connected as a seamless network than how they related to each other individually.

It was done speculatively, which is to say not to suit the pressing needs of its extant population, but to bank on the possibility of future return on investment. Everyone’s favorite/least favorite example is Chavez Ravine, the eastern area of Elysian Park home to a semi-rural Mexican American community that was slated for affordable housing development before being bulldozed, against a decade of entrenched opposition by residents to make way for a stadium to incentivize a single man to move the Dodgers out from Brooklyn. That a baseball stadium — a place for tens of thousands of people to gather 77 days out of the year — comes to stand as a representation of a public in the image of a single person’s agenda makes the point: a midcentury concept of publicness was of centripetal force for short periods of spectatorship, with lots of fallow periods in between. I think that the planning mindset of parceling activity and inaction, or development and incubation, remained for a long time and in essence is something artists like Baltz and Ruscha picked up on, formally and conceptually, in their work observing the seemingly inactive built environment.

The word “remediation” seems key to your conception of the relationship between art and L.A.’s built environment. Could you explain the term a little more? What does it mean for art to remediate, and why is it important?

Remediation means to understand where things come from, even if they’ve taken new guises, without losing the trace of their past. In environmental sciences, it means to remove pollution and restore healthy ecosystems. In media theory, it means to depict or articulate the significance of one thing in different terms, acknowledging that diverse perspectives allow us to more fully flesh out meaning. It also means to transport content from one medium into another, as art does, for example, by allegorizing social behavior, providing conduits for communication, or simply moving from the hand-designed to machine-produced (like a drawing versus a photograph). In a sense, art is always a remediation.

But beyond the ways in which artists remediate the world through their work, there are a ton of ways those works, once available for display, sale, collection, or charitable giving, become active remediators themselves. Outside of artistic intent, works of art can be acquired with funds derived from human rights abuse, can be used as covers for tax evasion or money laundering, can be sold with their profits forming collective trust funds. Art becomes a sociopolitical actor in surprising ways based on the social, economic, and political geography of where it goes, where it’s seen (or not), who profits from it, and in what name it is put to use.

It seems important to understand art’s backend as part of charting its history, and that includes how it impacts the spaces and communities, like cities, that surround it. You couldn’t look at a Mark Bradford painting without understanding merchant posters in South Los Angeles, just as you can’t look at it without seeing the prominent place it holds in a spanking-new museum on the razed grounds of Bunker Hill just as much as you enjoy looking at it for aesthetic reasons.

Along those lines, your book made me rethink artworks that before I had understood mostly as deeply ironic, and mostly comments on the medium of photography. Particularly the photobooks of Ed Ruscha, but also Lewis Baltz’s book New Industrial Parks, both of which you discuss extensively. Could you talk about some of the ways these works address real estate speculation?

Irony is fun until it erases someone else’s experience with indifference. A great deal of this book’s historical thrust was to revivify conceptual art within social history. It seemed absurd to me, as someone who enjoyed thinking about built environments, to paper over the literal content in Ruscha’s and Baltz’s photographs by saying their banality stood for a cultural condition — kitsch — rather than trying to understand how they reflected change. An example comes from Ruscha’s photobooks, such as Thirtyfour Parking Lots. They were well known for their relatively uncomposed views on ordinary infrastructure (parking lots, motel swimming pools, etc.), and for how the artist provided ample space for each image in his layout and a minimum of contextual information. But what were all those parking lots doing in L.A. in the mid-’60s? When you run land use studies in cities, you can find out what percentage of space is given over to something like parking lots, which are underutilized for most of the day. How was it possible that land was so cheap you could fill it with parking lots and break even? Instead of focusing on what was prominently designed, or even built, these artists saw what was blank — the types of development created as placeholders for future content that may or may not be realized, kind of like conceptual art. They presented rather than answered, hoping that withholding comment would generate a surplus of interpretive potential. That’s what speculation does.

How did you narrow down the works you decided to write about here? In your introduction, you mention everything from Womanhouse to Asco to John Outterbridge rummaging through trash in South L.A. to make sculptures out of. It seems like there were endless possibilities, so what was your criteria?

For a long time, the book seemed like three different projects: one on conceptual photography, one on the growth of the L.A. art world from the ’60s on, and one on at-the-time contemporary controversies in cultural philanthropy. The thing that helped me see them as parts of a systemic investigation was the history of Downtown L.A. One of my favorite books is The Power Broker. Los Angeles had its own versions: Mulholland, noir, Chinatown. Those are early 20th-century municipal corruption, bottom-up whistleblowing, and, to a certain extent, romance. We don’t live in that world today — instead we live in one where private capital smooths over civic outcry, remediating ethical compromise as public largesse. I started working on the book in 2008, during the mortgage crisis and credit meltdown; I moved to L.A. in 2011 in the lead-up to Occupy. As a kid who came of age in Giuliani’s New York, I was shocked at the visibility of L.A.’s unhoused population, and especially at Skid Row mere blocks from one of its revered contemporary art museums, MOCA. Something seemed deeply weird about going to see art in these contemporary value contexts.

At the time, an institutional history of art rooted in the geography of urban economic development was needed. I think that’s what it came down to in the end. The institution was MOCA, the economic development was Downtown, their geography spoke most clearly, to me, in the form of four White male artists and one White male philanthropist-collector. Another way of saying it is that I wanted to research the “haves” in the L.A. art world, and piece together different elements of their wealth through art. In a sense, I followed three paths: some art I liked, my compulsion to explore cities, and this one guy who seemed to be in the middle of all of it: Eli Broad. Researching Baltz led me to [the architect] William Pereira, Pereira to Bunker Hill, Bunker Hill to divestment in Downtown Los Angeles and capital displacement to its suburbs. MOCA had just come off an embarrassing episode of fiscal mismanagement, the result of which was a conditioned bailout from Broad, who made his money in construction, real estate, and finance — factors conditioning mass eviction and housing insecurity refracted in the street.

It was a bit of a mess for a while, but what I came away with were artists (and an architect) whose work either explored overlooked aspects of the built environment in terms of strategic economic development radiating from Downtown L.A. or worked in concert to set it into motion. Cities today pour money into their central business districts in order to capitalize on a unified image of culture contained within. Try as it might, I don’t know that L.A. has been successful doing that with Downtown.

I love the moment here where you mention seeing William Leavitt’s sculpture California Patio at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which was founded by Eli Broad in 1979. Leavitt’s work resembles staging models of Kaufman and Broad Homes, and seeing it there, you write, “[I]t was as if the history of the museum had come full circle.” Could you talk more about this connection, and the image of the good life KB Home offered?

It sounds silly, but basically stumbling upon a sculpture at MOCA of a sliding glass door framed by curtains, surrounded by plastic plants, and lit by patio lights was kind of an ah-ha moment. Eli Broad began his career as an accountant, and transitioned that role into work with a family member who was a homebuilder. Together, they moved the business — then called Kaufman & Broad and today called KB Home — from Detroit, where it was founded, to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, where it flourished. By eliminating costly components of a traditional house — like a basement — its models offered new appurtenances like garages, dishwashers, and patios, mod-cons that were conducive to owners showing off their lifestyles and entertaining friends with an image of consumer comfort.

Kaufman & Broad also developed a corporate strategy that saw buyers as lifelong clients on a variety of different levels. Envisioning buyers as clients with whom the company would build a lifelong relationship was new, and extremely successful. KB Home offered a comprehensive lineup of homes from starter to retirement, in-house mortgage services, and eventually life insurance. It offered, in a sense, to be your partner in each stage of your life. But they’re also mass-developed, so there’s a strange performance of intimacy held in the potential of a person to see their futures on a blank sheet of possibility.

Builders like KB Home were the entities that built out the Southland in planned and mass-produced residential communities, and continue to do so today. It was interesting to me that Broad, who had profited so greatly from sprawl, turned in the 1970s toward a project with such a sharp mandate: to revivify the city center, undone by the very product he helped pioneer, with a museum to house unique works of contemporary art. And, when I saw Leavitt’s piece that day and discovered the depth of his comment on lifestyle performance in the exact middlebrow social geography MOCA was supposed to counter, I just really liked it. MOCA was also supposed to project a new image of L.A. out to the world — one of culture and investment that would woo big companies back to Downtown. It made me want a house with a sliding glass door and sandstone patio, actually — the good life looks good, I guess!

Eli Broad is an integral figure in this book, as someone who, as you mention, had an outsize hand transforming both the built landscape of Southern California as well as the cultural one. I didn’t realize how critical he was to getting MOCA built. What do you make of his legacy and his model of “venture philanthropy”? What do you think of the Broad as a museum?

I think a well-run institution is one in which internal cultures of communication, conflict, and resolution are open and transparent, and which attempt to be as non-hierarchical as possible. This includes the board and C-Suite as well as its staff and public. Good museums, as an example of an institution, cultivate and question knowledge both specialized and conventional. They also depend on openness to experimentation and on valuing the critical expertise of their workers, from assistant educator to security to curatorial to development. Venture philanthropy stands entirely outside this model: it relies on external evaluation driven by financial metrics not based on internal capacity for growth and development, but on financial viability.

Often, one metric of fiscal health is ticket sales, which is used as an indicator of cultural relevance as well as of income. Do museums need to be fiscally responsible? Yes. Should museums have a mandate to serve their communities equitably and with a commitment to access? Yes. However, they are not commercial ventures — sales is not what museums do, and ticketing is a historically low contributor to operating expenses. When you apply a business approach to essentially a cultural nonprofit, a learning institution, you reverse the values of that institution and redirect its purpose to uncomfortable ends.

The Broads’ cultural legacy is huge, and extends beyond art to K–12 education, university capacity, biomedical research, and other important areas. They’re like other prominent philanthropists in the United States in that they invest strategically in areas where outcomes can be measurable. They also, in that sense, adhere to a giving model that is outcome-based. That’s what the Broad Art Foundation is for. The Broad Museum is a closed-outcome institution, part of a wave of private museums that have cropped up across the country in the past two decades. Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie in New York is another, as was the short-lived museum version of the Marciano Art Foundation in L.A. In a sense, these are closer to the traditional model of the salon or cabinet of curiosities, in which the taste of the collector is on display as well as the marvels contained in each object. Except with potentially huge tax benefits that undercut public funding.

Eli and Edythe Broad were (and Edythe is) experienced collectors, who by all accounts maintained excellent relationships with artists in their collections. They built a spectacular trove of things, which I believe they loved. The Broad has its beautiful entryway, intriguing glimpses onto its storage, and its galleries are purpose-built for the kind of large art people like to take photos in front of. I’m not dismissing that — there’s something to be said for using art and architecture to authenticate one’s personal style in the coming metaverse, and at the very least it’s here, so shouldn’t be ignored. But to that point, the Broad is geared toward shifts in optical experience rather than critical contemplation, which is the primary direction most institutional buildings take these days. It markets itself. My students love it. I think I’m built differently at this point in my life and training. The choice to write about it as an instrument of urban development rather than a collection and work of architecture is telling, I think.

Since your book is so explicit about the connection between anchoring art to redevelopment and “urban renewal,” I’m curious how you feel about the protests over art dealers expanding into working-class neighborhoods like Boyle Heights in recent years, converting old warehouses into galleries? I know this isn’t exactly the subject of your book, but it does seem related to some of what you write about happening with developers purchasing industrial buildings converted by artists around the Geffen Contemporary in the 1980s and turning them into high-end residences.

Well, ethics matter, to put it bluntly. It’s entirely possible to operate ethically, whether on one’s own behalf, or on behalf of a business like a gallery. And, for me, ethical behavior in urban space requires you consider the physical and social implications of where and why you place a business, and to be aware of one’s role in remediating that context by establishing a new presence within it. “No about me without me” is a good rule of thumb, and one that extends beyond individuals or groups to place as well. You can’t identify with place without reflecting your role in the community that surrounds you. Is it convenient, given your budget, to move into an undercapitalized area with your artist space or gallery? Affordability is a real issue, even for artists and gallerists. But even before you arrive, when you’re looking at spaces, it’s incumbent upon you to speak and build relationships with people who are your neighbors. Is the landlord fair? Are they fair to their other tenants? What do your neighbors want to see in the space you might take over? Is there a way you can use your capital — fiscal or social — to help realize their vision in addition to your own? In what way are you strengthening the resident population; in what way are you building community with them so that you become a part of it, rather than an outsider?

Beyond individual ethics, it’s important to realize that by the time gentrification is seen on the ground level, it’s been planned into existence (potentially for decades) in an effort to generate municipal revenue. I wrote about this recently in an essay on the L.A. artist Susan Silton, whose practice functions, effectively I think, to bring contextual change on the urban level to the fore. It has been legal to convert industrial spaces into live-work spaces for artists since the early 1980s. Over time, the definition of “artist” has changed as the term has become more pliable — not restricted to any one type of practice or income level — and professionalized. Today, you can claim your work as an attorney, designer, or even real estate agent to be eligible for preferential rents to convert industrial spaces or redevelopment incentives for adaptive reuse. A lot of the work of gentrification happens on paper — through municipal ordinances, variance applications, etc. — out of the public eye. If you’re invested in an equitable city, and you want a say in how your neighborhood or those you operate in grow and develop, you need to be informed and engaged at a granular civic level. I think of artist Pau Pescador’s PSA videos that screened at ICA LA in the late spring of 2021: a public must uphold its own values. Being public requires participation.

Do you have any thoughts about current art and real estate developments in Los Angeles? Destination Crenshaw, for instance, seems like a prime example of tying an ambitious site for art to a section of the city that’s already undergoing gentrification.

I think that without some serious equity-based legislation to establish a true rate of affordable housing based on cost of living rather than median area income or market rate, the pattern is set. I don’t know if there’s a viable outside to that condition in cities like Los Angeles. Because in the end, gentrification is not about the nice art or about the expensive drink, it’s about calculated displacement of lower-revenue-generating persons and activities for the sake of higher gain — “economic vitality.” It’s wonderful to provide new and diverse services to communities that have long been at best ignored by their governments. It’s spectacular to open new cultural corridors, to restore community art projects, and increase transit options. This is what we should expect from our city leaders, and what we deserve as its residents. But L.A.’s housing crisis is cataclysmic, whether in Echo Park or Boyle Heights or South Los Angeles or Santa Monica. It’s a bit disheartening to see culture marketed as a public-facing attraction backed by private money instead of a powerful and sensitively calibrated systemic push toward equity as a civic right.

I’d like to ask you the question you close your book with: “What is art in this age of global speculation, and what can it be in the future perfect world?” I know it’s a big question. But do you have an idea?

When I write that art has become financialized, by real estate and by private investors, I’m pointing it out for the good, and for the crass — it can’t be ignored. On a deeper level, I think art is a tool with which we sharpen our awareness of our place in the world, and what we want that world to be. And, therefore, it’s necessary to understand art as an instrument of finance. It’s foolish to ignore this.

I had a professor in graduate school, whom I admire greatly, who often built lectures on this quotation from W. H. Auden:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

As I argue in the book, art does make things happen today, in very concrete ways. But I would like to see some elements of Auden’s proclamation recentered in art practice — to make it something that survives in the overlooked and operates as a way of happening, or a way of behaving. I don’t think that can mean, as past generations tried, avoiding objects or making altogether, though I do have a personal preference for artists whose practice elevates pedagogy over things. If you’re an artist who strongly identifies with a particular value or political system, you can find legal ways to avoid or counteract complicity in causes you don’t believe in. Before you sell a work, and maybe after — but only if it’s carefully designed — it’s your intellectual property and you control it. I think artists have an ethical imperative to understand the potential of their actions and labor, and make conscientious decisions about how their making and distribution aligns with personal and collective ethics.

I’m not an artist. But the art that compels me is that which helps me recognize my own blind spots, to realize I am small in the world, but my value is not. I think that’s what art makes happen.

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Kate Wolf is an editor at large for the Los Angeles Review of Books as well as a host and producer of its podcast, The LARB Radio Hour. Her short fiction, criticism, interviews, and essays have appeared in exhibition catalogues and publications including BidounBookforumArt in America, The NationEast of BorneoPublic FictionX-TRANight Papers — an artists’ newspaper she co-founded and edited with the Night Gallery in Los Angeles from 2011 to 2016 — and on KCRW and McSweeney’s program, The Organist.