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Ahmansons Frame Venture

Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. and Roberta Green Ahmanson are underwriting an art gallery, studio space and artist-in-residence program in Los Angeles.

The gallery will be on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, the studio space will be near the banks of the Los Angeles River, and the house will be in Atwater Village.

The work extends their longtime efforts, which build on a tradition that tracks back to the late Howard F. Ahmanson Sr. and has put the family’s name on everything from the Ahmanson Theatre at the Los Angeles Music Center downtown to Ahmanson Senior Center in Exposition Park.

The elder Ahmanson founded and led H.F. Ahmanson & Co., an insurance, banking and real estate firm, and its Home Savings of America savings and loan business.

Howard and Roberta Ahmanson live in the Corona del Mar district of Newport Beach, and work throughout the United States and overseas to cultivate art and other projects, helped by various consultants and staff at Fieldstead & Co. Inc., their Irvine-based family office.

Fieldstead devotes some 2,000 square feet of its 15,000 square feet of space to art galleries, which are generally not open to the public.

The L.A. gallery will make about 9,000 square feet available for art with public exhibitions; an opening is expected in late 2019 or early 2020.

“2020 is more likely,” said Roberta Ahmanson.

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).”

Triple play

The three elements – art gallery, studio space and artist’s home – fold into a nonprofit called WaterTable Trust.

The gallery, a for-profit venture, is called Bridge Projects Inc., and Ann Hirou, director of special projects at Fieldstead, said it is envisioned more as a project space than a gallery with a stable of artists.

Its location is in Hollywood; art gallery Steve Turner Contemporary is a tenant at the property, with about 5,300 square feet of its own that’s expected to remain alongside the new entry.

The studio, bearing the name Frogtown Studios, will underwrite spaces for artists in an area popularly known as Frogtown – and more recently dubbed Elysian Valley by some. The future home of the venture once held a kimchi factory.

The home for an artist-in-residence is located in Atwater Village.

The art gallery is expected to open first.

Roberta Ahmanson said another first will be the gallery’s relationship 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,” she said.

Hirou said the project is nascent – in the predesign stage and with concepts still being batted about – but Roberta Ahmanson was adamant on a main goal.

“We want to add something to the L.A. gallery scene,” Ahmanson said.

Service

The Ahmanson name has long been affiliated with the arts, and the family has roots in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. is a perennial member of the annual OC’s Wealthiest list by the Orange County Business Journal – a sister publication of the Los Angeles Business Journal – with an estimated fortune of $725 million this year.

His father was a leading light of an earlier era of civic support for the arts, when business and social luminaries such as industrialist Norton Simon and Dorothy Buffum Chandler – with family ties to the Los Angeles Times and Buffums department stores – helped transform L.A.’s cultural landscape in the 1950s and ’60s by their philanthropy.

Ahmanson Sr. joined efforts in the late 1950s to help launch the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with a pledge of $2 million – $17 million in today’s dollars – and gave to other cultural causes.

He also built art into his business, hiring Pomona-born artist Millard Sheets to design mosaics for Home Savings branches. A biography of Ahmanson, “Building Home,” said 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.”

The elder Ahmanson also backed the Ahmanson Center for Biological Research at his alma mater, USC. Both the center and LACMA were designed by postwar modernist William Pereira, whom Howard Ahmanson Jr. recalls as a family friend.

Giving back

Both generations of Ahmansons have woven their gifts to the arts into a larger sense of community.

Ahmanson Sr.’s $2 million commitment to LACMA, his biography said, combined a low-interest loan with stock in the lender – the museum would eventually be “creditor and debtor on its own loan” – and over time the public would come to support it, as well, he surmised.

Hirou said WaterTable’s goal is also to have others’ support the work and not be dependent on one source.

The community also likely will be able attend salons at the new gallery.

Fieldstead hosts regular presentations, conversations, and questions on cultural, artistic and intellectual topics, said Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University.

“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 a range of topics.

“They travel all over the world, meet interesting people,” he said. “Their genuine desire is to elevate the quality of the conversation.”

Conversation

The Ahmansons are avowed Christians. The WaterTable work is decidedly 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 Ahmanson said. “We want to include artists of any faith and artists of no faith.

“Howard and I have recognized for a long time (that) we live in a visual age. We communicate visually, receive information visually – from emojis to movies – so visual art becomes a very important language.”

That language as it expresses 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,” she said.

Hirou said the aim is simply to encourage a place for people who love good art.

The venture has recruited 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 and getting to know the art community, Roberta Ahmanson said. “We’re the new kid on the block and we need to know the neighbors.”

Paul Hughes is a staff reporter for the Orange County Business Journal, a sister publication of the Los Angeles Business Journal.

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