After bouncing between the East and West Coast, Laura Hyatt, Associate Director at Los Angeles Nomadic Division, finally gave in to the pull of Los Angeles and found a career that allowed her to bring beauty and art into the city she loves. She shows us how following your heart, working hard and pursuing connections can open up amazing opportunities.
You grew up in Santa Barbara, but you’ve previously said that you always wanted to live in LA. Why?
We would come for family trips to LA and there was this sense of energy, electricity and liveliness that, to a kid growing up in Santa Barbara, felt so foreign and exciting.
LA felt close enough to Santa Barbara in terms of climate and the way people live, but at the same time it has so many different types of people and cultures... anything you could want, which was really enticing.
Were you interested in LA purely for the possibilities, or did you have something in mind that you wanted to do here?
Growing up I was always interested in art. I was an undergraduate art major and my grandparents were both collectors of Modern and Impressionist art. So I had grown up around art and LA allowed so much access to museums. There were a lot of artists that I was fond of that either lived in Los Angeles or had some sort of relationship with the city.
So it was partly because of the culture. But also, in terms of art, I knew it was a place that was really compelling to me.
More than New York?
I had been to New York a couple of times in high school and it was so stimulating. At the time, I definitely had these grand ideas about what New York was in terms of art, and it was really exciting.
After I graduated college I worked for a few years in fashion, which I had done since I was 17 years old. I had worked my way up to being manager and assisting with buying. There was a moment there when I knew I really wanted to push myself into the art world, so New York is where I had to go.
LA was more familiar to me but there was still this kind of pervasive idea that New York was where “art” really happened. So I went to New York for grad school. I had been living in LA for about a year to get the lay of the land and there was so much happening in Los Angeles at that time, around 2010.
I got accepted to grad school and I thought, “I’m going to move to New York forever. To work in the art world that’s where I have to be.” I went there for a year and during that time I was exposed to so many amazing places, people and ways of working. But everyone in New York at the time was talking about what was happening in Los Angeles and the artists that were working here…
At the end of the day, the artist community in LA is so incredible and that’s what really sets it apart from other cities. So I was thinking, “Why am I fighting this?” It was also the coldest and snowiest winter in New York in 100 years, so I decided to go back to LA.
I had no job but I was working on my master’s thesis on the history of Los Angeles’ community and the art market. So I spent a lot of time that summer doing research here, but not really having any idea of what I was going to do professionally. I was flying back and forth to NYC and I was really concerned about what I was going to do. I had friends who were graduating and taking internships and entry-levels roles at all these major institutions. But there’s this sense of freedom in Los Angeles, particularly in the art world and in how artists work here, and I thought I just have to go and give it a try.
One night I was out here at a gallery opening after-party, and I was talking to a gallerist and she said, “Why don’t you come be the director of my gallery?” So immediately I had a purpose to come back here. It was such an exciting moment, both personally and for Los Angeles. It was before a lot of these major international galleries had opened up. I think everyone could feel that it was a really special time in the art world.
That’s so interesting. Being someone who’s not from the States or familiar with the art world, all I’ve ever understood was that all the great art is in New York.
For sure! New York will always be a critical force in the art world, but so many artists are getting priced out. Over the years LA has been getting more and more expensive but its legacy has always been the ability to give artists space, both in the physical sense and also freedom from the commercial aspects of the art world.
If you’re an artist in New York, you’re typically so immersed in the gallery system and making work for gallery shows. It’s just a different environment in LA. There’s a really unique presence of the graduate schools here in LA. So many artists move to Los Angeles for these schools and they build these organic communities of friends and peers.
Do you think in general the community is much younger in Los Angeles?
Not necessarily, but I think there’s a nice balance. The art world generally tends to privilege youth unless you’re in the 0.1% of the population of the major artists you see in major museums and galleries. There are so many artists of all ages that don’t get the recognition they deserve.
There are a lot of platforms in Los Angeles that foster artists in all points of their career.
So how did you go from this directorial role to where you are now?
Let’s backtrack to the time I spent a year in LA before I went to grad school in New York. I was working in fashion with these boutiques in Santa Barbara and I loved it. I developed a great group of clients that I was working with regularly. In particular at my last job at this boutique, Diani, I was working with this incredible woman who was my mentor. She was so driven and focused and really gave me a lot of freedom to step up and take on more responsibility that I may not have had otherwise.
One of my clients at the store was a woman who is the art director and curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santa Barbara. I was always chatting with her and excited to hear what she was up to. Then one day she posted on Facebook that she was looking for a curatorial assistant for a separate project, so I reached out even though I didn’t have any experience in the art world at that time.
I was a painter and experimented with art in college, but I quickly realized I that I wasn’t that happy working in a studio all day everyday, alone. I really liked working with people and I liked the business side of things. So it was around this period when I saw this posting and through that opportunity I met this woman, Shamim Momin, who I think at the time had just left the Whitney Museum in New York. She’d co-curated the 2008 Whitney Biennial and she was moving out to Los Angeles to start a non-profit organization called LAND: Los Angeles Nomadic Division. She was always talking about LAND, but at the time it didn’t exist and it sounded really interesting and unlike anything I’d ever heard of.
So when I decided to move to LA in 2009, Shamim was the only person in the art world that I knew in Los Angeles. I remember writing her an email and asking about LAND. This was early 2010 and LAND had just launched its first exhibition in Los Angeles with a group of artists from Mexico. It was amazing what they’d done and I wanted to be a part of it. Shamim was really excited about getting me involved as the organization was really young and I don’t think there was any paid staff at the time and they needed help.
They had a pseudo-office at the back of a gallery in Culver City; I showed up and remember thinking, “This is so exciting!” Through that internship I got access to amazing artists and the incredible projects LAND did in its first year. One of the projects we were working on at the time was with an artist, Jorge Méndez Blake, who wanted to remove all poetry from libraries across the city. As an intern it was my responsibility to contact libraries and ask, “How do you feel about us taking your entire poetry section?” And everyone was like, “That’s not going to happen.” So we ended up just getting a group of volunteers to check out hundreds of poetry books. It was incredible.
Then I went to New York to study at Sotheby’s Institute of Art for my Masters in Art Business because I really wanted learn the technical side of things. I thought New York was amazing and I loved living there, except for the cold. [Laughs] But again, I was seeing all the artists that I had worked with through LAND and everyone was talking about LA.
So when I moved back to LA and got the job at the gallery, I felt like I had my dream job working at this really exciting contemporary art gallery with these amazing artists. It was in Chinatown at the time. Chinatown has a really interesting history of galleries. In the ‘90s it really emerged as a hub of cutting-edge contemporary art galleries, but then by 2011 there weren’t that many galleries left. One of the remaining galleries was The Company, which I started working for.
It was a real learning curve. I had never worked at a commercial gallery. I had no idea what it entailed.
I was only working at the gallery part time, so I was looking for other opportunities. I had always kept in touch with Shamim at LAND and helped out with projects here and there. Shamim and I worked out a part-time position for me, so in 2012 I formally started as the Director of Development there. I was responsible for fundraising and operations.
At the end of the day, the most exciting thing for me at LAND was working outside of sales. When you work in a gallery, you’re talking with an artist about what’s going to sell and who to sell to. That just felt really limited to me. I loved working at LAND because when an artist would come to us with an idea for a project it was never like, “Well, I don’t think someone’s going to buy that.” It was just, “Let’s do that!”
How would you describe what you guys do at LAND?
We’re a contemporary art museum without walls. Think of exhibitions that are museum quality, but that take place anywhere in the world, in public spaces and unique sites.
Our goal is to enable artists to work outside traditional gallery settings, as well as give the general public everyday opportunities to engage with thought-provoking, innovative, contemporary art. It’s not something you have to pay to go to a museum to see; it’s something you get to encounter on your way home from work or walking to the mall. Art can be something that you live with.
It sounds like the most fun job in the world. Is the work always free?
Yeah, our exhibitions are always free. We work in different scales of programming at all times. We do really large-scale, multi-artist, multi-site exhibitions. I was just in Paris for two weeks doing a project in two different locations across with 14 artists.
We’ll also do smaller-scale things with either one artist or in one location. One of my favorite projects was called “Wildflowering LA” in 2013. We worked with the artist Fritz Haeg, who came to us with this idea to transform 50 sites across Los Angeles into native wildflower gardens. We put out a public call and said if you have a piece of publicly visible land come to us and we’ll give you all the information and the seeds to transform any kind of land into a native wildflower garden.
I think artists really enjoy working with us because we provide the quality of working with a museum but without the limitations. LAND was created in response to the ways artists were already working, creating work in the kind of mediums that didn’t fit into a gallery, and they were doing it themselves.
Just turning to the city of LA for a moment. It’s fascinating that you always had a dream to come here because I feel it’s a place that people don’t really dream of coming to unless they’re looking to work in the entertainment industry.
LA affords a certain amount of freedom for people. At any age, at any point in your career, you can decide tomorrow to do something completely different and nobody will say, “Hey, you can’t do that.” In New York, it’s a lot harder to do things without having a lot of money or knowing the right people.
I think the financial factor is a big one. You can do anything in New York but ultimately you’re going to have to get out because you can’t afford it. LA doesn’t seem to have that feeling.
I think one of the challenges for people that move to LA is the isolation. In New York you can walk out your front door and have a million people right outside. But in LA everyone’s in their car or in their house, so it’s really easy to not see a lot of people.
It’s even hard to get friends together. I have friends in the city I’ve known for over ten years and I might see them once a year because they live across town and to make a plan you have to consider the logistics.
But I would say, when you do find your people, they are really receptive and supportive. Once you find one or two people it’ll open up huge communities of people. In that way it feels less exclusive than New York.
New York felt very cutthroat and the city was often working against you. I feel like LA always has your back. You have a lot more freedom financially to explore things here. I have a lot of friends who are super successful and LA often allows them to pursue other things that make them happy, whereas a city like New York is so all-consuming and you have to be so focused and driven, particularly on you career and climbing up the ladder.
In LA there’s this nice balance and support to explore things that make you happy. You can be really successful in your career but you can also pursue music, or pottery, or whatever. I think there’s a nice balance between working, being successful, and being personally fulfilled.
The biggest thing I noticed moving here from New York is just having more time.
There’s a really interesting sense of time in LA. I’ve talked about this with a lot of people.
The other day I heard this quote on KCRW about LA that I think so encapsulates it: “LA is really just 19 neighborhoods in search of a city.” It’s really about your neighborhood and community.
Speaking of neighborhoods, you live in Silver Lake. How do you like it?
Silver Lake was a nice compromise where it feels a little out of the city, but I can easily be downtown or at work in Hollywood. I love the feeling of being in the middle of the city geographically but also being close to nature. One of the reasons I love living in LA is being able to take advantage of nature.
Do you have any favorite bars or restaurants in the area?
My favorite bar is Bar Stella. My friend Charlie and I joke that it’s the place we go when we want to be “adults.” I love it. The cocktails are incredible.
Where do you take out-of-town visitors?
I love going to Griffith Park. That’s usually my first stop. If you go up Vermont and take the first left there’s this amazing trail that takes you right up to the observatory. It’s usually really quiet.
Another hidden gem is the Theodore Payne Foundation. It’s up north. It feels like a totally different world. It’s a foundation that supports native Californian plants.
Being from Santa Barbara, I love taking people up the Pacific Coast Highway. I also love taking people to Joshua Tree and Palm Springs. I love the access to completely different landscapes around Los Angeles. You can be in the desert, at the beach, up in the mountains. Having that mental space and freedom is really important.
What does LA mean to you?
Freedom and inspiration. Inspiration from people, the climate, nature…. Everyday when I’m walking around, I try to stop and notice things I haven’t noticed before. Above all, the diversity of people and the different ways of living and thinking is endlessly inspiring.