Whitehot Magazine

Santa Monica Art Museum Debuts During Frieze Week

Russell Young (front) and Tom Pazderka (back), courtesy of the Santa Monica Art Museum.


By VICTOR SLEDGE February, 2023 

Originally based out of Vienna, Austria, art collector and now Director of the Santa Monica Art Museum (SMAM), Christoph Rahofer, first secured the space for this fresh museum experience while on vacation in Santa Monica, California. He fell in love with a location on the Third Street Promenade, and by December 2022, SMAM was open. Now, as Frieze Week Los Angeles approaches, SMAM is set to be one of the newest, most innovative museums setting the scene this year.

At the start of the museum, Rahofer, who recognized he could use the help of an art world liaison of sorts, called on artist Gretchen Andrew to help him conceptualize what the museum would grow into. He had been a collector of Gretchen’s work, and Gretchen, who used her technology-based work to cleverly and artfully hack her way into Frieze Week Los Angeles four years ago, was the perfect artist to help Rahofer not only navigate the art world but also help situate SMAM amongst the art hub within Los Angeles.  

Rahofer’s decision to bring in an artist to help conceptualize SMAM was the first of many moves he made that prioritized artists, putting their vision and their creative partnership first in this venture. 

“He had a dream, a vision and a space,” Gretchen remembers. 

From there, Getchen invited Founder and CEO of PR for Artists, Aubrie Wienholt, with whom Gretchen had worked with over the years to position her story and land myriad press opportunities, to join in the making of SMAM. 

“We worked with Gretchen for some time, helping her garner some impressive press at CNN, Fast Company and The Art Gorgeous, to name a few and helped position her within the fine art world,” Wienholt explains. “We felt confident we could do the same for SMAM.” 

Lindsey Price, Santa Monica Art Museum

Wienholt founded PR for Artists to create an avenue for artists to have the space, freedom and support to help their creative visions flourish successfully in a way that’s unique to that artist. Getting involved with SMAM is perfectly aligned with PR for Artists as a global creative agency and art house and its mission to support artist-driven ventures. 

Wienholt and her team are able to not only bring real audiences to an art experience, but they also work hard to build connections amongst their creative and professional networks and forge larger opportunities, such as SMAM, out of those connections. 

“Gretchen invited me not only to assist with my team at PR For Artists but also as a producer and to help establish even more creative partnerships. And that’s really at the core of the museum,” Wienholt says.

With a roster full of incredible artists, Wienholt could see the potential in SMAM, and she leapt at the idea of adding her expertise and connections to the cause. 

Lindsey Price, Aubrie Wienholt, Christoph Rahofer, Gretchen Andrew, Jessica Goehring, Nathan See, Joachim Castañeda, Ema McKie

“The moment I heard that the museum was opening up their space with blank walls to artists, I jumped at the opportunity and showed up with quite a few of the artists we represent and their artworks,” Wienholt says.

Artists such as Russell Young, Daniel Sackheim, and Lindsey Price are just some of the artists in PR for Artists’s camp who are on view at SMAM for their inaugural exhibition Looking West. Wienholt also invited Tom Venditti to co-curate the exhibit as well as Steven Sacks of bitforms gallery to exhibit some of his represented artists. 

“The artists in Looking West range from emerging to established, so it’s exciting to see their work in conversation together. The exhibition forms a multi-layered experience of contemporary art in California,” Wienholt says.

“It’s not an exhibition where we tell artists what to do,” Gretchen explains. “They’re showing up, changing things around, having conversations with each other, and as a result of that creation, the show has evolved and changed.” 

The artists take the reins on the SMAM experience, and that aligns with Wienholt’s artist-first mentality as a PR visionary. 

“SMAM is artist-driven, which is the same reason I founded PR For Artists in the first place,” Wienholt explains. 

Wienholt also appreciated the nontraditional approach Rahofer had in conceptualizing SMAM.

Dhiren Dasu, Shapeshifter7, Santa Monica Art Museum

“I was excited by Rahofer’s vision of an art museum that expands the possibilities of what an art institution can do,” she says.

We believe,” says Rahofer, “that the future is in the crossover between the experiential—this is the world I originally come from—and art. New media and technology like virtual reality and artificial intelligence play a key component in that crossover.”

Creating a museum that deconstructs and dilates the definition and experience a museum means that artists who may not have necessarily been included in fine art conversations in the past, such as artists whose work may rely heavily on digital mediums or artists whose career flourished virtually over the pandemic, now have an avenue through which to contextualize themselves in a fine art space.

“Not only is the museum exhibiting physical work, it also has digital art programs (currently with Vortic, GAZELL.iO, and SuperRare) and is showcasing artists like Daniel Canogar and Siebren Versteeg from bitforms gallery, some exciting programming during Frieze Week Los Angeles and a planned artist workshop on-site,” Wienholt says.

As PR for Artists represents a variety of multi-talented artists, Wienholt is excited about the breadth of art experiences that SMAM will present during Frieze Week, including virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) experiences that give digital artists a nod in the fine art space, which isn’t always granted. 

This is just one example of how the minds behind SMAM push the concept of an art museum forward by taking the audience’s expectations of an art museum and interrogating, manipulating and extrapolating them. There’s a certain gap between what the average audience wants from an art museum and what SMAM delivers, and that gap is a part of the SMAM experience.

“We don’t want to hit a list of someone else’s requirements of what a museum is. We want people to be and feel inspired,” Gretchen says.

In this way, Gretchen, Rahofer and Wienholt aren’t attempting to subvert the definition and expectations of a museum, they are simply trying to expand upon them.

Another way they are doing this is by allowing audiences a transparent look into artists’ creative processes at the museum. At SMAM, while you will definitely see full, complete work in the museum, you may also arrive to see artists in the middle of a piece or working out how a piece will be exhibited. This experience blurs the line of a studio visit and an exhibition viewing, pushing the boundaries of a traditional art museum even further. Programming for this is currently being developed for the 3,000 square foot space adjacent to the 7,000 square foot exhibition space. 

With these plans intentionally evolving as SMAM grew, eventually, Gretchen, Rahofer and Wienholt realized that SMAM wasn’t trying to be an art museum. At least not exclusively. The creators describe the space, instead, as an “artist museum.”

Instead of telling the artists what SMAM would be and how their work would fit in, Rahofer,  Getchen and Aubrie let the artists decide for themselves. And with more artists involved and SMAM growing as Frieze Week Los Angeles approaches, together, Rahofer, Gretchen and Wienholt have carried this distinct museum concept into fruition.

For this year’s Frieze Week, SMAM is set to make a stark introduction into the Los Angeles art scene. With VR libraries, a physical exhibition, panel discussions and more, SMAM is taking a major step as a museum not only of art, but of artists, providing varying levels of immersive experiences that embrace contemporary artistic innovation in Los Angeles.

You can learn more about SMAM by visiting their website here and about their programming during Frieze Week here


Victor Sledge

Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia.  He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic. 

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