“Bergamot is open for business,” said a press release from the Worthe Real Estate Group Thursday, amid rumors there could be more upheaval for the beleaguered arts complex after founder Wayne Blank officially washed his hands of the property Jan. 1. Worthe is the new landlord for the five-acres of City-owned property adjacent to the Expo Light Rail stop on the east side of the city.

“Bergamot is a vital part of our community and under our watch will have even more programming, community events and engagement with its visitors,” company president Jeff Worthe said in a statement. “We are proud to be its steward during its revitalization and look forward to its continued success for decades to come.”

The biggest change coming to the arts community in 2018 will be the name, since former landlord and gallery owner Wayne Blank owns the trademark to “Bergamot Station.” A vice president at Worthe Real Estate Group says they are currently referring to the arts complex as simply “Bergamot” to avoid any legal trouble from Blank. The site has 25 tenants, including non-profit City Garage theater, Bergamot Café, a florist, architects and galleries.

“After a remarkable 24 years, the Bergamot Station ltd. Arts Center in Santa Monica is closing,” Blank wrote in a Jan. 8 email obtained by the Daily Press. “Shoshana Wayne Gallery will relocate and reopen with an exciting new exhibition program.”

Gallery owners worried the wording of Blank’s email might lead art collectors and patrons to think their galleries had closed. On Wednesday, emails from galleries began trickling into Daily Press inboxes with titles like “Bergamot is not closing,” citing “erroneous rumors.”

“A few galleries have left,” wrote Lia Skidmore, art dealer at Skidmore Contemporary Art Gallery. “The core group of the twenty most important galleries are still here and are continuing their usual exhibition programs. We have just signed leases with Worthe Real Estate and look forward to our future together!”

“It’s not the end of us. Its just the end of the name,” gallery owner Lois Lambert told the Daily Press. Lambert doesn’t think the name change will have a significant impact on the future success of the complex.

The Expo stop nearby is called “26th St/Bergamot.” The website for Bergamot Station, which is still up, says the historical name goes back to 1875 when the location was a stop for the Red Line trolley from Los Angeles to the Santa Monica Pier. Bergamot flowers once flourished in the area.

“It’s business as usual at Bergamot with the galleries and café open for business,” said city public information officer Constance Farrell. “We are referring to Bergamot as Bergamot Arts Center. As the Worthe Group works on the long-term site revitalization, staff will engage with stakeholders regarding the name and whether any changes are recommended for the long haul.”

After founding Bergamot Station in 1994, Blank had a falling out with city leaders over plans to redevelop the property, which was owned in part by Blank and in part by the City. In 2016, he sold his two acres of galleries to RedCar Properties, which promptly passed higher property taxes to tenants. Unable to stomach the dramatic increase in rates coupled with uncertainty concerning the future of their buildings, many gallery owners left.

The future of the complex has been in flux over the past five years as gallery owners worried they would be unable to survive construction and, potentially, higher rents. The City Council laid the groundwork for a 207,900 square foot project last June that includes a hotel, a community center and a museum as well as some office space.  The plan removes on-site parking and relies on a planned parking garage at nearby City Yards.

Any construction, however, is at least five years out, according to Janna Boelke, vice president at Worthe Real Estate Group. In the meantime, Boelke said tenants can look forward to some upgrades and improvements to the existing site.

On Jan 1, the City entered into a master lease with the Worthe Real Estate Group to manage the arts center for an interim three-year period while pursuing land use entitlements for the revitalization plan, according to a City website. The plan aims to expand the complex to provide below-market rent for cultural and non-profit arts organizations, including the museum.

In his final email to his former tenants, Blank called the split a “welcome opportunity for change and a fresh start.”


Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press