When gallerist and art consultant Leisa Austin built an imposing, contemporary structure along Highway 74 in Palm Desert, city managers were not necessarily cheering the project on. The 35-foot-high, minimalist block loomed high over what was, in 1999, still the mostly parttime domain of golf-loving snowbirds—not exactly a contemporary art stronghold. “It was far ahead of its time,” Austin says. But in the two decades since she designed Imago Galleries to house the exhibitions of such artists (and friends) as Tom Wesselmann, Peter Halley, Jennifer Bartlett, and Ed Moses, among others, the 17,500-square-foot space—with its 6,000-square-foot sculpture garden, reflecting pool, and seductive terrace—has become a Palm Desert icon. And the neighborhood has grown up around it. The nearby El Paseo shopping district (known locally as the “Rodeo Drive of the Desert”) is now studded with art galleries, as well as retailers like Louis Vuitton and Gucci. “People walk into my building every single day, mistaking it for a museum,” she says.
It continues to house 20 years of memories of some of the best art parties of the early aughts. There was the time that a heavily pregnant Brooke Shields feigned pulling her dress up over her head to pose for a photograph next to the nude bronze sculpture of her by Robert Graham. And the reception for sculptor Don Gummer—attended by a group that included Meryl Streep (Gummer’s wife) and their children, as well as the late producer Allan McKeown—blew through dinner and into late-morning golf in Austin’s backyard. Imago’s “Left Coast” exhibition, which opened in 2007, included nearly every marquee name tied to West Coast contemporary art: Ed Ruscha, Dennis Hopper, Frank Gehry, Mel Ramos, Lauren Hutton, and many more.
Because of its legendary gatherings (and fantastic spaces), Imago’s morphing into a part-time events space was perhaps inevitable. Austin added a reflecting pool to the sculpture garden in 2013, as well as an outdoor fire pit, seating, and turf. “People started asking if they could rent the place, and I thought, Sure, why not?” The property has been used by fashion brands for photo shoots, events for Sotheby’s, and even launches for Rolls Royce, Bentley, and Porsche. While the first floor continues to be utilized as a fine art gallery, the 6,000-square-foot second floor houses Austin’s residence, a guest apartment, and her personal art collection.
“The building has 360-degree views of the mountains. From a catwalk, you can look to the north and to the south because the glass windows are 27 feet high at that point. And from the secondstory corner display window, you can see to the north and the west.” While one might think that a longtime gallerist would be wedded to her creation’s art roots, Austin, typically, is thinking of the future.
“The land next door, an estimated five acres, is zoned for a luxury hotel and condos. And my current two-story building is zoned for an additional floor, and with city council approval, a fourth,” she says. It could be perfect for a retailer, an art foundation, or Jay Leno’s auto collection. After all, this space has never imposed limits.
—by Andrea Bennett