The Cool School

Launching the careers of luminaries, Ferus built an art scene from scratch and transformed the cultural climate of the West Coast.

Cool school 01
Independent Lens
Premiere Date
June 10, 2008
60 minutes
Funding Initiative
Open Call
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2007 Woodstock Film Festival-Best Documentary
  • Neville morgan filmmaker bio

    Morgan Neville

    Morgan Neville is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who specializes in history and cultural subjects. Through a series of films on important music subjects (including The Brill Building, Sam Phillips and Sun Records, Nat King Cole, Brian Wilson, Leiber & Stoller, The Highwaymen, and Burt Bacharach), Neville has documented stories of songwriters and producers who helped shape 20th-century music, including the Grammy-nominated Muddy Waters Can’t Be Satisfied and the Emmy-winning Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues, both of which aired on PBS’s American Masters series as well as Channel 4/UK and the BBC’s Arena series. Neville’s first theatrical documentary was the award-winning feature Shotgun Freeway: Drives Thru Lost L.A., an examination of the meaning of history in the City of Angels. More recently, Neville has recently directed specials for A&E such as Honky Tonk Angels: Women in Country Music and Hollywood Home Movies, a history of the movie business using found footage. He directed the multiple award-winning Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan and is directing Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story, both for PBS. Neville has also produced various projects for cultural institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. His company, Tremolo Productions, is based in Los Angeles.

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    The Film

    How do you build an art scene from scratch — and not lose your soul in the process? Cool School is the story of the Ferus Gallery, which nurtured Los Angeles’s first significant post-war artists between 1957 and 1966.

    In late 1956, medical-school dropout Walter Hopps met artist Ed Kienholz for lunch at a hot dog stand on La Cienega Boulevard. The two drafted a contract on a hot dog wrapper that stated simply, “We will be partners in art for five years.” And with that, the Ferus Gallery was born.

    Operating out of a small storefront, the gallery hosted debut exhibitions and served as a general launching point for Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, Craig Kauffman, Wallace Berman, Ed Moses and Robert Irwin, among many other artists. By the time it closed in 1966, the gallery had also played a role in solidifying the careers of many of New York’s brightest talents, including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns.

    First under the leadership of genius autodidact Walter Hopps, then the smooth-as-silk Irving Blum, Ferus groomed the Los Angeles art world from a loose band of idealistic beatniks into a coterie of competitive, often brilliant artists. What was lost and what was gained was tied up in a complicated web of egos, passions, money, interpersonal relationships, and artistic statements.

    The gallery’s eventual success came at a cost. The closing of Ferus, just as it was finally becoming financially solvent, is indicative of the volatile and complex relationship money invariably has with art. But while Ferus had a polarizing effect on artists, ideas, and art, the gallery managed to do for art in Los Angeles what the museums previously could not. Even though their modalities were as disparate as assemblage art, abstract expressionism and Pop, Ferus artists shared ideas, goals, workspaces, and a lasting vision.