bodycity. Ballona Caterpillar. Image courtesy bodycity.
The third SOCiAL: Art + People interview posted on KCET Artbound today, about a variety of incredible hybrid practices from a community of artists connected to and springing from Occidental College.
Continuing with the third in my series of conversations with artists and organizers engaged with multivalent social and public practices as part of SOCiAL: Art + People, I was pleased to speak with participants in a panel that will take place on Thursday, October 18th at 7pm on the Occidental College campus. Organized by artist Mary Beth Heffernan with the Center for Community Based Learning and the Department of Art History and Visual Arts, the panel will include artists Tucker Neel, Stephen van Dyck, Geneva Skeen, and the collective bodycity. Though their practices are diverse, they are linked by their critical and performative interventions into the public sphere, be that bodily, sonically, or via technologies of communication. All slide through liminalities, through the political and the poetic, and are deeply influenced by the context of Los Angeles.
Sue Bell Yank: The title of this panel is “Can the Sidewalk Be a Stage?” but Mary Beth [Heffernan] said that the discussion will be primarily driven by your practices. How do you find your way into this question through your own art practices?
Mary Beth Heffernan: A little context on the first question…Anne Bray kindly came up with the title after our conversations about younger artists whose work engages the public sphere. She had a summer deadline and I didn¹t have a snappy title yet. I’m not sure I would have chosen the word “stage,” as it has theatrical connotations, but it does pose the question about a rhetorical shift in action and/or speech that I think can be helpful here. My intentions with the panel are to interpret the notion of stage widely to mean a theater of action in the spirit of Augusto Boal’s notion of theater, a prompt to dialogue, break down hierarchies, and re-narrativizing space.
Read the rest of the interview here.
As a follow-up to my interview about the October 4th Artists+Institutions: Common Ground event at the Mak Center with David Burns, Sara Daleiden, and Kimberli Meyer, I wanted to post some supplemental material that might illuminate the content of the conversations. Below are the 20 questions culled and refined from the many dozens of questions submitted anonymously by the artists, organizers, curators, and writers who attended the three summer salons leading up to the public event at the Schindler House on King’s Road. I was honored to host one of the six tables at the October 4th event, and I believe we may have only used a couple of these questions as conversation starters…but quite naturally the conversation migrated to many of the topics covered here.
To get a taste of where these discussions went, of the topics and ideas most urgent to the ecosystem of people at these events, I have also included the beautiful notes created by Christina Sanchez of phrases uttered at the summer salons, many of which were repeated and expanded upon in the public event.
1. How do artists, curators and other cultural producers maintain a sense of integrity, social responsibility, and truth to their own moral compass when working within institutions that are increasingly influenced by the forces of the art market, corporate desires and/or donor-initiated programs, particularly in the current economy?
2. What are the most auspicious models for relations (power, economic, communicative) between the autonomous agency of artists and institutional identity?
3. What infrastructure, resources, and representation is needed to adequately support socially-engaged work and other developing practices that aren’t amplifying an object-based tradition of art production?
4. How can new sources of funding be generated in light of the deep shifting in the global economy and subsequent decrease in established arts funding?
5. Is it still relevant to value curators as both an agent of institutional interests and a dynamic advocate for artists, serving as an educational bridge for scholars and audiences interested in the flow of art history?
6. When is it productive to comprehend poetic performance in all activities within institutions, understanding artists have a capacity to rethink institutional structures from a position within the structure?
7. How do we work to best demystify the institution with the option to strategically rebel so that the relationship between artists and institutions can be the most mutually beneficial and productive?
8. What is the role of art in these times of polarized politics?
9. Must populism be at odds with rigorous aesthetic conceptualism?
10. Is an umbrella term such as cultural worker appropriate to describe the overlaps of artists, curators, directors, organizers, and producers within all artistic disciplines?
11. As empathetic and politically minded cultural workers, how can our desire for complex and rich metaphors within artwork translate to a complex and rich distribution within the public?
12. How do we want the next generation of art institutions to be structured and experienced in light of past tendencies towards the academic, historic and intellectual?
13. As more cultural institutions increasingly work to include socially engaged art practices and extend their responsibilities towards broader publics, how do we safeguard such incremental advances in social justice while discerning the institutions role in picking up the slack for the failures of the state?
14. What are differences between established art institutions and an artist’s work inventing agency to mimic institutions?
15. What do the changes at MOCA mean to you?
16. How do we support our museums and their directors and curators to prompt a new civic imaginary through reflection on their own operations?
17. Artists are functioning as curators and institutions are functioning as curators. How does this affect the power dynamic for valuing and production within art and culture networks?
18. What terminology is productive to describe the frequent occurrences of institutions curating an “artist producer” to curate “artist supporters” to produce large-scale discursive projects?
19. How can artists and curators best work together to navigate institutional resistance to projects that won’t necessarily drive attendance or augment an institutional “brand”?
My second interview as part of the SOCiAL: Art + People series went live on KCET Artbound this morning, and I felt so fortunate to have witnessed this fascinating conversation between Sara Daleiden, Kimberli Meyer, and David Burns about their Artists + Institutions collaboration. The public salon will take place tomorrow night and I will be moderating one of the tables–come join us and add your voice to the conversation!
On Thursday October 4th, the Mak Center is hosting a free public salon entitledArtists+Institutions: Common Ground at the historic Schindler house. This “real-time, dynamic public performance” is the capstone event to a series of intimate summer salons with invited guests who represented various positions and roles along the continuum of artists and institutions. The entire project is a collaboration between artists David Burns and Sara Daleiden, Mak Center director Kimberli Meyer, featuring Sarah Beadle and the collective Notch as well as artist Christina Sanchez. I sat down with Burns, Daleiden, and Meyer to discuss both the summer salons and the upcoming public event, as well as what challenges and urgent concerns drove them to produce such an ambitious dialogical project. We explored the real or perceived chasm between the needs of artists and the needs of institution, wondered how to negotiate that rambunctious terrain together, and acknowledged that in coming to essential understandings, we have more power to collectively change the structure of things than we think.
Sue Bell Yank: I came to the July Salon, and I was wondering what the impetus was of this whole initiative, and how the public event caps it off.
David Burns: To explain the origins, Fallen Fruit working with LACMA was the original thought bubble, which was from a conversation I had with some of the artists who were going to be working on the November 7th 2010 Let Them Eat LACMA event, who were really just confused about how you work with an institution as an artist and how you deal with things that are really pragmatic, like legal, emotional, or whatever. And that conversation kind of faded because I was working on that project, and afterwards, it didn’t leave my brain. I approached a few people about making something happen not knowing what that would be, maybe thinking bigger, or in a different way. Something that was more formal and organized. It occurred to me that one of the best choices was to approach Kimberli [Meyer] as a partner/collaborator, and we started talking, and she said, “Hey, I think this is something Sara [Daleiden] should be involved in” and then within half of a meeting I was like “Oh my god, this is probably the right thing, let’s move forward somehow.”
Sue Bell Yank: How did you two [Kimberli Meyer and Sara Daleiden] find your way into this idea, what did it mean for you?
Kimberli Meyer: I immediately thought it was a good idea, not knowing what kind of form it would take, that actually took a little time and it wasn’t until the three of us got together that we really nailed down what the form was, but I think this idea of trying to find a space, a neutral territory in a way, to talk and bring people from various sides and positions together to have candid conversations was very appealing to me. Partly that has to do with the kinds of questions that we ask ourselves internally a lot at the Mak Center that relate to the roles of us, the Mak Center staff, the roles of artists that we work with, the roles of curators that we work with, and everything in between. I feel like more and more that people don’t just have one role, that there are multiple roles and there is a whole continuum. It seemed like a good idea to give that more outward form.
Sara Daleiden: This is a totally unique collaboration for me because I have empathy and connection in two different routes. Kimberli had spoken to me about it because I had collaborated with the Mak Center on a whole slew of projects in the last seven years, and I really appreciate the Mak Center institutionally, I can’t compare it to any other institution in my life in terms of how experiments can happen and how it can both exist in the landscape of institutions in Los Angeles, but how it’s scale and flexibility allows for a certain kind of production and thought that I just think is rare here. And with David I just feel a comparative practice, I mean you talk about LACMA, I can talk about [The Los Angeles Urban] Rangers and MOCA Engagement Party, you know, and there’s all these sets of questions. What does it mean when artists are acting like institutions, taking a lot of the producing roles on…maybe that we want to, part of it’s just great, deep frustration, part of it is registration of the economic climate we’re in now. My hope for this program that has come out of the summer salons, and I’m excited for this moment of congealing it publicly with this event, is that these core questions get us to ask how we want to structure production. Whether it’s the institutional end, or the dynamic between the artist and the institution. Questions like, for those of us coming out of social and public practice, what is needed to encourage and support these practices? From the artists’ perspectives, how do we get funding when the economic climate has changed so much, and the political layers associated with that? To me, there always a deep layer about labor going on, and the history of how labor has gotten defined in art production that’s up on the table. It’s painful at moments, but there are things about that we can adjust. I think those are some of the core motivators that I saw, and I saw these two different frames on it by working with David and Kimberli. I’ve seen those questions come up in the salons because we have a range of people that conceptualize themselves in those roles and sometimes multiple roles that have been at the table in those discussions, so they already naturally themselves are negotiating, just like the three of us. There is no polarization, like you’re just an institution, you’re just an artist, it’s already this hybrid zone of action.
Read the rest of the interview here.
I am pleased to be conducting a series of interviews as a part of SOCiAL: Art + People, a series of discussions around socially-engaged art in Los Angeles instigated by Anne Bray of Freewaves, and these will be appearing on KCET’s Artbound blog throughout the fall. Below is an excerpt of my intro for an interview with Dr. Elizabeth Currid-Halkett and Dr. Sarah Schrank that posted yesterday on Artbound, and the next iteration will be with Sara Daleiden, David Burns and Kimberli Meyer on the Mak Center’s Artists + Institutions salon series culmination on October 4th.
As a writer, arts organizer, and culture worker interested in socially-engaged art, I am excited to participate in SOC(i)AL: Art + People. There is a regrettable lack of informative art writing about socially-engaged art practices, largely because engaging the many stakeholders in complex reflection and documentation is exceedingly difficult. Yet through SOC(i)AL, we clearly see that this work bleeds into many fields.
The kick-off event, Is L.A. the Creative or Anti-Creative City?, is a conversation between Sarah Schrank, professor of history at Cal State Long Beach, and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy, moderated by David Sloane, professor of public policy at USC, on Tuesday, September 18. Professors Schrank and Currid-Halkett are concerned with measuring the effect of cultural economies, artists, land development and cultural institutions on the shape of Los Angeles and other cities, one from a historical perspective and one focused on policy and planning. My interview with them reveals both tired stereotypes and surprising realities about the L.A. art scene and the true value of art.
Read the full interview here.
I recently had the pleasure of experiencing the Venice Beach Biennial, curated by my colleague Ali Subotnick. Under the aegis of the Hammer Museum’s Made in LA biennial exhibition (closing September 2nd), VBB was a breathtakingly quick, intense, chaotic, and surprisingly subtle exhibition within an exhibition outside of an exhibition on the boardwalk. The intentional fuzziness of the VBB’s structure and curatorial framework was what made it so compelling for me, and I wrote a blog post in three parts for the Made in LA website. Check out all three links below.
Recently I sat down with Emily Anne Kuriyama, a UCLA student volunteering for artist Fiona Connor, who spent the last two weeks in the lobby of the Hammer Museum creating a crowd-sourced 600-page “alternative” catalogue compendium for the Made in LA exhibition. (When available, I will post a link to the whole massive thing here). Emi was tasked by Fiona to try to figure out how to encapsulate the participation of Mario Ybarra Jr. and Karla Diaz’s de facto art school/community center/participatory art practice Slanguage in the alternative catalogue, so we hunkered down with several sheets of blank legal paper to conduct a spontaneous written interview.
Full disclosure – I work at the Hammer in the Academic Programs department, and I have had the benefit of recently hearing Mario present his project (which is where the quotes originate from), but the thoughts and opinions here are solely my own interpretation and impression of what Slanguage does. Emi has very eloquently expressed some of the questions I have heard again and again from students of art struggling to navigate the many aspects of socially-engaged, instituent practices like Slanguage, and I wanted to share our collective thought processes.
EAK: What did/do you think of Slanguage showing at LAXART? I saw it again yesterday and there were less people there than when I had originally walked through. As an empty space, it seemed more akin to a classroom/school auditorium than when I first visited.
SBY: I think this is a problematic of trying to contain a work like Slanguage in a gallery space, [a work] which is dynamic, durational, organic, and specific to a process that is operational only when activated by what Mario calls a “loose membrane” of relationships. This is a curatorial conundrum. How to keep the space from ossifying?
It is, essentially, a platform for relations to occur, but in a “sample cup size” (in Mario’s words) rather than the “FULL MEAL” provided by the actual Slanguage space.
[drawing of a sample cup and a full meal]
Mario and Karla are both teachers, they run Slanguage as a “de facto art school,” and they view this show as serving several purposes:
1) For their own SLANGUAGE-based students; this is an opportunity to highlight their activities outside of the home base, in a “cool” art space, and that legitimization is important.
2) For all the other art students (too many to host at Slanguage itself); this show demonstrates and models a fluidity of practice that young artists are interested in — [the possibility for] hybridity between pedagogy, facilitation, and object-making that no longer needs to exist in such separate spheres — but can be navigated.
EAK: I think that I’m having some trouble understanding how “legitimization” works in the context of art school outside of “the Academy” (with a capital A sort of thing). Their model(s) of hybridized artistic practices seemed to materialize in their all-over “takeover” of LAXART with murals inside/outside of the structure. The way they hung the work rendered the object-list useless, which was kind of an awesome moment for me, since it sort of epitomized their deconstruction/reconstruction of artistic practice … like the way in which I view this particular showing of work has to take on a different process, because their process for producing work is different. I guess it just seems like they’ve accomplished so much as a group that encouraged hybridity/unity, but there’s still a disjuncture or something in connecting to the sort of structures of the gallery system. That’s not a critique really. It just seemed like that tension was there.
SBY: That tension is definitely there, and it’s infrastructural. Galleries and institutions of art have built all their infrastructure up around collecting, preserving, and exhibiting objects. The methodologies and infrastructures for “showing” a work/process/practices like Slanguage do not exist, so they intervene on those structures and disrupt them. Hence the “takeover.”
Thus, as audience, our viewing methods and critiquing methods must also shift — when work is so contextual and durational we must mine the relationships and all the dynamics in every event, in every process, over the whole period, iteratively. But that is neither realistic nor really possible, so as a viewing public, we must content ourselves with the slice that we experience.
[drawing of slice of pie]
The notion of legitimization in their practice is interesting too — as a perpetually underfunded organization with a tiny space … what they CAN leverage is the power of institutions to bestow cultural capital. The artists fostered through Slanguage are legitimized through Mario and Karla’s ability to attract the opportunities afforded them via institutions of art ~ they can occupy this space internationally, and that increased cultural legitimization then feeds back locally.
I think the fact that Slanguage has shied away from increased formalization, from 501(c)(3) non-profit status, from BOARDS and MISSIONS has allowed them to remain fuzzy, fluid, with undefined edges. They expand and contract organically, they occupy multiple platforms in institutions (education, curatorial, events, exhibitions) and they are not interested in ossifying into a more specific division of programming or practice.
[drawing of Slanguage as multi-dimensional, blobby]
Mario is sometimes asked: “Where does your work begin and Slanguage end?”
And he responds: “Why do you need the answer to that question?”
CamLab's final Engagement Party, Two in the Bush. 2012.
Last Thursday saw the final epitaph in a series of intellectual discussions on social practice put on by MOCA, a conversation between scholar Grant Kester and artists Janet Owen Driggs and Suzanne Lacy. With that contextualizing afterword (plus an upcoming book), we bid adieu to MOCA’s four-year engagement with Los Angeles social practice collectives in the form of Engagement Party.
I feel a resonant sadness at the passing of this platform, one of the few dependable spaces for rigorous socially-engaged practice within a major art museum in this city. Perhaps the work was not always so rigorous, and the structure was problematic, the collectives were not always collectives, the “social practice” looked more like straight-up performance at times, and MOCA itself became increasingly unstable territory for experimental work to find purchase. But Engagement Party mirrored my own love affair with social practice, way back when I saw the backwards lettering of the Finishing School poster suddenly clarify in the mirror of the USC IFT building’s women’s bathroom.
In the years since Engagement Party first took the ring, socially-engaged art practice has emerged in force – in critical writing, in MFA programs, in museums, in endless panels and symposia and professional conferences. It is far from ubiquitous, but the blank stares (or worse, scoffs) are less frequent. In some arenas, particularly contemporary art museums that like to push the envelope of audience engagement, the interest is quite rabid. “Machine Project, you say? Fallen Fruit, eh?” and so on.
But it is worth taking a moment to critically reflect on this platform, and what it means in the context of museum programming. First of all, working with collectives takes a lot of time, goes against the grain of how museums are used to working, and can be quite radical. Collectives necessarily have quite specific processes (after all, they had to figure out how to work and get along with each other) that can be challenging–and ultimately rewarding–for any institution willing to put in the time and effort. MOCA should also be congratulated for the consistency of its program – three to four artists per year, three month residencies, three events per artist. This platform has created a set of clear parameters for artists to work within and dependability for audiences. It has functioned to effectively raise the profile of these artists via its specific circumstances, its formal presentations of their work, its branding and marketing. The Engagement Party became a stage on which to launch a collective’s work to new publics and new heights.
Ojo's Engagement Party at MOCA. 2009.
Yet I am cautious in my lauding of Engagement Party, because I am not sure that it is actually a platform for social practice at large, and this is one reason that I was a bit confused by the Engagement Party Art Talks. Engagement Party’s structure is excellent for a specific type of events-based, performative collective, but problematic as a flexible and supportive curatorial program for socially engaged art. I never thought it was proposing to be such a program, but this is implied in the talks and the book. I am a little wary of every kind of “engaging” or performative work being shoe-horned into social practice. There is no hierarchy or judgment in this–just distinction. I have been reading Pablo Helguera‘s clear and precise primer Education for Socially-Engaged Art and love this quote where Helguera gives his take on Jürgen Habermas’s A Theory of Communicative Action:
Habermas argues that social action (an act constructed by the relations between individuals) is more than a mere manipulation of circumstances by an individual to obtain a desired goal (that is, more than just the use of strategic and instrumental reason). He instead favors what he describes as communicative action, a type of social action geared to communication and understanding between individuals that can have a lasting effect on the spheres of politics and culture as a true emancipatory force. (7)
There is a difference between politically or socially motivated works that address these issues on a symbolic level, and those that control, direct, manipulate, or influence social situations by strategically orchestrating the relations and communicative actions therein in order to achieve some set purpose. The structure of Engagement Party makes this kind of social action difficult–it is a Herculean task for artists (and supportive administrators, in the Engagement Party Think Tank) to actively buck the audience’s party-at-a-museum expectations and resultant social codes. The product of the Party becomes the symbolic realization of a set of social and aesthetic circumstances, but can rarely go beyond to what Helguera calls “actual” practice: as he succinctly writes, “socially-engaged art depends on actual–not imagined or hypothetical–social action.” (8) Liz Glynn most appropriately played with this paradox of feeling uneasy and implicated in the structure of the museum yet still participating, though her events were very effective symbolic practices and did not attempt (purposefully) social action; The Los Angeles Urban Rangers broke out of the museum altogether, shifted everything possible about the context and relations available within the parameters of the project, perhaps coming closest to Helguera’s definition.
The Los Angeles Urban Rangers. 2011.
Ryan Heffington and the East-siders' Engagement Party, Get Your Lead Out. 2010.
Still, this critique does not mean that Engagement Party was not innovative and important to this city and to the field. I would love to see more such platforms. But this acknowledgment must be balanced with the understanding that work that more closely approaches social practice rather than performative or participatory art, cannot be effectively sustained within such a format. No one pretends that social practice is easy, and as a field, museum professionals do risk resting (as it were) a bit on their laurels. How is it possible to sustain social action as well as symbolic practice, as a Habermasian “emancipatory force” with reverberations beyond our own insular worlds? Probably in something beyond three parties…but man, were they a blast.
I recently attended the American Association of Museums (AAM) conference in Minneapolis, an enormous interdisciplinary gathering of over four thousand museum professionals from institutions of all kinds – performing arts, visual arts, science, natural history, air & space, you name it. The theme of the conference was “Creative Community,” and for my fine arts colleagues, this thrust resonated with a February 2011 NEA study authored by Jennifer Novak-Leonard and arts evaluation guru Alan Wolfe, about an increasing diversity of arts participation in America—despite the rapidly diminishing role of the art institution.
Whereas the 2008 NEA survey on the arts in America showed a significant decline in attendance at all arts institutions (34.6% of all Americans, down from 39.5% in 2002), as well as an audience that has become disproportionately white in contrast to increasing demographic diversity, the 2011 study offers a glimmer of hope. Rather than focusing only on benchmark attendance at arts institutions, the authors evaluated engagement using a broader “multi-modal” approach—taking into account arts creation, electronic media use, and participation in community venues like schools and religious institutions. Surprising in the face of declining attendance, they found that no less than 74% of Americans engaged in one of these artistic modes—the bulk participating not in museums or performing arts venues, but in their neighborhoods and homes.
All through the non-profit arts sector, this notion is rumbling the foundation of culture and widening the cracks in the walls of the ivory tower. It is not that Americans are not engaging in artistic activity – much to the contrary. They are simply choosing to participate in ways that do not include museums. From the theme of AAM to the shifts in funding priorities recently announced by several philanthropic organizations including the James Irvine Foundation, community engagement and pushing beyond the four walls of the museum are becoming urgent strategies for the continued survival of art institutions. Irvine’s new set of priorities is called “Exploring Engagement,” and apropos to the arts participation study, focuses on broadening audience demographics through an increased focus on non-traditional venues for art embedded in communities. This is not to say that these trends are a result of this data alone; rather the rise of social engagement in artistic practice, the urgency of budget crises, and the void of institutionalized arts education are all combining to make broad social engagement by museums a necessity rather than an afterthought.
The winds are shifting, and museums of all kinds are reacting—sometimes fundamentally shifting their missions and structures in response, calling into question what comprises the boundaries of the institution. At AAM I encountered many models, too numerous and multivalent to go into much detail here, but perhaps could be categorized as such: Radical Openess, Museum as Service, and Decentralized Museum. These formats are inevitably infused with socially-engaged artistic practice, a flexible and hybrid process of working that is naturally aligned with such participatory formats.
Open Field at the Walker
“Radical Openess” can be described as efforts to bring community-generated content into the space of the museum, opening the space for curation and artistic production by a broad swath of publics. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is programming the massive four-acre field outside of its building with museum-curated events (Machine Project did several projects there) but also with music, performance, and workshops programmed by a swath of public participants. The Queens Museum of Art likewise brings community events and programs into its space, and the Dallas Museum of Art dedicates an unprecedented 12,000 square feet of space smack dab in the middle of its galleries to participatory work and community exhibition space.
Immigrant Respect pin from Immigrant Movement International
The “Museum as Service” model is so named because it describes programs that expand the museum’s educational mission to encompass life skills and services beyond art. The Queens Museum of Art again has some of the most innovative programs addressing its unique and diverse immigrant constituencies, including the New New Yorkers program, which provides language, art, and technology classes to recent immigrants. Another fascinating ongoing project was artist-generated—Tania Brughera’s “Immigrant Movement” which now comprises a community-run revolutionary political advocacy group for immigrants including over 40 neighborhood organizations.
Trade City's PopWagon
One of the most interesting models that deeply calls into question the future of the institution I am naming the “Decentralized Museum.” These strategies stem from concerns about declining institutional attendance and seek to leverage still-thriving local arts participation by embedding the institution within communities on an intimate smaller scale. One tactic is mobility – Maria Mortati has a mobile pop-up exhibition space in San Francisco that completely packs up into a single car, and the Los Angeles Trade City theater group just debuted its mobile community stage called PopWagon. Another tactic is the satellite space, which science museums seem to be utilizing more and more – the Buffalo Science Center has created temporary “Science Spots” that appear in storefronts across the city and offer educational science programming, whereas the Los Angeles California Science Center is experimenting with institution-sponsored neighborhood “science clubs” in partnership with existing community organizations (focusing on regions that are distant and may find visiting the center an improbability).
A satellite "Science Spot" of the Buffalo Science Center
What does this mean for the future of the institution? A huge challenge of this work is capacity – museums are organized to sustain an exhibition program, and working in a tactical, mobile, or radically open way necessitates a reskilling. Queens Museum has a community organizer on staff to form stable relationships as a foundation for the programming, and other museums are assembling ad hoc teams cobbling together working processes and knowledge from many departments and staff levels. There remains a dearth of appropriate evaluation tools to measure impact beyond basic attendance, which becomes meaningless in the face of an expanded model. How does one assess the feelings about a museum, the reach of a program, from participants who may never walk through the doors? And how does this shift the perception of the museum’s success from the point of view of donors, funders, and board members? Finally, what does this mean for artists? Perhaps a broadening of opportunity, and a need for developed organizational and participatory strategies – not to mention a coalescing of best working practices and a steadfast position that socially-engaged art will not solve the audience problem for museums, but perhaps help us shift our thinking about the future of museums in more layered complexity.
WHP Founder Edgar Arceneaux in front of Rosa Gutierrez's house
As an advocate for social practice and a former staff and board member of the Watts House Project, I feel a responsibility to respond to the recent LA Times article lambasting the Watts House Project and the character of its founder, Edgar Arceneaux. I am no longer with the project, though I left for purely personal reasons (mainly, the birth of my daughter and the time commitment of motherhood) rather than in protest (as the article implies). Though the project has indeed been rocky over the past few years, and there are indeed residents and former board members who are critical in very valid ways, the article paints a one-sided and partial picture of a complex situation. I don’t see Watts House Project as a looming, money-rich organization that has been surreptitiously hood-winking poor people, or as the product of a free-wheeling, unreliable charismatic leader who promises more than he can deliver with an overblown sense of his own importance. Though Ms. Finkel never explicitly says this in her article, she implies as much through its structure and selected quotes. Rather, Watts House Project is a small, capacity-poor nonprofit with a wildly ambitious mission that is attempting to produce a new model for grassroots urban redevelopment. It has run into a host of permitting, financial, and interpersonal roadblocks in a very complex environment, and has had to adjust itself many, many times to maintain a responsibility to its mission and values. Are there things that it could have done better from the very beginning? Of course. Are Edgar, the board, the residents, and the artists struggling to find a model that will work well without disastrous unintended consequences (like displacement)? Yes. Is it taking longer than anyone anticipated? Yes, certainly. And does this frustrate residents who have been working with the project since the beginning? Clearly it does.
But these issues require a loving critique, one that responsibly investigates the root causes (many environmental and institutional) and the broader context of challenges facing the project, rather than a reductive expose that blames everything on the founder. This is unfair, and lifts the responsibility to work towards success from the many people who have participated in the project in the best way they know how (including the disgruntled residents, who have been collaborators from the beginning). It plays into the very real systemic inequities and toxic territorialism that makes it so difficult for such projects to succeed in Watts. In a brief effort to unveil some of this complexity, I’d like to address a few of the points in Ms. Finkel’s article that I feel warrant further investigation.
“ONLY THREE RESIDENTS”
Ms. Finkel cites that “only three homeowners” signed up for the ambitious home renovations that would be the product of artist-architect-resident collaborations. This is misleading, as there are only 20 homes on the block, and many are rentals with absentee landlords. Watts House Project made the carefully considered decision to pilot three initial projects with only families that owned their homes, and complete only minor façade improvements on other homes. The organization was very cognizant that significant improvements to rental properties could disproportionately increase the value of the properties and displace the residents of those homes. There are several other families on the block intimately involved with the project in other ways.
HAMMER “GRANT” AND MADRIGAL PROPERTY
Initially, before the project was a non-profit, WHP focused solely on façade improvement, and its scope was only broadened to more significant home renovation after its first year. So the accusation that WHP squandered money on just a paint job and a few improvements on the Madrigal property in 2008 is highly misleading. The Hammer Museum actually asked Edgar to be part of its Artist Residency program (not simply granting the money, as Ms. Finkel’s article states) based precisely on his proposal of façade improvement for the Madrigal property, and this was what happened during the residency period. It was only later, in a completely different phase of the process and unconnected to the Hammer, that larger home renovations were discussed. It is regrettable that Noemi Madrigal had a bad experience with the shed-building process, but the shed was requested by her father Felix Madrigal (who was not interviewed for this article), the owner of the house at that time. WHP prides itself on being responsive, with homeowners as collaborators, and as the shed was identified by Felix (a handyman by trade) as the most important improvement at the time, that is the project that the organization worked on together with the family. It took six months for various reasons –it was mostly volunteer-built (which takes longer than simply hiring an expensive contractor), and included a period of time when Felix was away in Mexico for personal reasons, which halted construction.
ROSA AND THE FLOWER HOUSE
This comment in the article particularly galls me:
As for [Rocco] Landesman, [NEA Chief] reached by phone inWashington, D.C., he said he based his positive impressions on a slide show by Arceneaux as well as a tour of the block, “and it all looked good.” He also talked to one enthusiastic 107th Street resident, Rosa Gutierrez, whose home received a bright flower mural as part of the program.
He said he was not told she was on staff at Watts House Project. And he didn’t have the chance to talk to residents of the three main homes promoted as renovation projects.”
This quote implies that WHP is trying to purposefully pull one over on Landesman, and is misusing monies so as to bestow benefits upon its own staff members. The article fails to mention that Rosa received the mural in 2008 through volunteer labor and at extremely low cost (most of the paint was donated), at the same time as the improvements to the Madrigal façade. She was not hired as a part-time staff member until over a year later, and her name is clearly on the website as being part of the staff and has been since her hiring. Another sensitive issue WHP has run into is the problematic of parading of residents in front of every potential art world funder, so it has limited its “tours” to staff members and residents who have agreed to this kind of meeting. I would be more concerned if Landesman had been introduced to every single homeowner in the midst of their busy days, as if they had nothing better to do than chat with the NEA chief.
GARCIA HOUSE and LOVE HOUSE
These projects have certainly been fraught with delays, and the homeowners have experienced great frustration. Some of that has certainly been WHP’s fault, mostly promising larger plans and in a shorter time than what proved to be possible, and perhaps not having the right expertise on board from the very beginning that could navigate LA permitting and tax law, not to mention Watts politics. But there is more to the story than what was reported in the narratives describing these projects. Just something that was not mentioned:
The Garcia plans were running along fairly smoothly until it became clear that the family had an illegal structure in the back of their property where one of the family members was living. The architects proposed some solutions to allow them to continue with the other plans they had formed (permitting law is such that in order to pull certain permits, illegal structures that are not-up-to-code would have to be rectified at prohibitive cost or torn down altogether – hence the “dining pavilion” idea) but the family was not interested in pulling down that illegal structure. So the plans had to be scaled down to what was possible within LA permitting law. As well, artists Mario Ybarra, Jr. and Karla Diaz had initially planned to do an artistic fence treatment, but were thwarted when Augusto Aguirre via the Watts Towers Art Center created an admittedly lovely mosaic mural literally over one weekend (and without anyone in the family notifying the WHP or the artists). Of course the work of Ybarra and Diaz ended up being delayed – they had to start from scratch in their plans.
But really the most vitriol comes from the issue of the residential contracts. I know that discussing contractual issues in depressed areas of our city is a tinderbox topic, because so many people have been taken advantage of. So many. And perhaps because so much of the board was not from this place, they did not anticipate that moving forward in the way they did would spark such negative reactions. For the record, the board was closely split on this issue, whether or not to even present contracts with these terms to the pilot residents at all. This was a real soul-searching moment for everyone who was part of the project. In the end, the decision was made to present the contract with the model terms, and if the residents were uncomfortable, to take those terms out (this is precisely what happened with Moneik Johnson). WHP naively didn’t anticipate that this strategy would generate such negativity. Hind sight is 20/20.
However, I will staunchly defend the terms of the contract, as they go way beyond a simple compliance to tax law. The discussion about these contracts was nuanced and thoughtful (even if the way they were presented to the residents was not). Rather, the reason for these contracts was to guard against the displacement that inevitably accompanies gentrification, and to ensure that money invested into the project would be cycled back into the community itself for a continued cycle of improvement. WHP is not a pay-day lender – just a non-profit requesting a small percentage of the value invested into family homes (50% of PROFIT upon sale, only up to $50k) in order to keep that money in the community and be able to reinvest it in more homes. It requires residents who agree to these improvements to place a stake of this whole project back into their own community, to invest in their neighbors’ future, to be part of a sustainable model. I think it is a key part of the whole vision for replicative capacity of WHP, and the board paused construction for an entire year to work on it, back and forth with lawyers, back and forth amongst ourselves. It was a responsible and important discussion, and there were no precedents, so it took a long time legally to research and implement. After that beleaguered, difficult process, WHP lost sight of how it would be perceived by the pilot residents, and that was a big, big mistake. But it was not a malicious one.
However, and this bears noting, this contract issue has also since been used to drive major wedge between neighbors by the very “community leaders” that Rick Lowe advocates for in the article – perhaps because Watts House Project did not initially pay the “proper respect” required and expected. But just because people are community leaders, does not means that their motives are always pure and their agendas beyond reproach (some are, some aren’t, we all know this). This is not to say that all critique of the project stems from manipulation – some criticisms, like those of frustrated homeowners, are completely valid. But to be escalated to such rampant hostility bespeaks other factors and other agendas at play. Watts is not a void. There are forces in Watts that have harbored personal vendettas against Edgar since day one – he never had a chance with some people, not least because of his color, his personality, his class, his home in Pasadena. He didn’t see this as a reason not to try to start WHP, and he has paid the price for that audacity.
THE FUTURE FOR WHP
As I hope I’ve demonstrated in these explanations, there is a selective collapsing of time and events in Ms. Finkel’s Times article that does little justice to the complexity of the context WHP entered into, its evolution in response to ever-increasing knowledge of that context, nor its very real successes and very specific failings. Which makes me wonder, why was this article written? I am grateful that the Times is paying attention to Watts, and that the article has opened the door for the kind of discussion I am now participating in. There are important larger systemic issues at stake in this investigation and I am thankful to have this forum to discuss them. But there is an air of malevolence about this article, searching for patterns of misappropriation of funds and resources, or just general destructive incompetence, which doesn’t quite add up. Citing the LACMA funding report, for example – the funds spent were pretty low indeed for two artist honoraria and for architects like Escher Gunewardena to create architectural plans for the property (the architects themselves did it pro bono, in fact, or it would have been 10 times as expensive – they only paid their staff for the hours needed to create models and blueprints to present to the Garcias). This is expensive work, and a lot of people worked incredibly hard for very little money to try to make it happen.
If competency is the issue, is the article trying to make the point that WHP should go away? It’s not going away, though I just learned that Edgar has resigned as Executive Director. Perhaps the rhetoric has gotten so toxic that he could simply not function effectively anymore. Did the article reveal this situation, or merely fan the flames? And in a recent LA Times blog post from April 7th, is it now being leveraged as an indictment against all social practice?
I have been a critic of WHP from the start, and also have spent years of my life working on it. I have had countless conversations with many, many people critiquing the project and its failings and how to make it better. So to say that WHP is not engaged in rigorous critique is an utter falsehood – a much more rigorous self-reflexivity than I ever see in the non-social-practice art world. I wish I knew exactly where this indictment was stemming from, but I can only hope that it is simply a product of trying to wrestle with a complex new model that is struggling in a contentious context, and reduce that very real conflict into a series of sound bites.
What can WHP do better? I am sorry that Edgar had to step down in the midst of ignominious circumstances, but perhaps it is for the best. Will Sheffie is an amazing person and will hopefully be able to shepherd the program into more stable era beyond the necessary chaos of its founding. WHP can separate its pilot residents from its larger replicative model, figure out amicable terms to move ahead (if that is still desired) on all sides, and move ahead on a specific timeline and pace. WHP can strive for greater transparency in its marketing and discussions with funders, and work with neutral evaluators and scholars on a regular basis to commission progress reports. All of these ideas have been discussed by WHP, and I have no doubt they are moving forward as best they can, as they have always done. After all, they aren’t going anywhere.
In the most recent issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, I consider the role of the university in the cloistering of the aesthetic avant-garde from political and social action…playing off of the work of the marvelous Gavin Grindon and delving into the recent work of Rikrit Tiravanija and the Serpentine’s Edgware Road project as interesting counter-examples.
In a time of practically no public support for the arts and the rapid privatization of our institutions- public universities, museums, small arts non-profits, and art departments- are fighting a relevance war and losing. For the first time ever, the University of California public university system is getting more revenue from tuition than from the state, subjecting a generation of youth to ever more crippling debt. Except for the very rich, their options are limited, and as a result many visual arts departments fear slashings as debt-ridden students stream to what are perceived as more relevant and lucrative professional programs. Some of this fear is due to the fact that our cultural institutions of art are haunted by the narrative of failure of the revolutionary ambitions of the avant-garde, which seemingly renders them irrelevant as sites for social and political change. This is because we commonly translate this failure as leading to the impasse facing critical didactic art, and the estranged relationship between aesthetics and politics. I perceive that the public feels that art has become cerebral but not visceral, intellectual but not actionable, stuck in a closed system of commodification, and thus indefensible and irrelevant in its disconnection from social and political reality. This disconnect has only widened after the supposed failure of the avant-garde project , and I maintain that this perception infects institutions more drastically than ever in the face of such high stakes – the very survival of our institutions of art depends on systemic shifts of perspective on their own relevance.
Read the rest here.