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.
Yesterday and the day before, the Getty held a conference entitled “Perspectives on Progressivism and the Museum,” which was a laudable effort to gather museum educators and scholars from around the country (and from the UK) to reconsider the progressive role of the art museum in civic politics and social justice, with an eye towards the sweeping national initiatives of the Progressivist era of the 30s and 40s. I moderated an artist panel this morning called “Social Practice and the Institution,” which gathered David Burns from Fallen Fruit, Edgar Arceneaux from Watts House Project, and performance artist Elana Mann in conversation about their own socially-engaged practices and interfaces with institutions. At the very end of the panel, a comment from a respondent struck me deeply - how can the local efforts of these artists - whose progressive practices eke out new ways of thinking, leverage new networks, and build new capacities in the ways people live and interact - translate to sweeping changes in our greater institutions? How can we scale up progressive practices in order to change the way economies or states operate in relation to their people?
It is fitting to be writing this post just after Guy Fawkes day, with the Occupy movements in their fervor invading city streets and city halls. I have become aware of many artist friends who have seized upon this moment of protest and discontent along with so many others. In an effort to understand how artists with social practices who have been engaging with protest and activism and issues of social justice throughout their careers are organizing in response and/or solidarity, I have asked several artists involved in the Occupy movements to send me their thoughts. I will post several of these interviews every week for the next few weeks, and through the varied perspectives of these very smart and creative people, coalesce my own understanding of art and protest in this context. As the polyphony of these occupations seem to be moving from incoherence to some actionable goals - like National Bank Transfer day (which was yesterday) - I am interested in how process becomes message becomes action, how aesthetics becomes symbol becomes division or solidarity, and how leaderless protest translates to progressive policy (and if that’s even possible anymore). The conversations are complex and layered and entangled, and they are happening right now.
Adam Overton is the first artist I want to highlight - a performance artist focused on the subtle and meditative, Adam is part of a loose self-organized group of artists and other cultural producers performing actions and organizing events in solidarity with Occupy - they are called AAAAAA. His positive and laid-back message is a response to the criticism of Occupy’s drawn-out decision-making process and lack of centrality. He is pondering here as well on his role as an artist in the midst of such protest energy - how he both feeds upon and reflects it.
What are you making/interested in making with regards to Occupy LA & the Occupy movement in general? Why?
AO: Personally, I’m primarily interested in occupying space, with others, and also by myself. I’ve been going down to Occupy LA and working on stuff on the lawn (mostly writing) – I think of it as chillaxistance: engaging with everyday endeavours, and art-production, while basking in the occupy-energy.
Beyond city hall, I’m interested in the Occupy-movement continuing to spread into everyday life and surroundings – but not in some sort of manifest destiny, grabby, selfish sort of way. Rather, I’m interested in seeing folks reclaim various facets of their lives, big and small, and continuing to share (resources, skills, knowledge, energy, etc) the way i see people sharing downtown. Among other things, I’m interested in making nice-nice (as we say in the massage biz).
What role do you feel you/your work plays in interfacing with the protest? What role would you like it to play?
AO: I’m not really sure. I’m not that interested in serving as an example of any kind, but I am interested in being myself – an artist – down at Occupy LA, whatever that’s worth. This all somehow feels important to me to be down there, to be a part of what’s going on – both giving and receiving. There’s a lot of learning going on, a lot of witnessing. Many of the things I’ve done down there so far performance-wise have been pretty subtle; many things have been more like gentle quiet activities (giving out a hollah to the touchy-feely committee!!); I’m sure I could do some more “direct” and spectacular actions, but I’m not sure yet if I want to go there. I somehow feel very humbled by it all. Perhaps that will change with time? Maybe I’ll have more to share, or a more outspoken approach at some point? For now I’m just barely there, but still there (which feels like a lot more than not being there).
Many recent actions seem based on performing “scores” – why do you think this is, and how do you think these performances “perform” in the Occupy context?
AO: Well, not all of the scores that have been created and announced have been performed [yet]. Many of them are very thought-full, and represent how I’m processing everything intellectually. There’s a lot to process right now. A lot of the things I notice are subtle, or rhetorical, things that seem glaringly funny, or odd, or depressing, or troubling. The scores are sometimes a way to notice these things out loud, to transcribe them, to replay them, to turn them upside down, to play with them, etc – to critique them. And then they can be passed along electronically via email, facebook, etc. Sometimes it’s enough for the instructions/descriptions to simply be read/imagined. Some of the scores I’ve been enjoying reading/imagining/performing are by my friend Mikal Czech:
That said, I am interested in performing scores down there, and I have been, off and on. When performing alone, it’s been an interesting way of altering my sense of space, or reality, or personal interactions. Dérives are like that – they’re like drugs minus the drugs. They heighten my senses, draw out subtexts, present alternative ways of existing/playing in space – without all the forgetfulness and side-effects. It can sometimes be hard to notice where certain scores start and end, and I find that useful in terms of trying to expand the movement from Occupy LA to Occupy Everything.
When performing with others, it’s been a fun way of engaging socially in much in the same way that games do. Games/scores seem odd – they’re often life-like, but surreal, and give the persons involved permission to do and notice things they wouldn’t normally think they’re allowed to. They push you into another perspective. A lot of learning happens in scores/games. I’m not sure what is to be learned, but I’d like to think that the human population and/or spirit is somehow evolving with each game/score. It feels magical. I think it’s important to engage with magic and an evolutionary spirit in this space. Games/scores seem to be an aeffective way to engage serious matters playfully, and to model different ways of thinking, acting, and interacting.
How do you feel the AAAAAA list is operating? What role is it playing? What are the challenges or benefits of this loose grouping?
AO: AAAAAA is nice – people write emails back and forth, facebook posts back and forth – right now we mostly seem to be sharing information, knowledge, opinions, ideas, videos, articles, proposals for action, critiques of things that have happened so far, etc. For me, its foremost role has been to encourage me to continue thinking about all this Occupy stuff, everyday. I read messages when I wake up, during my breaks, on my phone, when I’m procrastinating, and before I go to bed. I’m immersed. If I was just on my own, not engaged with this group, I might only hear about things every few days or weeks; in other groups I’d likely encounter the kind of uncritical rhetoric that really turns me off, and that further alienates me. If I didn’t have people sending me stuff, I might think that everything had petered out, or that it’s not my movement, not for me. But instead I see my friends thinking about it all, being concerned, being excited, being worried, wanting more, asking for help, proposing meetings, encouraging discussion, and going down there and doing things. I can’t help but feel infected by this and want to stay involved. AAAAAA encourages my continued engagement.
I’m fairly wary of the rhetoric of large groups. I like mission statements, but only up to a point. As much as I like scores, I generally don’t like to participate in things I’m not concerned enough with or connected enough to. I generally don’t like being a part of things that involve a lot of finger-pointing, finger-waving, or righteous indignation. Except on a handful of issues, I’m just really uncertain about how to aeffect change in a way that agrees with me. So, as a whole, AAAAAA is really working for me right now. It so far seems to simply represent a group of concerned beings, mostly [only?] artists from our community. People tend to function autonomously, doing things when they want, or not. There has been no specific pressure placed on anyone to participate. I like this. A challenge of this is that it can be hard to keep certain kinds of momentums going. For instance, I spoke to a friend today about how we had wished there had been more large group meetings (there were only 2, right around the start - the rest has been small clusters of folks). There are several reasons why folks haven’t met as a large group since then – people are busy, and there have been a lot of calls for “action” rather than more meetings – but I actually think the main reason more large meetings haven’t been called is that folks have been afraid that calling a meeting might push them into some sort of leadership spotlight. I certainly feel that way – if I’m always the one pushing for meetings, do the meetings then become “Adam’s meetings”? I don’t think anyone wants to become seen as an owner of the group. I think it’s a nice sentiment, but it can also slow things down, and fewer meetings are called – everyone waits for someone else. I might be totally wrong about this – this might just be my own paranoia. Anyways, I’m a firm believer that unexpected things emerge when people meet, both online and off.
Another challenge has been catching folks up, making newcomers feel welcome. It’s hard to do that on a mailing list. I get the feeling that most of the people who have been participating lately on the list and on-site have been participating from the start. Folks coming to the list late might be more hesitant to jump in to something that feels like it’s already moving, or something that feels dominated by folks who are already active. I think those sorts of boundaries get lessened when we actually meet in the space – but not that many physical meetings have been taking place. Again, I might just be assuming a lot of bullshit! But there are challenges, and I think it’s been mostly good.
There has been criticism of the Occupy movements and the horizontalism of the General Assembly model – a polyphony of voices and lack of clarity in message or goal. What are your thoughts on this critique?
AO: Sure, I think the argument is that the clearer the message gets, the more easily the “problems” can be treated – but who’s going to treat them? And if they whittle it down to the 2 most popular ones and then treat them, does that mean we go home? What happens to all the other concerns? There are so many issues at play, so many to deal with – to dumb it down into one thing seems incredibly frustrating, and exclusive. I love how many voices there are. I think there should be even more. I cannot stand when folks say dumb things like “we’re all here for the same reason.” No, we’re not! Stop trying to unite us into your false karass! Things are much more complicated and nuanced, and the confusion of not having a clear message has caused people to talk, and talk, and talk, and talk – and debate. People are learning a buttload. From each other. At least those willing to listen. Many people down there are much worse off than I am, economically-speaking, educationally, politically, etc, so I’m mostly there to listen. Simplifying their many arguments into a few, dumbing them down is not the answer. Answers are not necessarily the answer (though that might be a privileged thing to say…).
To anyone complaining about the messiness of horizontalism – get over it. It’s giant fucking sandbox. Get dirty. And, it’s only reeeeallly messy if you’re in a hurry and trying to get-things-done. Trying to set a deadline is often an exercise in futility and frustration. The General Assembly and endless dialogue at Occupy LA and online suggests that folks move from being end-focused to being more process-focused – shifting things away from
fast-food politics, rhetoric, and discourse. If you’re only looking for results – for immediate change – then you’re going to hate life while attending a General Assembly, or an affinity group meeting. I’m there for the process, to learn from people, to hear voices that I haven’t heard before, to consider their arguments I haven’t considered. And to state my mind, to support others, to point out things that rub me the wrong way. I’ve witnessed some hard-blocks down there – and more often than not they’ve brought up really interesting and valid critiques of the action or decision that was about to be made, that everyone seemed to be completely on board with a moment earlier. If anything, in this day and age when
libertarian, anti-government messages seem to be all the rage, the messiness of the process at least makes me appreciate the level of skill and attention to detail and process that seems to go into making government a not-as-messy place. The messiness of Washington makes a different kind of sense.
What are your own hopes for the Occupy movement?
AO: More conversation, more learning, more hope, more minds changing, more radical juxtaposition, more reframing, more rehashing, more investigating, more restating, more paraphrasing, more mediation, more meditation, more introspection, more disbelief that a person like “that” actually exists, more awe with how many people are here and actually care deeply about some of the same things as me, more gentleness, more humble occupation, more complexity, more creative approaches to radical everyday existence, more acceptance, etc.
Less aping of politicians’/pundits’ rhetorical flourishes, less demonizing of the Other, less finger-wagging, less interrupting, less yelling, less anxiety, less stress, less worry, less anger, less simplification, less declaration, etc.
This is a wonderful opportunity for the right person:
Application Deadline EXTENDED: July 10, 2010
Watts House Project is seeking a Managing Director to start full-time in September of 2010. The Managing Director of Watts House Project is responsible for overseeing and coordinating the complex legal, financial, and operational aspects of the organization with the Executive Director. The Managing Director oversees the staff, including the administrator, Resident Coordinator, development team, and interns, and works in tandem with the Executive Director on project phase development and organization. The Managing Director oversees fiscal operations and accountability, and manages the organizational growth with the Executive Director. The Managing Director also programs fundraising and community events, liaises with the Board of Directors and Advisory Board, oversees fundraising with the Executive Director, and liaises with the construction managers and artists involved in the project regarding contractual agreements, legal requirements, finances, permitting, and project stage benchmarks. The Managing Director works in tandem with the Executive Director and Board Committees on protocol and reporting. The Managing Director oversees the Resident Coordinator, and coordinates extensive community outreach and feedback initiatives. The Managing Director is also responsible for maintaining press, website, Basecamp, digital and archived files, donor database, and other organizational systems.
The Managing Director with the Executive Director and the Board is constantly evaluating the long and short-term goals in their effectiveness in achieving the mission of the Watts House Project. The Managing Director will work in close collaboration with the Executive Director in the fulfillment of their responsibilities.
Responsibilities include but are not limited to:
* Serves as Chief Organizer with the Executive Director & with Board approval, responsible for selection of artist, architects and designers and whom they collaborate with in House Renovation Projects.
* Assures all projects are produced in accordance to WHP’s programming goals.
* With the Executive Director and with Board approval defines scope and direction of all WHP programming. Work in coordination with Resident Coordinator, Executive Director, additional staff as needed, and Board.
*With the Executive Director and with Board and the Board’s approval, develops and coordinates public programming at the Platform, within the neighborhood and in coordination with residents, stakeholders and organizational partners.
RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT AND FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT
* With the Executive Director and Board of Directors, assures adequate funds are available for annual operations and programs, and to meet strategic goals related to sustainability and/or growth. Creates strategies with Executive Director and the Board for maintaining an engaged donor base, producing effective fundraising activities, and maximizing earned income.
*Works with the Executive Director in the preparation and management of the annual budget for Board approval. Assures effective delegation of financial management responsibilities among the Board of Directors Finance Committee, staff, and outside providers in carrying out the position’s responsibility for the overall financial and operational condition of WHP.
* Partners with the Executive Director and Board of Directors in initiating and preparing long-term plans and budgets.
* Works in coordination with the Executive Director, Development Director and Board and provides oversight in preparation of all grant requests and participates in the proposal process when appropriate.
*Oversees overall WHP operations of public programs and building projects and assures that all activity is carried out in concert with organizational policies and goals, and in compliance with applicable laws, regulations and building codes.
(a licensed professional must perform these duties with the Managing Director & the Executive Director with Board approvals)
* Works in coordination with the Executive Director in the hiring of staff and consultants upon board approval of position and salary/fee
BOARD AND EXTERNAL RELATIONS RESPONSIBILITIES
*Serves as a liaison (with Executive Director) between WHP staff and board.
* Serves as a liaison for the Board of Advisors and obtains their counsel as appropriate.
* Represents (with Executive Director) WHP in the local community. Works to promote the organization’s influence and visibility in Los Angeles, as well as its national and international profile.Works with the Managing Director and the Board to coordinate and work with other organizations in the area.
* Partners with Executive Director and the Board of Directors to develop and maintain effective communications and systems that ensure the Board’s ability to govern effectively.
* Works effectively with Executive Director and the Board of Directors and in partnership with a variety of individuals and organizations essential to the organization’s success – residents, local stakeholders, artists, dealers, donors, the media, local government, business people, volunteers and the general public.
The ideal candidate for this position will have 3-5 years experience in a high-level management position of a non-profit organization of similar scale. The candidate will have excellent verbal and written communication skills (preferably in both English and Spanish), experience as a community organizer, and preferably experience in the Watts neighborhood or surrounding region. The candidate will have excellent event-planning and organizational skills, and proven ability as a fundraiser. The candidate will have experience relating productively to a highly engaged and involved board, and will put boundless energy into developing a fledgling organization into a well-oiled machine. The candidate will have detail-oriented experience in working with complex legal and fiscal matters, skills in creating and reporting on operational budgets, skills allocating and reporting on restricted grant monies, and a working knowledge of the complexities of community-engaged art and neighborhood development. Knowledge of social and public art practice, community redevelopment, housing, and/or architecture and construction are very helpful. The approved salary for this position is $42,000 per annum.
To apply, send a resume, cover letter, and three references to:
Last week I left off with a question that arose in the Open Engagement Conference in Portland - should social practice artists get rid of the “art” altogether in their practices? Watts House Project was recently counseled by a fundraising advisor to do just that. “You can raise way more money and have way more impact as just a community development organization rather than an arts organization,” were her words of advice. “Impact” is the key word in that sentence. Is it true? Is it the “art” label that holds us back from affecting real change?
There is an aspect other than monetary to consider as well, which I noticed in the furrowed brows and distraught expressions of social practice artists at the conference. To art or not to art, that is the morally-inflected question many of these young artists are trying to work through. Certainly, works that are inherently participatory and aim to be expansive or community-based or even (gasp) aim to affect real social and political change, will involve audience and participants that do not have an art historical background or language, or indeed any way of locating what they are encountering as “art.” This was precisely the reason that Ted Purves’s project Temescal Amity Works presented itself as “storefront” or “clubhouse” rather than artwork. I heard from several artists that they shied away from even calling themselves “artists” when working in communities, even if they considered the work part of their practices, because they inevitably encountered intense distrust. The insularity of the art world, the unwillingness or the inability to rationally explain things in an accessible manner, the “sceney-ness” that another colleague told me he despised (and that’s from someone inexorably entrenched in the art world!), this culture of obfuscation has brought us to this place. No wonder artists are wondering if they should even call themselves artists, or what they do, art.
I return to Ted Purves, and his answer when confronted with this question. “Yes, it makes it more complicated [to call it an art project],” he said. “But it is what it is.” This was a little unsatisfying at the time, and I mulled over the question for about a week. Last Tuesday, I attended yet another conference, this time the enormous American Association of Museums conference in downtown LA’s convention center. One of the keynote speakers at that conference was Peter Sellars - UCLA professor and theater director extraordinaire who gave a well-known talk (but one that I had never heard before) entitled “Art and Social Action.” Besides just being an incredibly engaging and passionate speaker, Mr. Sellars made the important point that the deepest things in life must be addressed culturally - you cannot legislate or mitigate them. His example was a recent rash of teen suicides in the bush of Australia, and that neither cops nor judges nor social workers could affect the pattern, but that artists could. What art provides is meaningful empowerment, a reason to live, and a future shaped by vision rather than fear. This process is not a mass experience, but a person to person encounter, which art can also provide.
He spoke about how our culture privileges the “objective gaze” of neutrality and indifference - from journalism to public schools. Art, he argued, provides the ability to turn an “eye of equality” on our world, a transformative gaze of love that sees with moral energy and understands one’s responsibility to the world. He also said:
Art touches the deep chord of the thing you always knew, inside of you.
Art is the act of recovering your humanity.
Art can create the safe place that empowers people to face and recognize their fears.
This poetic vision of art as being core to the way we live in the world rather than additive or privileged, encapsulates the value of art to social practice. Some things, indeed, can only be addressed culturally, and this interior value provides distinction that give these practices the potential for deeper meaning and wider breadth than projects that exist without the “art.”
Every couple of months at the Hammer, a group of older women from a Brandeis Alumni group come for a tour and lunch in the museum cafe. I had the pleasure of touring this group the last time they came, through the show “Second Nature.” The show, which is coming down very shortly, consists of a fantastic collection of sculpture from the last 10 years (mostly by Los Angeles-based or educated young artists) donated by media exec Dean Valentine to the Hammer’s contemporary collection. The varied pieces within it, though having some relationship to one another in their generational response to object making, are quite diverse, and challenging in terms of an overarching tour.
The Brandeis women, of a clearly different generation than these artists (who included Edgar Arceneaux, Sterling Ruby, Ruby Neri, Stephen G. Rhoades, Martin Kersels, Paul Sietsema, and Nathan Mabry among others), were resistant to art in these forms, and had much to say. One protested the “cerebral” nature of conceptual or post-conceptual art, a refrain I hear frequently as a docent. “These artists need to get out of their heads and into their hearts,” she admonished. Others just shook their heads disapprovingly when I introduced Sterling Ruby’s monumental “Stalamite: Recondite Burning,” an obelisk-like organic coagulation of melted plastic, enormous and stunning in its expressionism.
As their guide, I tried my best to give context for the work they were seeing, to try to lay the groundwork that these artists were not attempting to represent or even necessarily “express themselves” in the vague, cliched sense, but were posing a question or conceptual critique - about the larger framework in which they were making art, about art and object-making in a digital age, about media in general. This leap is still nearly impossible for many art viewers of a certain generation. They are interested (they are there, after all) but they don’t get it, and they become frustrated that they don’t get it.
I think those of us who live and breathe contemporary art forget this, quite often. We like preaching to the converted, and the divide between those who “get it” and those who don’t remains difficult to hurdle. Building access to contemporary art and learning to appreciate good contemporary art takes time. It’s like trying to explain the taste of a good apple versus a bad apple when the person you are talking to has never tasted an apple before…and not only that, is absolutely resistant to apples in general. I was more than thrilled when at the end of the tour, one of the women said, “Well, for art we didn’t like that much, we sure did talk about it a lot.” I felt like hugging her - yes, I wanted to say, yes, that’s the whole point.
Which brings me to the space for museum education - a really fascinating and dynamic space that embodies all sorts of interesting conflicts, like the Brandeis group experience described above. Museum education departments are morphing beyond the docent-training, curriculum-building, K-12 oriented places they once were, where kids fingerpaint after learning about Impressionism. These departments are increasingly the incubators for social practice…for like the artists who are so interested in problem-solving and spatial and social context, museum educators have long had to deal with both art and its public context. Traditional curators are sometimes a bit baffled by social practice, especially as it becomes less and less object-based - a couple of curators have admitted to me that they don’t feel they have the skill set to “judge” good or bad social practices (apples to oranges, again). But museum educators are used to integrating publics with pedagogy and art historical context - they are programmers and teachers and problem-solvers. Obviously not all educators are equipped to really explore these liminal social spaces, preferring to confine themselves to lesson plans and traditional notions of art education - but the space is there. Educators like Eungie Joo of the New Museum and her fantastically interdisciplinary “Museum as Hub” program, or Sarah Schultz of the Walker, are consistently breaking new ground in terms of curatorial and educational collaboration, supporting social practice, pushing the boundaries of arts education, and creating spaces to incubate new pedagogical ideas. It is no surprise that among the three LA art institutions interested in partnering with the Watts House Project, all three are doing so through their education departments.
Clearly I’m a bit of a booster, being a museum educator myself, but I find deep connections forming between these departments and the art practices I am so interested in, and I am excited to see what innovative programs arise from those interstices.
One huge challenge I see in social practice is an enormous shift in the kind of working method and knowledge base required of these artists than those who work exclusively in the studio. If social practice involves an artist “inserting” him or herself into a community, the types of knowledge and skills required of that artist expand exponentially.
Of course, it’s difficult to make that statement lightly, because contemporary studio artists work in incredibly varied ways, many involving huge amounts of contextual research into history, society, and space. Not to mention that such artists, in order to navigate the territories in which they operate, often need a fairly solid art historical and theoretical knowledge base. But artists operating in social arenas must strive to understand the communities they inhabit, even briefly, and they must be completely self-aware and reflective that their actions are of consequence within such communities. They must even be prepared to face the fact that their presence might be unwelcome, unwanted. These artists must be prepared to fail on a wholly different scale than studio artists – a very public and a very consequential scale.
The weighty social practices I am talking about here are largely community-based, and exist outside of the safe space of the museum or gallery. These practices are in the public, involve city government, require groups of people buy in to the project, and call for often massive funding. Amy Franceschini’s Victory Gardens project in San Francisco was on a city-wide scale, whereas The Watts House Project operates in a very small, specific community in Watts, but perhaps affects peoples’ lives (for better or worse) even more deeply because of its focus. Marjeta Potrc’s interest lies in informal cities and design solutions in places like the West Bank and Caracas, and her massive research into these communities reflects the social practice aspect of her work.
Amy Franceschini, Victory Gardens, 2008
Yet to juggle the huge range of contextual knowledge required, the specific proficiencies needed in the realm the artist makes his or her own (i.e. housing, philanthropy, building social connections, pedagogy, marketing) and the added ability to reflect, to remove oneself from everything and break down one’s systems of doing things, analyze the hierarchies and power structures at work, and make connections amongst all the different spheres of one’s knowledge is a tough prospect. As the scale of the project grows, it becomes less and less likely that all of these skills and knowledge can be embodied in one person. Teams must be put together, and the artist must acquire yet another skill – how to run a working and dynamic organization. Although social practice artists often talk about collaboration (more on that later), it is really organizational practice that forms the infrastructure for massive project production to occur.
Perhaps it is the socio-cultural-spatial-economic building of knowledge, the work with groups of people, the organizational capacity, and the rigorous approach to a problem that distinguishes the social practice artist.
Quickly back to the pedagogical theme of these posts, though, and a final question: How can the academy support this type of knowledge-building for MFAs in social practice programs? What spheres of understanding do they feel are most primary, and how does this privileging reflect the hierarchies within these institutions themselves?
How do you teach someone to be a visionmaker, teacher, communicator, connector, housing expert, engineer, marketing expert, director, and artist all at once in a two-year program?
You don’t, not really. You nurture the desire and hope they can rise to the challenge.
“The “Incidental Person” was coined by the British artist John Latham (1921-2006) to qualify the status of an artist involved in non-art contexts such as government or large corporations. This exhibition expands on Latham’s original definition of the Incidental Person to include those persons for whom all aspects of life – political, social, esthetic, professional – are integrated into a unified whole. The new Incidental Person can be an artist, but does not need to be since for her or him meaningful production is not the exclusive property of any one member of society: the Incidental Person can be anyone as long as each of her or his actions partakes of a larger, unified life practice.
The exhibition argues that the Incidental Person stakes out a new position, outside of the 20th-century triad Joseph Beuys-Marcel Duchamp-John Cage. Unlike the latter, the Incidental Person does not seek to solve the “art-life” or “mind-body” problems. Instead, she or he fails to see them as problems at all, since for the Incidental Person art, life, mind, and body cannot be understood in opposition to one another. But this does not mean that the Incidental Person declares that anything can be art, as Duchamp suggested with the readymade. Rather art itself becomes subsumed under a larger, all-inclusive category of motions or things that bear the elusive imprint of Incidentality. And while the Incidental Person shares Beuys’ interest in pedagogy, she or he eschews the self-mythologizing of the avant-garde: if you do not recognize the Incidental Person walking past you in the street, this is probably because you have yet to learn what makes their life-practice Incidental - and vice-versa. This exhibition bring together persons formerly known as “artists”, “writers”, “technicians”, and “bureaucrats”, who imbue their everyday existence with Incidentality. In particular, the exhibition will underscore aspects of the Incidental Person’s life-work that do not appear obviously “artistic”, thus becoming a pedagogical forum to learn how to recognize and act out the potential behind seemingly disparate gestures, regardless of their professional or aesthetic tags.”
Interesting thought, this idea of “incidentality” and life-practice. I’ve been reading a bit about the fascinating Lygia Clark, who like Latham, brought together conceptions of time, mortality, metaphysics and the body in her practices. She said she “longed to live like the hand of a clock; passing a thousand times through the same route.” Ever concerned with divisions between the past and the future, this sense of time defined the wholistic conception of her practice. She said, “With me it is always like this - while I live a thousand turns of the earth the rest of the people here are marking out time, with rare exceptions, going backwards, and nothing is dynamic, everything is pause or death.”
A language of critique can be formed around life-practices such as these, as evidenced in the truly stunning survey of conceptual art curated by Peter Eeley at the Walker Art Center, “The Quick and the Dead.” Eeley’s cogent essay on the works of artists like Clark, Robert Barry, George Brecht, On Kawara, James Lee Byars, Tacita Dean and others highlight these concerns with death, time, and the metaphorical object.
Yet the notion of the Incidental Person that Latham puts forth and Hudek will attempt to expand upon in this exhibition might be more problematic to discuss in such a manner. Many artists concerned with social practice are “incidental people” inserted into political and social arenas as problem-solvers, but where do the parameters and limits of their artistic practices exist? It is problematic to call everything that an artist does in a social or political realm an “artwork.” Are the workings of government or community or social service utilized only as the context for performativity? Are the artists actually “solving problems,” somehow pointing out problems that no one else can see? I could cite many examples, from Merle Laderman Ukeles’s “Touch Sanitation,” during which the artist was in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation, to John Latham’s stint at the Scottish Office’s Development Agency (through the Artist Placement Group). Besides these insertions, there is also the question of artist-conceived organizational structures that are called artworks, like Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses or Watts House Project. Is this a strategic in some way, positioning these entities in an “innovative” categorization (not to mention funding and development), or is there a larger intellectual and conceptual artistic process at work? Something special and unique that an artist brings that no one else can, a revelatory experience?
It’s certainly a romantic notion, but I struggle with it. And if it’s true, what about these other “incidental people” that Hudek speaks of? The engineers, the scientists, the technicians, and the bureaucrats? I can’t help but believe that there is some hierarchy, some question of authorship, and general muddiness about shoehorning these artists/non-artists into a curated art show that is not being addressed here.
(Thanks to Aimee Chang for the conversation that led to some of these questions).