In a statement posted online today, the artist Laura Owens responded to protests at her gallery in Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, 356 S. Mission Rd. While most activist events in response to the gallery, which some locals view as being a gentrifying force, have happened in Los Angeles, a protest occurred last week in New York at the Whitney Museum, where Owens is currently the subject of a mid-career survey.
In 2016, the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) began publicly opposing 356 S. Mission Rd., citing what it calls the “artwashing,” or gentrification by art institutions, of the neighborhood. Other affiliated groups, among them Defend Boyle Heights, have since joined forces with BHAAAD in organizing protests and meetings.
Owens’s statement, which was posted on the website of 356 S. Mission Rd., follows below.
356 Mission Rd opened in January 2013 as a temporary space for art and community activities in Los Angeles. Since opening, the space has held over 300 free events, including exhibitions, lectures, concerts, readings, performances, talks and conferences, workshops and other activities by a diverse group of practitioners from Los Angeles and elsewhere. In addition to the exhibition and event program, we host workshops for kids and make available other facilities that are used by artists and members of the community, all free of charge. We have actively fundraised for local causes as well as donated our space, time, energy and resources to them. These include REACH LA, The Smell, Proyecto Pastoral, ACLU and Kitten Rescue, with 100% of the proceeds received from suggested donations going to these nonprofits.
I rented 356 as an exhibition-making experiment in 2012, as I had no gallery or forthcoming shows in LA and wanted to make a project in my hometown. My intention was to use the space as a studio to make a new body of work and then open it to the public after the paintings were finished, so that the production and display of the work were not tied to a gallery calendar. What eventually became 356 Mission was formed in collaboration with Ooga Booga founder Wendy Yao, who started her independent Chinatown bookstore in 2004, and gallerist Gavin Brown, who has worked with me since 1996. We signed a one-year lease with the sole intention of hosting free events and activities during my exhibition 12 Paintings. After we realized there were more artists looking for places to present their work, we decided to extend our lease and keep the space open to host other exhibitions and events.
The area and community surrounding 356 Mission is one about which I care deeply. I moved to Los Angeles in 1992 and lived and worked near Mission Road. I have continued to live and work on the east side of LA for the last 25 years, throughout which time I have taught at several local universities and served on the committees of various nonprofits. The area where 356 is located is zoned light industrial, and historically artists rented spaces there long before I rented my first studio nearby in 1992. Before we leased 356 in 2012, the property was used as storage for the owner’s business, which is still the case in the adjacent buildings. Prior to that it was storage space for pianos. There has never been residential housing in the light industrial zoned area. According to current zoning, it cannot be repurposed for housing.
We do not own the space, and we pay market rent, nor have any relationships with developers. Everyone who works at 356 Mission is paid a fair wage and has been offered health care—except for the founders, who have never been compensated for their work with the space. We employ eight staff members and several part-time employees, some of whom are Boyle Heights residents. Because our goal is not to make profit but instead to sustain and expand programming, there has always been an annual deficit that we have covered personally.
In February of 2017 for the first time a few protestors came to an event we hosted, falsely implying that the space is linked to developers and is directly responsible for the displacement of low income residents. I respect people’s right to protest in a safe and non-violent manner and to have their voices heard. While we disagreed with their rhetoric and accusations, we shared the goal to create a more just housing market. LA has an urgent housing crisis that is facing many communities, and Boyle Heights is particularly vulnerable to rising rents and inequity. The relationship between art and gentrification is an urgent issue for the art community to discuss and should be further explored thoughtfully and respectfully between artists, civic leaders, and most importantly the residents of the neighborhood. I believe we need to press local government, landlords and developers to make policy changes that protect and shelter all Angelenos. Affordable housing is a human right, and Angelenos need all the support that we can get to battle the housing crisis. We assumed that we shared some of these goals with the protestors, and hoped to work with them to address this issue in Boyle Heights.
After refusing to engage in a dialogue, the protestors increased their aggressive techniques, by distributing further false information about us on anonymous social media accounts and bullying and threatening our staff and presenters, including people who are themselves part of vulnerable communities. We do things in public; we have an address; we have a phone number; we are open to criticism; and we welcome discussion. This has made us vulnerable to anonymous insults and death threats left on our voicemail.
Prior to this initial protest we had made many requests for a direct meeting with the group since July of 2016. After many months of repeatedly saying they could not meet with us, they agreed to meet in May 2017. We hoped to find common ground to work toward the issues facing our community, but all of our ideas, such as working together on community land buy backs, campaigning for specific policy changes, providing laundromat services and sponsoring workshops for kids were rejected. The protestors clearly stated instead that their only demands were that we immediately terminate our activities, dissolve 356 Mission and hand over the keys to them for unspecified purposes. They insisted that any further meeting would only be premised on our agreeing to these demands.
We have asked ourselves many times if closing 356 and abandoning our lease would stabilize rent prices or help stop developers from changing the neighborhood and raising rents further. After much inquiry, research and discussion, we have always come back to the conclusion that breaking our lease and leaving would not help solve the housing crisis or slow development. The issue is extremely complex and multi- layered, and doesn’t solely rest on the existence or absence of galleries. Neighborhoods such as Highland Park, Glassell Park, Echo Park and Silverlake have all recently gentrified without similar art scenes. Large- scale redevelopment plans for Boyle Heights—such as the 2009 Metro Line extension, 6th Street Bridge revitalization plans and USC Biotech Corridor proposal—were already underway well before we signed the lease on Mission Road.
I believe in the work we do and in all of the artists, musicians, performers and writers who have presented their work at 356. Boyle Heights has long been a place of cultural and artistic production, and 356 is only a very small and relatively recent addition to this amazing community of artists. We have met with many of our neighbors and it is a diverse community with varying perspectives on how to approach the looming issues of the housing crisis and displacement. Alongside the protesters’ demands to close, we have also heard the voices of artists, community groups, families, and individuals in the area who want 356 to remain open. In addition to urgent basic needs and facilities, people in all neighborhoods, of all ethnicities and classes, benefit from quality education and art. We do not believe that access to one should sacrifice the other in a healthy and thriving society. I have always been and remain committed to engaging in productive dialogue that results in effective actions to battle the issues facing our communities.