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Southward Bound: As Art Institutions Explore New Frontiers in South L.A., Communities Brace for Change

Construction underway in September 2018 at the future site of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Exposition Park.

COURTESY LUCAS MUSEUM

On a quiet stretch of West Adams Boulevard in Los Angeles, the word “ART” glows from a storefront fitted with security bars. The three letters, carved into a window painted black, offer a peek inside, where a drawing of the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk hangs on a wall alongside a painting of Prince and photographs of hip-hop stars. On a recent evening, a family with a young child sat at a red checkered table eating pizza while the sounds of the Fugees blared. At a bar in the next room, a white man with dreadlocks and a blonde woman with a tiny dog sipped cold beer in pint glasses.

This space, Delicious Pizza, opened in 2015, at a time when “there was nobody delivering or having pizza for miles,” said Rick Ross, who runs the restaurant and multivalent community arts hub with his brother, Michael Ross, cofounder of the record label Delicious Vinyl. The brothers briefly rented the property in West Adams, a low- and moderate-income neighborhood that has historically been home to black and Latino residents, to the experimental art gallery Dem Passwords before the idea arose to open a restaurant—and more. To add to their eatery, the Rosses conceived a gallery of their own, Infinity Room, with shows devoted to emerging artists and a tiny storefront covered by a cosmic mural. “I’m not a gallerist in the traditional sense,” Rick Ross said. “I just started programming shows. I wanted to give people an opportunity to get seen.”

Today, there are signs of change all around West Adams, an enclave just south of the 10 Freeway, one of the city’s major transportation arteries and geographic boundaries. West Adams is part of a larger area known as South L.A., a diverse majority-minority swath encompassing more than 20 neighborhoods and spanning roughly 51 square miles. Because the area has been historically undervalued, the result of systemic racism and redlining practices that have denied basic services, rents in South L.A. are often more affordable than in nearby Downtown Los Angeles to the east and Culver City to the west, both also hubs of the local art scene.

In West Adams, boarded-up lots now mix with Tyvek-covered construction sites advertising future apartment complexes, offices, and retail centers. A for-rent sign in Spanish on notebook paper hangs on a telephone pole opposite an ad on a bench for a real estate company. Electric scooters line the sidewalk outside a 70-year-old Armenian bakery just down the street from churches advertising services in Korean, Spanish, and Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.

To some in the neighborhood, the clearest marker of change is not new shops or restaurants but a recent influx of galleries. In 2009 the idiosyncratic MuzeuMM gallery opened in a building shared with a restoration studio. Others followed, including Band of Vices, The Landing, and Chimento Contemporary, which arrived in 2018 from elsewhere in the city. At its new home on West Adams Boulevard, Chimento drew the ire of community organizers and tenants’ rights activists who say that galleries raise property prices and lead to displacement. It doesn’t help that the gallery relocated from Boyle Heights, another neighborhood at the center of the tenants’ rights battle in L.A.; after it was fiercely protested there, Chimento became a flashpoint in West Adams, a symbol of gentrification taking hold.

Major institutions, too, have shown an interest in the expansion of South L.A. In a sign of the area scaling up, the $1.5 billion Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is under construction in Exposition Park, a diverse neighborhood anchored in part by the wealthy private University of Southern California and educational museums funded by the county and the state. And the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is expanding its offerings beyond its main Wilshire Boulevard campus to two satellite locations in the heart of South L.A. One outpost, slated for a formerly blighted bus yard that was reimagined as an urban oasis in 2012, is three miles southeast of Exposition Park. The other is in Earvin “Magic” Johnson Park, near the Watts Towers Arts Center to the north and the city of Compton to the south. Independent of LACMA’s arrival, the former fishing spot is in the midst of its own $135 million county-funded transformation, with designs for an equestrian center, a wedding pavilion, and a sculpture garden.

Though far from monolithic, South L.A. is a long way from the Watts Riots in 1965, the 1992 uprisings following the acquittals in the police beating of Rodney King, and the so-called white flight that followed periods of upheaval in the past. The days of developers, investors, and cultural institutions ignoring South L.A. are gone. But while plenty of local leaders and property owners welcome the influx of investment and activity in the arts, many tenants and anti-gentrification activists wonder if the swelling movement is less a sign of progress and more a harbinger of displacement to come.

Eva Chimento and senior curator Kim Light outside Chimento Contemporary gallery on West Adams Boulevard in September 2018.

KATHERINE MCMAHON/ARTNEWS

On a Saturday evening in September, a crowd gathered outside Chimento Contemporary on West Adams Boulevard, near Crenshaw Boulevard, during the opening of a show of abstract paintings by the San Francisco artist Richard Hoblock. But it wasn’t the kind of crowd that gallerist Eva Chimento had hoped for. The group of protesters, dressed in black and some with bandanas over their faces, chanted “Fuck your art” and carried signs warning the gallery that it was engaged in “artwashing” at the expense of people of color in the neighborhood. Among those protesting were members of Defend Boyle Heights and the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD), both grassroots activist groups that sprang up in response to the emergence of art galleries in their community, such as 356 Mission. That space, opened in 2013 by artists Laura Owens and Wendy Yao in a historically Mexican-American area east of downtown, closed its doors in May after being protested for years.

Several days after the gathering at Chimento Contemporary, the gallery was on lockdown, Chimento said, to protect the safety of her artists and employees. She left Boyle Heights after her rent tripled, she said, and moved to West Adams because she has friends and family in the area and can’t afford to run the gallery elsewhere. The way she sees it, protesters have unfairly singled her out. “There have been galleries here for the last five years that have not been protested,” she said. “I’m not coming here with fanfare and flash. I’m quiet and do my own thing. I’m working. I’m trying to survive.” (Neither Defend Boyle Heights nor BHAAAD responded to multiple requests for comment.)

Azusena Favela, a lifelong resident of South L.A. and president of the South Central Neighborhood Council, said galleries don’t need to be noisy or flashy to cause property values to rise. “Existing community residents can’t afford to buy a home in their own neighborhood, and rents for commercial spaces have been increasing anywhere from $500 to $1,000,” Favela said. The problem with the wave of art activity in the area is “the speculation that it brings, not necessarily the disruption.” While acknowledging that galleries and studios in South L.A. may remain under the radar and far from ostentatious, Favela said they still stand to have the same impact on real estate. “On Saturday nights, folks spill out onto the streets that we know are not community residents, that are from other neighborhoods. It becomes visible when you see gatherings of folks in unmarked buildings.”

The South L.A.-based nonprofit Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) has worked for more than 20 years to ensure that new developers in the area contribute positively to the community. In 2011 it was one of the organizations that pushed the developer of a USC student housing complex to agree to fund a community medical clinic, affordable housing, and a jobs training and hiring program. A decade earlier, SAJE was one of the organizations that successfully lobbied the then new Staples Center in Downtown L.A. to spend $1 million on community parks and recreation areas, a jobs program for low-income residents, and a pledge to pay workers the city’s living wage.

Cynthia Strathmann, SAJE’s executive director, insisted that her organization is not anti-development and, in fact, would like to see an increase in development along transit corridors. Many South L.A. neighborhoods, she said, need more affordable housing, grocery stores, and infrastructure, including roads and schools. But art galleries, she argued, often promote exclusivity as a function of maintaining both social status and market value. “An art gallery is for selling art and the acquisition of art,” Strathmann said. “In an ideal world, it would just be because you love art, but in reality, art acquisition has often been about people differentiating themselves from other people because art is a prestige product.”

Strathmann said the changes underway in South L.A. are part of a broader pattern unfolding in underserved neighborhoods across the globe, from New York to San Francisco to Sydney, Australia. “You used to have an inner city that had been largely abandoned by affluent people, and the social structure was held by lower-income communities of color who built vibrant communities. Now you’re seeing an influx of people back to that.”

But the dynamic should not be regarded as inevitable. “One thing that gets left by the wayside in discussions of gentrification is that people talk about it like it’s natural—but it’s not,” Strathmann said. “South L.A. was redlined for decades, which artificially depressed land prices, and now it’s ripe for gentrification because the developers can afford the land.”

A shirt on display at the South L.A.-based nonprofit Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE).

KATHERINE MCMAHON/ARTNEWS

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art won approval for its future home from the City of Los Angeles in the summer of 2017, after years of pushback from opponents in previously proposed sites in San Francisco and Chicago. When Lucas settled on L.A., Mayor Eric Garcetti rejoiced over the institution’s prospects as a jobs creator and called it a natural fit for the entertainment capital of the world. “I believed in the vision for the Lucas Museum, and we went after it with everything we have—because I know that L.A. is the ideal place for making sure that it touches the widest possible audience,” Garcetti said in a statement issued at the time.

But locals have expressed concerns over the likely influx of tourists to the area and increases in property values in the neighborhood. “I’m reluctant to watch Exposition Park be transmogrified to an entertainment destination,” Strathmann said. “We’re afraid that if you create an entertainment district without various displacement-prevention plans, you create gentrification pressures. I was happy to support the application, but there was all this talk about how the museum was going to [lead to] great community benefits, and I kept saying, ‘What about the short-term rentals?’ ” Though the onus falls mostly on the city, Strathmann said she would like to see the museum, which its founder, the famed filmmaker George Lucas, has promised to endow with at least $400 million, “make a commitment to being supportive of the neighborhoods and help protect them against displacement.”

Judy Kim, the Lucas Museum’s deputy director, said the institution will positively affect the city’s economy in part by way of a commitment to hiring from within the local community. Construction alone, for which the museum has hosted career fairs targeted to Exposition Park residents, calls—directly and indirectly—for 6,000 total jobs and more than $400 million in labor income, and when the museum opens, Kim estimates it will be the source of more than 1,400 jobs and more than $70 million in labor income. The location for the museum, she said, was not selected without thought or strategy. “We chose the site at Exposition Park because we wanted to be where we could have the deepest and widest impact. Exposition Park is surrounded by more than 100 schools and is in the heart of the South Los Angeles Promise Zone,” she said.

In 2016 the federal government designated several South L.A. neighborhoods, including Exposition Park, as a “Promise Zone.” The status prioritized the area for federal grants and other funding opportunities aimed at reducing poverty and increasing financial resources in the community. At the time, the city described South L.A. as an area with an aggregated poverty rate of 45 percent—roughly triple the national average—and a high school dropout rate of nearly 50 percent.

Even so, Exposition Park is “a magnet for education and culture,” Kim said, with Lucas’s alma mater, the University of Southern California, as well as institutions such as the California Science Center, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and the California African American Museum all within blocks of each other. “We strive to be an active and dynamic member of our community, one that will be a hub and a gathering place for our neighbors and guests alike,” Kim said.

Because Exposition Park has long been home to a cluster of cultural and educational institutions, Todd Gray, an artist from South L.A., said he doesn’t anticipate the Lucas Museum will be a driver of gentrification. “USC is a juggernaut of money,” he said of the university whose donors include Lucas as well as filmmakers such as Ridley Scott and Jay Roach, and music industry titans like Jimmy Iovine and Andrew Young, otherwise known as Dr. Dre. “I can’t see any further development having more of an impact.”

An aerial plan for the George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Exposition Park.

COURTESY LUCAS MUSEUM

And at least one of the museum’s neighbors sees the Lucas Museum as a boon to the art scene in the area. “Honestly, we see it as a benefit, and we’re excited to have new neighbors, with the Lucas Museum and with LACMA expanding into different parts of the city,” said Naima J. Keith, deputy director and chief curator at the California African American Museum. “We’re just one museum, and we’re small in terms of staff members and exhibition footprint [compared with] what the Lucas Museum and the expansion of LACMA will provide. We definitely don’t see it as competition in any way. We’re already talking about partnership opportunities.” The Lucas Museum, Keith said, already reached out to CAAM with an offer to lend works from its collection, and Lucas-owned pieces by Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kadir Nelson are currently on view in the CAAM exhibition “The Notion of Family” running into March 2019.

New museums and cultural institutions in South L.A. might look to the Underground Museum, located in a working-class neighborhood just north of West Adams, on the other side of the 10 Freeway, as a model for community outreach and programming. Cofounded in 2012 by sculptor Karon Davis and her late husband, the painter Noah Davis, the Underground Museum has strived to draw visitors who live in the area and might not have access to or feel welcome at other museums in the city. “When I’ve gone to the Underground and seen the offerings of yoga and programs for well-being,” Gray said, “it’s being mindful of creating a program that benefits all the residents in the area. It looks first at who’s around and how [it] can help growth.”

At a recent Deana Lawson exhibition at the Underground Museum, Gray said, “I could see pride as people looked at some of these portraits of spaces that were clearly working-class and taking pride in those bodies reflecting back to them people who looked like themselves. They could see their reflection and ownership. It’s nice to be in your neighborhood to have a cultural experience and not have to go all the way to the Getty or all the way out to see shows.”
Keith, from CAAM, agreed. “Since its founding, the Underground Museum has become one of the most significant cultural institutions in the city,” she said. “Through their exhibitions and programs, they thoughtfully take on what it means to believe in the power and the possibility of diversity and inclusion in our cultural world. They are definitely a vital part of the ecosystem of museums and arts organizations in Los Angeles.”

The Underground Museum declined to comment on changes in South L.A. and its surroundings, writing in an email that focusing on such a subject plays into “creating media hype, community polarization, and encouraging real estate speculation to our area.”

Michael Govan photographed at LACMA in September 2018.

KATHERINE MCMAHON/ARTNEWS

Michael Govan, LACMA’s director and the mastermind of its South L.A. expansion, hopes the museum’s two planned satellite locations can become anchors for culture in their surrounding communities. While parts of Exposition Park are already rich with cultural institutions, many of the neighborhoods just south of it “are far from any kind of civic cultural infrastructure—there are no museums and no universities in those areas,” Govan said of an attempt on LACMA’s part to fill a particular kind of cultural void. He says the forthcoming campuses in South Los Angeles Wetlands Park and Earvin “Magic” Johnson Park are part of LACMA’s broader mission for outreach into underserved parts of Los Angeles County, including those in the San Fernando Valley and MacArthur Park.

“It’s part of a singular focus on the idea of how we can make our collections and programs more relevant and accessible to all of L.A. County,” Govan said. “We know that not everybody gets to the main campus—we know the ZIP Codes that don’t go.” To counter that, the museum plans to develop a high school internship program at its South L.A. locations, plus fellowships for college students and a diversity-focused jobs program, Govan said. His vision is to establish a pipeline through which a child from South L.A. can walk into a museum, develop an appreciation for art, and “get four years of museum experience with a graduate degree and maybe end up as a director or curator.” Govan stressed that the decision to move to South L.A. was years in the making and involved a great deal of thinking and planning ways to help make the move make sense.

But the acquisition of property, no matter the owner’s intentions, can provoke ire from communities concerned by rising prices and changing demographics all across L.A. Such was the case last year when some residents in Leimert Park, a historically middle-class African-American neighborhood southwest of West Adams, suspected that artist Mark Bradford had been covertly buying up real estate to expand Art + Practice, the exhibition and programming space he opened in the area in 2015. Since related property records identified an LLC rather than Bradford’s own name, there were “community members who assumed the worst: that here was this developer coming in and moving businesses out,” said Gray, who grew up in South L.A. and now lives and works in Leimert Park.

Ben Caldwell, an ethnographic filmmaker and a longtime Leimert Park resident who founded the Leimert Park Art Walk, said there’s a misconception around the properties owned by Art + Practice. “There’s a kind of confusion with what money is in our community, because part of what has happened historically is that we have something good and then the Europeans come and take it away,” he said. “That’s a fear people are having—that it’s going to be taken away.”

Caldwell, who mentored Bradford at the California Institute of the Arts, where he still teaches, praised Art + Practice’s engagement by way of art programming as well as cafés and educational facilities. “They’re wanting to introduce their neighborhood to the black arts, because a lot of black Americans don’t know how well black artists are doing,” he said. “Mark Bradford’s paintings—nobody around the neighborhood can even understand the work, but the rest of the world does. That’s the quandary they’re in.”

Gray, like Caldwell, believes the backlash over Art + Practice, a nonprofit organization supported in part by the Hammer Museum as part of its initiative to create arts programming in South L.A., was unwarranted, considering all the cultural and social benefits it provides. “There’s a place for foster children to have services, there’s a place where kids learn on the computer and get skills, and there are all these direct social benefits,” said Gray.

Seeing the way that some in the community reacted to Art + Practice, as if it were a big outsider institution rather than a community-oriented art center, made Gray leery of advertising his own property in the same neighborhood: a formerly vacant building that he and his wife, artist Kyungmi Shin, gutted and remodeled into live/work spaces for early and mid-career artists. The building quietly opened last year with seven units, all now occupied. Shin and Gray have tried to keep monthly rents affordable, with nearly all under $1,500.

“It was a gut check,” Gray said of his thinking as to what young artists would be able to afford after college. His residents include a recent graduate of the Art Center College of Design and a professor at the University of California, San Diego. His investment, however, has paid off so far in terms of building community more than profit. Gray said he and Shin are barely breaking even because of the high cost of running such an operation. “I can see it’s a challenge keeping things affordable in this city—a real challenge.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 76 under the title “Southward Bound.”

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