#art #community #development #displacement #gentrification #Los Angeles
What is required for art and social justice to coexist within the development of a city? In February, the activist collective known as Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) made headlines for their picket of gallery 356 S. Mission Road, which occurred during a political organizing meeting called by a group of Los Angeles artists. And earlier in March, Boyle Heights nonprofit art gallery PSSST, which had been the primary target of anti-gentrification protests from BHAAAD, announced their impending closure. BHAAAD has been ardent in their opposition to “artwashing,” which they define as “the role of culture in gentrification,” and both PSSST and BHAAAD cite the protests as part of the reason for the closure. But BHAAAD’s victory is a Pyrrhic one so long as luxury developers and blue-chip art galleries continue to drive the development agenda in downtown LA and the LA River. With respect to priorities such as affordable rent and community investment, what would victory against the galleries mean for the coalition?
Though catch-all terms such as “gentrification” and “artwashing” tend to frame the argument in simplified terms, the reality is more complicated. PSSST’s founders—Cal Arts MFAs, queer and trans-identified—opened the gallery’s doors in spring 2016 in a space donated by a developer with investments in the neighborhood. East Third Street is mostly industrial, with minimal residential housing, but the neighborhood as a whole is mixed. Historically, Boyle Heights has been an ethnically diverse enclave for Jewish communities in the mid-20th century and Latinx communities in recent decades. PSSST was offered as a site “to create and maintain an artistic community founded on the principle of artists supporting artists” and to focus on “underrepresented artists—women, people of color, LGBTQ-identified.” But according to a statement on the BHAAAD website, “One of the red flags about PSSST was the deep contradiction between the language used to promote the space, and the actual impact that such a space can have on the housing market and on the life of a very low-income community living in constant resistance against displacement.” The contrast between PSSST, housed in a donated and newly outfitted space, and the maintenance failures, rent hikes, and legally questionable evictions that threaten local residents was stark.
The donation of space by a developer, even to a progressive arts center, was not viewed as an investment in the local community; many local residents perceived of PSSST as a facade for a nefarious entity. The developer’s insistence on remaining anonymous and opaque to the public throughout the year has kept the flames of opposition alive, and continues to taint the organization’s founders with the charge of artwashing. However, some observers questioned whether nonprofit, community-minded institutions were the most productive focus for vehement political opposition. Opposition to PSSST, while highly visible (perhaps more so than a nascent nonprofit should warrant), was not uniform. There were a number of queer artists of color, including some longtime Boyle Heights residents, who participated in PSSST programming and argued that the organizers should be taken at their community-oriented word rather than their development-enabled deed. Other artists in the community were also alienated by BHAAAD’s criticism of the venerated Self-Help Graphics in July; there are many who credit SHG with crucial early support of their careers. Having taken the position that artists are not causes of gentrification but some of its earliest victims—a position supported by at least one study—SHG found its position as a cultural touchstone of the Boyle Heights community challenged and its fundraising relationships scrutinized.
Political controversy makes potential donors skittish. Announcing their closure this month, PSSST’s founders lamented that “the ongoing controversy surrounding art and gentrification in Boyle Heights caused PSSST to become so contested that we are unable to ethically and financially proceed with our mission.” According to both PSSST and BHAAAD, the protests caused the gallery to lose funding; anxiety over the professionalization of queer and community-based culture, represented by MFA-minted artists who appeared to overlook preexisting queer community spaces, may also have played a role. Based on my own experience running and fundraising for artist-founded nonprofits, though, I question whether a setup like PSSST’s was likely to endure, even under less polemic circumstances.
Even without opposition, PSSST opened too big, too fast. Comparable LA institutions such as Clockshop and the Underground Museum began slowly as artists’ live-work spaces, and developed programming and facility upgrades only once a rapport had been established with the neighborhood, and an appropriate sense of scale. Nonprofit fundraising is fraught, and operating expenses like rent, employee salaries, utilities, and insurance are difficult to underwrite through donations. While PSSST’s twenty-year lease on the property was at no cost, the commitment would prove meaningful only if the founders could secure funding sufficient to carry the nonprofit through years of programming and overhead. For an LA-based nonprofit with two or three part-time staff and overhead, a conservative estimate for the first year would be $50,000 in committed funds. That figure also presumes that key players, such as the founders, could continue to work without paid compensation indefinitely. To open without cash reserves or a year’s expenses already committed was a risky proposition. Additionally, many program funders expect up to three years of programming from an institution before they are willing to make an investment. The friction prompted by BHAAAD’s protests drained energy from the gallery’s allies, which in turn shortened the timeline the gallery had to make its way into the black. In response to the backlash, PSSST tried to ramp down its ambitions quickly, which only ensured its demise.
The closure of nonprofit PSSST may be a victory for BHAAAD, yet resistance to commercial galleries has been less consistent. 356 S. Mission Road, an artist-run space underwritten by New York dealer Gavin Brown, was targeted for protest only when artists chose to use the site for political organizing, and some smaller galleries including Nicodim and Museum as Retail Space were targeted aggressively in the fall with protests during an opening and provocative graffiti after-hours, but for the most part business has gone on as usual for the galleries trying to bring the Downtown Arts District across the river. The focus of BHAAAD’s attention has been on instances where artists claim progressive or intersectional political values that they may not fully espouse in practice. By contrast, unapologetic, big-ticket commercial galleries imported from New York and Europe (like Hauser & Wirth or Maccarone) experience relatively little blowback despite their outsize role in promoting these LA neighborhoods as international luxury destinations.
Growth is often booming, but in a haphazard fashion, and Los Angeles is evocative of emerging market capitals around the globe in that it is both critically underdeveloped and rapidly overdeveloping at the same time. Underdevelopment means poor infrastructure, low density, homelessness, and underfunded cultural institutions. Overdevelopment threatens to drive out all but the largest corporate interests for housing as well as the arts. Measure S, a recent citywide initiative backed by many in the BHAAAD coalition, failed to impose a building moratorium on large-scale development projects in Los Angeles, and is being taken as a sign that LA residents are ready for increased density. That density being long overdue, it is unlikely to be accomplished quickly without big developers. In the arts, Downtown’s development boom has brought not only galleries but also new private museums steeped in lavish wealth. The collections of these vanity institutions are unlikely to provide a view of contemporary art that reflects the cultural makeup or the social values of LA’s broader population. How then can BHAAAD use this visibility, and this victory, to inform decision-making and ensure a future in which low-income people have access to housing and the arts in a newly dense LA? If LA is to live up to its potential as America’s most future-forward city, wealth cannot be the only factor that sets the city’s agenda for shelter or for culture.
#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.
 From the statement on the PSSST website, accessed 15 March 2017 at http://www.pssst.xyz/.