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Integrating Arts and Culture into LA River Revitalization, 10 Feet at a Time

This L.A. River article is part of a donation matching challenge grant supported by Newman's Own Foundation. Learn more about the L.A. River and a special thank-you gift of an original handcrafted mosaic necklace that commemorates the river.
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The Los Angeles River has long been a magnet for creative spirits. Even as it lay derelict from neglect, artists have found inspiration in it. In his master's thesis, Culture in Concrete: Art and the Re-imagination of the Los Angeles River as Civic Space, researcher John Arroyo came to the conclusion that "a space like the Los Angeles River, despite the many negative connotations associated with it, has the potential to be the civic space Los Angeles has long dreamed of, but never achieved."

Even before pocket parks and master plans for revitalization, Arroyo's thesis has proven true. The river and its sometimes-flowing waters has been a canvas for artists--whether it be graffiti artists, creatives with a political message, or interventions that promote play in the Los Angeles River.

Despite this plethora of interventions on the river, there has never been an impetus to integrate arts and culture into Los Angeles River revitalization.

"The Sixth Street Viaduct for example has its own public art projects, but it is its own individual thing. It's very L.A. in a way, everyone's out for their own success," said landscape architect Esther Margulies, who has worked on award-winning planning and design projects such as the Baldwin Hills Park master plan and the Vista Hermosa Park. She also co-chaired the first American Society of Landscape Architects design charette engaging the Los Angeles River in 1997.

A proposed series of art interventions along the Arroyo Seco and Los Angeles River banks by artist Alicia Gomez Jimenez
A proposed series of art interventions along the Arroyo Seco and Los Angeles River banks by artist Alicia Gomez Jimenez

There was a plan to create an agency, said Margulies, "the City's adopted 2007 L.A. River Master Plan included specific recommendations for the development of a framework and multi-jurisdictional program to develop arts and culture guidelines and implementation. The plan identified potential funding sources, but they were very limited." Like many things in the master plan, much of it has yet to be realized.

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Now, as the $1.3-billion habitat restoration plan is making its way through rounds of approvals, Margulies is questioning whether arts and culture will be addressed. "We believe that arts and culture should be integrated as part of the essential multi-benefit infrastructure of River projects. It is depressing to think that a bridge or freeway is considered to need cosmetic art to make it palatable to the public, but green infrastructure does not get the same attention."

In response, Margulies and three other colleagues have decided to take action, seeding the way for arts and culture to be incorporated into long-term Los Angeles River projects. Margulies, architects Elaine Rene-Weissman and Tom Marble, and graphic designer Molly Renda have banded together to form the L.A. River Public Art Project. "Each individual project determines its own approach to art on the river, without communication and coordination with other things going on," said Margulies.

The L.A. River Public Art Project is a fledgling organization, still working on its non-profit status, but already its members have done their homework. Since banding together to iron out a proposal for Goldhirsh Foundation's L.A. 2050 grant program, the team reached out and met with arts and river organizations along the Los Angeles River.

Again and again, they found organizations that were enthusiastic about the L.A. River Public Art Project's vision. "We found that nobody else was looking at the river more comprehensively in terms of coordinating arts and culture. Most can barely match their resources to their programming," said Marguiles. Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) similarly expressed their support for L.A. River Public Art Project's mission. FoLAR began as an artistic endeavor, though its core mission has evolved beyond the purely creative.

Knowing the river isn't just one man's vision, the L.A. River Public Art Project is hoping to incorporate as many views as possible when working on its plans. "We see our role as advocates, as a resource for people to help coordinate the various parties," said Margulies. "We want to have everyone communicating to arrive at a vision that will serve everyone instead of everyone doing their own independent project without communication."

LA River Public Arts Project's first foray into the public eye is coming October 10, Saturday (event details in Spanish). Simply called "Ten Feet," the one-day project pairs five artists with five ten-foot sites along the Los Angeles River.

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Funded by a modest seed grant from the Baldessari Family Foundation, and their personal funds, plus donations from an IndieGoGo campaign, the installations aim to showcase how much can be done with just ten feet of space, exactly the buffer for riverfront property improvements the city adopted.

The LA-RIO ordinance requires property along the river to dedicate ten feet as river-friendly buffer space that essentially becomes public space for the river. If every property owner voluntarily complied with the ordinance, Margulies estimates that the city could gain over three million square feet of river-friendly space. "That's the equivalent of about 75 acres of potentially permeable multi-beneficial area to be enjoyed at the edges of our City's longest, largest linear open space."

Margulies says to expect installations by emerging artists, art classes at the Elysian Valley Arts Collective. Think newly planted pollinator gardens that create spaces for bees, butterflies, birds in the city's landscape; temporary murals; and even choral performances. "Ten Feet" is simply a demonstration project for the L.A. River Public Art Project. With these five installations and accompanying events, the group hopes to prove that there is a place and value for art, which can enhance the vibrancy of the burgeoning Los Angeles River.

In the long run, the group hopes to be the first-stop for all the artistic undertakings on the river in the hopes of building a holistic, artistic Los Angles River, which speaks of everyone's aspirations for this historic waterway.

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