18th Street Arts Center Turns 25

Svetlana Darsalia, performance at Crazyspace, 2003 | Courtesy of the artist

In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

In October, 18th Street Arts Center celebrates a quarter-century of service to the artists of Los Angeles. 18th Street's origins reflect a turbulent time when the mainstream of art and culture was being called into question for exclusionary tendencies and an attraction to the ever-present lure of money. Founders Susanna Bixby Dakin and Linda Frye Burnham sought to create a non-profit that would serve the needs of Los Angeles artists directly by offering studio space, opportunities to exhibit and perform, and a community of peers. They developed a home for artists operating on the edges of artistic practice and social visibility. Time seems to flow in cycles, and so on the eve of 18th Street's 25th anniversary, we meet again at a crossroads: one path illuminated by the hot flame of the avant-garde and DIY traditions of Los Angeles; the other by the cool, neon glow of the global contemporary art market. As 18th Street prepares to celebrate with a benefit on Saturday October 25 and the annual Beer, Art, and Music festival on Sunday October 26, the institution looks back on its beginnings and its role in the development of Los Angeles as an international art destination since 1989.

Writing in "The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism" in 1990, Burnham recalled how in the mid-1980s, "I was fed up with the art world entirely." She recounts that her reconciliation with art was brought about through the work of John Malpede and Los Angeles Poverty Department, a collective whose performances created with and for the inhabitants of Skid Row continue to liberate art from its baser concerns and refocus it on issues of importance -- poverty, incarceration, addiction, and human rights. Malpede and partner Henriëtte Brouwers, who have called 18th Street home for the past several years, have recently been acknowledged for their radically accessible artistic practice with a retrospective exhibition, "Do you want the cosmetic version or do you want the real deal?" Los Angeles Poverty Department 1985-2014 at the Queens Museum, which called the collective "an uncompromising force in performance and urban advocacy for almost 30 years." In addition to creating transformative art, LAPD has helped to transform policy by working tirelessly on behalf of downtown L.A.'s poorest citizens, who lack access to basic utilities and services.

 Los Angeles Poverty Department & WUNDERBAUM, "Hospital," 2013-2014, performance | Courtesy of Los Angeles Poverty Department, photo by Steve Gunter
Los Angeles Poverty Department & WUNDERBAUM, "Hospital," 2013-2014, performance | Courtesy of Los Angeles Poverty Department, photo by Steve Gunter

18th Street has been and remains at the center of the emerging discipline of public practice. Like Malpede, Suzanne Lacy was engaging in these disciplines since before they had names and reading lists. She situated the Otis Graduate Public Practice program, which she founded, at 18th Street because of these connections. With Leslie Labowitz-Starus, she created "The Performing Archive" at 18th Street, which traveled to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and the Haus der Kunst in Berlin, and which she describes as "an important exchange" in which "young women artists...encounter an extensive paper and image archive of feminist performance art." Artists like Malpede and Lacy don't approach art as a way to express individual experiences or emotional responses to an audience. Instead, they facilitate interactions or mine archives to address a subject from a more collectivist perspective. For them, art is a way of speaking out against injustices such that citizens, media, and even public officials can be motivated to act; however the way in which art expresses its politics is shaped by realities understood both individually and within a community through poetic and aesthetic forms.

Such an approach to art as a force for social action rather than private contemplation marks a significant art historical shift which many scholars attribute to a global shift in social and economic thinking in the year 1989. With the fall of Communism and the rise of developing markets, this period signaled a re-centering of culture and capital away from the magnetic poles of the United States and Western Europe toward emerging economies in Asia, central Europe, Latin America, and the Arabian Peninsula. It seems fitting that 18th Street would be born of this era; likewise that it would grow from an institution focused largely on the needs of artists local to Los Angeles into one that would integrate the concerns of the region's artists with a variety of international perspectives. Some artists who visited 18th Street have since gone on to major artistic recognition, such as UK-born Phil Collins, a video artist now based in Berlin whose topical works combine documentary techniques with an artist's speculative imagination. Shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2006, Collins was described as "instigating unpredictable situations [which] encourages people to reveal their individuality, making the personal public with sensitivity and generosity."

Susanna Bixby Dakin, "An Artist For President," 1984, publicity still, | Courtesy of the artist
Susanna Bixby Dakin, "An Artist For President," 1984, publicity still, | Courtesy of the artist   

The international visiting artist program which began in 1993 with a single artist from Australia has since grown to serve over 400 artists from 50 countries. Artists have come from as far away as Nepal, home of painter Hitman Gurung, whose work confronts social issues such as economic migration and urban pollution. Visiting artists have gone on to have exhibitions in Los Angeles, some even to relocate here. As Marius Engh, an artist in residence from Norway who attended in 2013, explained, "I will definitely come back to L.A. for the relationships I made, making friends and [meeting] former friends from L.A. [...] I enjoy the setting, the friendliness, and good times in the sun." His comments are deceptively casual, reflecting the city's art scene, which conducts serious business in a relaxed manner that international artists frequently acknowledge as an unusual and highly favorable attribute of Los Angeles compared with other major art centers. In keeping with the concern that has always been central to 18th Street's existence, the international visiting artist program has also served the needs of Los Angeles artists by initiating contact with a global community -- one which has come to recognize the city as a worldwide hub for contemporary art practice in the intervening two decades.

18th Street Arts Center has never operated primarily as a gallery, but exhibition programs have played an ongoing role in the institution's history. Early exhibition programs such as Crazyspace, created by Asher Lauren Hartman, were run guerilla style with an expansive, anything-goes approach. Artist Rochelle Fabb recalls of her time as a member of the Crazyspace curatorial collective, "The only rule I knew of was that you could do whatever you wanted, as long as you returned the space to its original condition when your creative work was finished." She describes an "ultimate endgame, [where] time was extended, emotions and senses heightened, events unreal, and you knew you would be changed somehow, if not a better person, once you had emerged as the audience participant." Important exhibitions in 18th Street's main gallery have included the first showing in southern California, in 2004, of Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones' historic documentary photographs of the Black Panthers from 1968, and Richard Newton's "Have You Seen My Privacy?" in 2011, which anticipated the selfie-surveillance economy of social media and smart phones through performances and interventions in the exhibition space. "Postcards from Tehran," also in 2011, brought the work of Iranian artists never before seen in Los Angeles to exhibit with the work of California-based artists of Iranian descent, at some risk to the curator and certain participating artists, and at a time of historic importance for that country.

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Since 2012, the Artist Lab Residency has utilized 18th Street's gallery as a working studio for Los Angeles artists to develop commissioned new bodies of work while revealing their processes of creation to an audience during visiting hours. Recent Artist Lab Residents have organized performances, panel discussions, and performative lectures that further contextualize the artists' research interests and approaches to art-making in dialogue with the public. Artist Lab residents have included Michelle Dizon, Eamon Ore-Giron, Adriá Juliá, and Patricia Fernández, each representing a unique perspective on artistic process and research. Additional exhibitions in the Atrium Gallery feature visiting and local artists in residence, as well as emerging artists from Los Angeles and the wider world.


18th Street Arts Center recognizes its evolution with a program of performances featuring Barbara T. Smith, Dan Kwong, Marcus Kuiland-Nazario, Phranc, Angel Luis Figueroa and Los Tres Caballeros, and DJ Ofunne, along with a benefit art sale featuring over 40 alumni artists and a presentation by Highways Performance Space, on Saturday October 25 from 6-10 pm. On Sunday October 26 from 1-5 pm, the celebration continues with the 5th Annual Beer, Art, and Music Festival featuring over 40 craft breweries, with music by KoTolán, Nick Shattuck, Trapdoor Social, and DJ Shayn Almeida. All event proceeds benefit 18th Street Arts Center's public programs.This event marks a milestone but more importantly it represents an opportunity to see this vital, stable, and groundbreaking institution into the next quarter-century. Turbulent times are when we need art the most, and ever more rapid changes lie ahead.


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