Art + Practice: Connecting Past and Future in Leimert Park

Charles Gaines: Librettos: Manuel de Falla/ Stokely Carmichael at Art + Practice

Outside the pristine white warehouse that houses Art + Practice is a lively street filled with chatter and laughter. Inside, stillness: the silent scores of Charles Gaines' solemn "Librettos: Manuel de Falla/Stokely Carmichael." At first glance, the white cube gallery seems far removed from the vibrant neighborhood in which it sits. Anticipating a community center, one instead finds a museum. The Gaines show is programmed by the Hammer Museum as a complement to the L.A.-based artist's retrospective "Gridwork: 1974-1989" and installed as impeccably as its pedigree would indicate. Yet the values that underpin Art + Practice are not those of a typical art museum, in which silent reflection in the company of objects is generally of primary importance while audience engagement is a secondary, if growing, priority. Flipping this equation, Art + Practice foregrounds social welfare services while preserving a space for quiet contemplation that many of its constituents are rarely able to access. This combination presents uncommon advantages as well as challenges, positioning the organization to serve two very different constituencies with potentially complementary, but also conflicting, needs and expectations.

Art + Practice is a non-profit launched by celebrated artist and MacArthur fellow Mark Bradford with partners, social activist Allan diCastro and collector and philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton, in Leimert Park. The new space joins neighbors Papillion Art, The World Stage, KAOS Network, and Eso Won Books (soon to relocate to a space within Art + Practice) within the arts corridor along Degnan and Leimert Boulevards. This is one of Los Angeles' most compelling and long-established arts enclaves, representing the spectrum of performing, cinematic, literary, and visual arts. Says diCastro, Art + Practice's Interim Executive Director, "we are dovetailing into an already existing history of cultural variety." Spaces with a quarter-century of history in the neighborhood intersperse with new arrivals bearing a post-conceptual aesthetic. "In order to change things and be a part of the conversation, you have to take a vested interest in the neighborhood," explains Bradford in the catalogue that accompanied Art + Practice's recent launch. "You have to be present in the community." Through both its architecture and its programming, Art + Practice reflects the shifting concerns of Leimert Park's long-established Black community as the neighborhood responds to economic and social changes and prepares for still more. The pending arrival of the Crenshaw/LAX Metro in 2019 has many residents anticipating sweeping changes as the close-knit and somewhat isolated local community expands to accommodate an influx of newcomers. At the same time, local artists and activists are working to ensure that the established cultural character of the neighborhood is not lost as so often happens when ethnic strongholds become desirable real estate.

Workshop for transitional foster youth at RightWay Foundation
Workshop for transitional foster youth at RightWay Foundation

Art + Practice is not the first socially-minded contemporary art venue to open in a historically Black community with aspirations to connect under-served audiences with post-conceptual art practices. A leader in this space is Rick Lowe, whose Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas, has served as a model for how to equitably and sustainably promote social change through the arts for over 20 years. Lowe is a member of Art + Practice's Board of Trustees along with prominent leaders from museum, entertainment, and social activism backgrounds. Others who have followed Lowe's lead include Theaster Gates' Rebuild Foundation in Chicago and Edgar Arceneaux's Watts House Project in Los Angeles. DiCastro calls these precedents "definitely inspirational," adding, "Anytime you extend a hand in a community it is to be applauded." Considering how Art + Practice is likely to draw affluent art audiences to the under-resourced neighborhood of Leimert Park, he states, "I would say the risks, if any, are far outweighed by the rewards of bringing another layer of culture into the area."

Foster youth representing RightWay Foundation at South Lost Angeles Transitional Age Youth & Foster Care Service Collaborative
Foster youth representing RightWay Foundation at South Lost Angeles Transitional Age Youth & Foster Care Service Collaborative

Art + Practice demonstrates a commitment to the needs of Leimert Park's residents by hosting non-profit social welfare organization, The RightWay Foundation, within its space. "RightWay Foundation has a large potential benefit, as a social organization" housed at Art + Practice, "because it is specifically located within a zip code (90008) that has an enormous foster youth population," explains diCastro. Adds Bradford in the catalogue, "I believe contemporary artists have a lot of great ideas, but unlike those working in the field of social service they don't always apply those ideas directly. Art + Practice aspires to be a space where the social aspect of art - the practice of it - puts the art into a context of action." RightWay works with youth in the foster care system to instill self-esteem along with practical skills, targeting a vulnerable population who are over-represented in historically Black communities like Leimert Park as a consequence of devastating policies around drug use and incarceration. Connection with an arts public has been valuable for RightWay, as Director of Programs, Andraya Slyter describes: "Being housed within an arts institution has exposed the art community and patrons of the arts to the experiences and needs of Transitional Age Foster Youth and has evoked a strong desire in these individuals to assist the RightWay Foundation [to] carry out its mission and vision by serving in various capacities (volunteers, mentors)." RightWay's facilities include a large classroom space and a computer lab, as well as free access to Art + Practice's exhibition and artist in residence programs. Says Slyter, "Exposure to the arts diversifies and enriches our youths' experiences and interests. Although some of our youth have been involved in the arts, they find it necessary to shift focus from their interests to their basic needs due to homelessness, unemployment, and mental health instability." In response, "The RightWay Foundation can assist them with meeting their social and emotional needs while they are given opportunities to explore their interests through the arts. Art can also be used as a therapeutic tool to explore and share their experiences." RightWay clients also benefit from technological tools developed by artists through Art + Practice to address issues endemic to foster youth, such as disconnection from siblings and family members, in a direct way. The organization's residency is in effect through 2016.

Charles Gaines: Librettos: Manuel de Falla/ Stokely Carmichael at Art + Practiceg
Charles Gaines: Librettos: Manuel de Falla/ Stokely Carmichael at Art + Practice

Exhibition programming at Art + Practice is overseen by the Hammer Museum, another program partner through 2016. The inaugural installation by renowned artist and educator Charles Gaines is both historically and politically charged.

"The Hammer and Art + Practice decided that Charles would be an ideal artist to launch the exhibition program at Art + Practice because of our respect and admiration for his work, his role as a longtime educator and mentor to other artists, and his relationship with Mark Bradford, which started when Charles taught him at CalArts," explains Hammer Senior Curator Anne Ellegood, who organized the Gaines retrospective currently on view at the Hammer and the exhibition at Art + Practice. Engaging themes of race and class consciousness, Gaines pairs the libretto of Manuel de Falla's "La Vida Breve (The Brief Life)" (c. 1904), the tragic tale of a young Gypsy woman whose love affair with a man of the upper class ends in her rejection and death, with a 1967 speech delivered by Black Panther and SNCC activist Stokely Carmichael, in which he challenges Black youth to value and respect their own cultural heritage instead of aspiring to white cultural values. The work is constructed of Plexiglas boxes with de Falla's score and libretto written on the surface, and Carmichael's text printed behind, such that the two disparate scripts play off one another visually. Though separated by language, continent, and context, both sources blend considerations of racial difference and discrimination with questions of class and social access, subjects likely to resonate with an audience of neighborhood residents and youth in the foster care system.

"Charles created 'Librettos' for the Art + Practice gallery," says Ellegood. As a site-specific work, it's quite a provocative response to its context. Gaines' choice to include de Falla's composition, which speaks to racial and economic segregation but also represents the European classical tradition, diverges from Carmichael's lament that "they teach 'em Bach, Vivaldi, Rachmaninoff, and all those other cats" but not Miles Davis, Mahalia Jackson, or Ray Charles. The work of Black contemporary artists is fraught with such contrasts, reflective of the pressures they face to represent their own cultural viewpoints while negotiating a system of recognition and reward that continues to treat white artists and white cultural touchstones preferentially.

Similarly, one wonders how Carmichael would respond to the white cube of the Art + Practice gallery, which recalls the architecture of mainstream art institutions more than that of the Black Arts Movement venues that have preceded its arrival in Leimert Park. Museums still maintain an appallingly poor record of engagement with minority audiences, especially Black ones. Art + Practice's own literature puts the percentage of minority "core visitors" to museums at 9 percent, meaning that the percentage of people of color who visit museums consistently is 13 percent lower than the percentage of minorities in the U.S. population on the whole. The American Alliance of Museums' 2010 report "Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums," from which Art + Practice's statistic is presumably cited, paints an even more dismal picture, indicating that as minority representation in the general population has increased, museum attendance by minorities has continued to decline. Not only are museums failing to attract new minority visitors as the population becomes more diverse -- they are failing to retain the minority visitors they already had, resulting in a much wider gap in representation within museum audiences than within the population as a whole. Asked about these numbers, diCastro states, "Only time may provide us all with more statistics to analyze these concerns."

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Ellegood expresses how her staff "recognize that minorities are under-represented as visitors to museums," and how they "were excited to collaborate with Art + Practice on an initiative with a goal to increase visitorship in these under-represented communities." She continues, "It was important to us and to Art + Practice that the gallery be free (as is the Hammer) and accessible, and we are all committed to presenting a program of exhibitions and public talks rich with diversity."

Some of those programs include artist residencies by artist and former Leimert Park gallerist Dale Brockman Davis, who showed celebrated Black artists including David Hammons and Senga Nengudi at the start of their careers, and Mexican-American painter Sandy Rodriguez, who will discuss her work about transformative and sometimes violent changes in Los Angeles in conversation with Angel's Gate Cultural Center curator and director of visual arts, Isabelle Lutterodt, at Art + Practice on March 18 at 7:30 pm. An upcoming exhibition later this spring will highlight the work of these artists along with a third L.A.-based resident artist, Pakistani-born sculptor Aalia Brown. In the fall, Art + Practice will present the work of Nigerian-born, L.A.-based figurative painter Njikdeka Akunyili Crosby, followed by a retrospective of pioneering assemblage sculptor and Watts Towers Art Center founder John Outterbridge in December.

In addition to its focus on social activism, Art + Practice also aspires to be a platform for the creation and presentation of new works of art. According to Ellegood, "Exhibitions at Art + Practice will generally (although not necessarily exclusively) include new work by artists." Being situated on the site of Bradford's former studio and his mother's former hair salon, Art + Practice inherits a legacy of artistic creation as well as social cohesion from these two preceding venues. The inclusion of an artist in residence program further advances that promise of creation, as well as allowing the youth and community members whom Art + Practice aspires to serve access to working artists and to the creative process. Such exposure promises to open up a world of inspiration to a population too often expected to prioritize survival over imagination. It can be hoped as well that art-savvy audiences who make the trip to Leimert Park to appreciate Art + Practice's innovative programming also come to recognize the rich cultural resources that precede its arrival in the neighborhood.


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