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Is L.A. the Creative or Anti-Creative City?

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Los Angeles skyline.
Los Angeles skyline.

In Partnership with SOC(i)AL: Art + People A series of discussions around LA about Socially Engaged Art, September to November 2012. Instigated by Anne Bray of

As a writer, arts organizer, and culture worker interested in socially-engaged art, I am excited to participate in SOC(i)AL: Art + People. There is a regrettable lack of informative art writing about socially-engaged art practices, largely because engaging the many stakeholders in complex reflection and documentation is exceedingly difficult. Yet through SOC(i)AL, we clearly see that this work bleeds into many fields.

The kick-off event, Is L.A. the Creative or Anti-Creative City?, is a conversation between Sarah Schrank, professor of history at Cal State Long Beach, and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy, moderated by David Sloane, professor of public policy at USC, on Tuesday, September 18. Professors Schrank and Currid-Halkett are concerned with measuring the effect of cultural economies, artists, land development and cultural institutions on the shape of Los Angeles and other cities, one from a historical perspective and one focused on policy and planning. My interview with them reveals both tired stereotypes and surprising realities about the L.A. art scene and the true value of art.

Sue Bell Yank: What was the impetus behind the organization of this event and what do you hope to get out of this discussion?

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: My colleague David Sloane and his partner Anne Bray are really the brains behind organizing this conversation.  David cares passionately about community development and Anne is a fantastic and gifted artist who has been very involved in public art and art awareness in Los Angeles.

Sarah Schrank: My hunch is that in the wake of the Getty "Pacific Standard Time" initiative, as well as the current press surrounding the beleaguered Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the opening of Grand Park, urbanists and art administrators alike have a new interest in examining Los Angeles' art and civc culture. I've been studying Los Angeles' fraught art politics for the past fifteen years during which time the city's art world has changed--in some respects, rather dramatically. I'm hoping the discussion on September 18 will highlight different ways (historical, urbanist, political, economic) of thinking about these changes.

Sue Bell Yank: Sarah, you said the L.A. art world was "fraught" and has changed much in the past 15 years. Can you give us a taste of what you think has been one of the most drastic shifts?

Sarah Schrank: The commercial art market here has grown astronomically with L.A. based artists fetching huge fees at auction and new gallery rows are attracting new buyers--Bergamot Station, Culver City, etc.; there are new, major players such as [Eli] Broad (from the 1980s forward) who have had an influence in expanding the museum world; the Getty's influence has grown since 1997 and even the Huntington has begun expanding its creative reach. Museum and galleries aren't the same, of course, but, in short, the private sector has grown.

Sue Bell Yank: The title of the event ("Is L.A. the Creative or Anti-Creative City?") seems to purposefully set up two oppositional views of Los Angeles. Why do you think L.A. might be perceived as both a rich creative environment and a place that stifles cultural economies?

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: Like all major metropolitan areas, L.A. constantly wrestles with increasing cost of living and real estate prices that comes with being a very desirable place to live. Paradoxically, those who make a city desirable to live in--artists, small, quirky businesses, creative workers who generate films, music and art--are the ones that often get pushed out in the very same moment that they are luring other businesses and people to locate here. This is a phenomenon observed most distinctly in New York City's Soho but can be seen everywhere from Venice Beach to Hoxton in the UK to Silverlake and Los Feliz.

The other unique aspect of L.A.'s creative economy is that it has very clear commercial element - the film industry, popular culture and the music business can all claim L.A. as their capital - and this type of creativity can often be derided as "selling out" or too mainstream and thus not as creative as some of the more bohemian and avant garde versions of artistic production as seen in gritty neighborhoods in Detroit, New York or London. I happen to totally disagree with such criticism. L.A.'s popular culture and commercial creative production enable artists and creative people more generally to generate meaningful income from their work and to share it with a broader audience, which are both commendable achievements.

Sue Bell Yank: In response to that, Elizabeth, how do you feel about the current debate raging in the art world over MOCA--that fundamental question of whether art should be more accessible to a broader public by embracing celebrity, pop, and street culture more fully in its institution, or whether the role of art is to be challenging and rigorous, but not necessarily popular?

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: In full disclosure, I count Jeffrey Deitch as a friend and he has been a tremendous source of knowledge for both of my books. So I have been a huge fan of him personally and of his approach towards the art world for quite some time. But from a purely objective perspective, MOCA has pushed a much more democratic approach towards art and has increased public awareness and garnered interest from people who don't normally go to art museums and galleries. Despite the criticism directed towards Jeffrey, let's not forget that his Art in the Streets exhibition was the most attended show in MOCA's history.

I think art should be both - people can still get Ph.D.'s in art history and spend hours in obscure parts of the Met but fundamentally if art is to get the respect and resources I feel it needs and deserves then it needs to generate a wider public and greater appreciation - which means making art more accessible to more people. Look, I have a Ph.D. in urban planning and there are parts of my work that are very removed from mainstream but efforts like the Atlantic Monthly's Cities blog or the New York Times' articles on general interest urbanity make cities a topic lots of people learn about and as a result more people care and are invested in making our cities better places. I feel this example draws a parallel with the art world - the more people are aware of the arts, the better the arts fare overall and the better for society.

Sarah Schrank: The question of whether or not Los Angeles is a creative or anti-creative city will likely be the heart of this conversation. On the one hand, there's no question that Los Angeles is one of the most culturally productive arenas in the United States, situated as it is as the movie-making capital of the word, and as a national center for music, television, and art education and production. I don't think too many would challenge this position. On the other hand, however, Los Angeles has a long history of censoring, neglecting, and mishandling art and artists. The reasons include Los Angeles' history of boosterism and self-congratulatory image-making and a real difficulty sustaining a broad-based public art program, among others. As a result, urban factors such as sprawl, which some artists in the 1950s and 1960s loved because it gave them room to work and cheap rent, also produced a disconnect between Angelenos and a sustainable concept of civic culture. Los Angeles, at one time, had one of the most progressive and expansive public art programs in the United States but it was dismantled in the late 1950s. It's never really been recreated.

Sue Bell Yank: What do you think it would take to start to reinstate a sustainable civic culture in L.A. today?

Sarah Schrank: A sustainable civic culture needs a sustainable public sphere. Huge infusions of private capital are fine but there needs to be a public-funded piece that is maintained and protected. This demands a larger public base and yes, tax dollars, which is what makes these things politically difficult, especially now. But a civic culture can't exist without a contributing public.

Sue Bell Yank: It seems that this conversation will focus on the value of art and artists to urban life--how do you frame the discussion around the broad spectrum of art's value to a community (especially considering the rise of socially-engaged practices) and not simply how cultural gentrification translates to dollars?

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: Art isn't just about money, though it's important that we don't forget how economically crucial it is to major cultural hubs like L.A.  Art provides a number of different contributions that transcend dollars.  First, people like to live around the amenities that art and artists generate. Live music, gallery openings, the buzz of creative people working in local cafes - these are all signs of vibrancy and interesting things going on and bankers, professors and any other number of people like to be around them.  Second, artists and art tend to be important in drawing visitors - people don't visit New York to look at law firms or Wall Street, they go to see the art in Chelsea and the theater on Broadway. Being able to attract people to a city keeps it vibrant and relevant across a global stage.  Finally, artists and their work tends to draw other businesses which is overall uplifting for a neighborhood's wellbeing. When artists start living and working in abandoned lofts, coffee shops open up and then bars. More than other occupations, artists tend to have second jobs - as waitresses, DJs, etc - and often their other jobs create other types of businesses, whether nightclubs or cafes for poetry reading.  These secondary effects of artists locating in neighborhoods make the neighborhood more livable for everyone and offers amenities that improve quality of life.

Sarah Schrank: I'm a cultural historian, not a realtor or a land developer, so for me the issue of art's value to a community is not how a gallery row pumps up housing prices. Gentrification is an effect of art's value being tied directly to property and the generating of surplus capital. It can make a neighborhood lovely to live in but by definition exclusionary. Instead, I'm more interested in how a creative presence (art center, museum, murals, art park, co-operative gallery, etc.) helps foster community ownership over a neighborhood that has not experienced gentrification but is an affordable place to live for the majority of urban residents. This stabilizes neighborhoods, attracts local business, and encourages civic participation even when people rent! Art is especially valuable when it encourages a strong sense of community and public ownership, uncoupling the relationship between art and private property.

Sue Bell Yank: If this is the case, how do we preserve the ability of artists and art spaces to continue to exist in dynamic but rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods rather than being priced out? Are there any examples of where this kind of cultural dynamism is preserved over time?

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: This is a tough question and a tough ongoing policy and urban planning conundrum. I'm not sure there is a definitive right answer. I have argued in my work that we need to protect artists by making sure that as they gentrify neighborhoods and make them more desirable for wider (and more affluent) populations that we need to figure out rent subsidies, rent control, artists' co-ops and so forth, along with helping them keep their galleries open and provide seed money for young creative entrepreneurs. All of these initiatives are necessary to help protect the creative capital and the artists who generate it. After all, the wealthy people who follow artists to Soho or Silverlake or Venice still want the art there - that's why they came. If these neighborhoods start filling up with chain stores and people just like them, well, then the neighborhoods won't be interesting anymore! The whole appeal of such neighborhoods is the artistic milieu and all that it brings. So I think the way in which we can protect artists is through protecting their real estate and their entrepreneurial endeavors. The classic example of this effort (and it was somewhat by accident) is Soho's Artists-in-Residence program that essentially allowed artists to live and work in the same space and the galleries followed and then other businesses but the artists stayed put. Even today Soho, despite the Chanel and H&M, remains a culturally significant neighborhood and I believe this is a result of preserving some of its original artistic milieu.

Sue Bell Yank: Sarah, in response to your description of a valuable and progressive public arts program, I am reminded of a common complaint among artists upon first entering the public realm--a frustration that content or decisions about public art are dumbed down and dictated by committee for fear they might offend or confuse "the community". Is protecting and valuing critical art and an autonomy of ideas mutually exclusive to promoting a sense of "community ownership?"

Sarah Schrank: It's unclear what's mutually exclusive. Communities are perfectly capable of engaging complicated art--is that what you mean?

Sue Bell Yank: I'm not in doubt of actual community capability to appreciate complex art, but the traditional process through which public art has been vetted in the past, by a committee of civic leaders, community representatives, artists, and developers, that MAY--and this is huge generalization--want to please too many constituencies and thus dilute the content of the art from the outset. I wonder if there are other examples of approaches that strive to avoid this and protect the space of art from too many just seems that navigating these committees is a barrier to artists when thinking about entering the public realm.

Sarah Schrank: Yes, the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts]! But that has been drastically shrunk since its original inception. But yes, I agree with you, there are different ways to vet public art more efficiently and in ways that don't compromise the artist. It usually depends on the art politics of specific cities. In Philadelphia right now, there's a very effective series of public art agencies that seem to be working well together. NYC too. Los Angeles, less so.

Discussion between Sue Bell Yank, Sarah Schrank, and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

Currid Halkett.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is associate professor at the University of Southern California's Price School of Public Policy. She is the author of The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City (Princeton University Press 2007) and Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity (Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). Currid-Halkett's work has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Salon, the Economist, the New Yorker, and the Times Literary Supplement, among others. She has contributed to a variety of academic and mainstream publications including the Journal of Economic Geography, Annals of the Association of American Geography, Economic Development Quarterly, the Journal of the American Planning Association, the New York Times, Harvard Business Review and the Times of London. Currid-Halkett received her PhD from Columbia University.

Sarah Schrank.

Sarah Schrank is Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach and the author of Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), a history of public art and the politics of modernism in southern California. Dr. Schrank is also the co-chair of Public Art Dialogue, a national organization dedicated to conversations about the issues of audience, censorship, curatorship, and site-specificity that inform public art in the United States and around the world. She teaches courses in urban history and the study of public art, monuments, and memory. Her current research examines the cultural intersections of modernism, urbanism, and the body.

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