In Los Angeles, buildings often find a second life. A jewelry store becomes a trendy restaurant. An abandoned lot serves as the backdrop for a drive-in movie experience. The original signs are sometimes left intact, a layer of history sitting atop the new establishment.
But for the team behind artist collective and gallery Crenshaw Dairy Mart, it wasn’t just about reimagining an unused space. It was about re-examining the way the fine arts structure could look in Los Angeles.
To do so, the team turned the Mart into both a community and educational space, brought to life through collaborative efforts. Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, Alexandre Dorriz and Noé Olivas are all artists and educators in their own right — and they run the business side of the Mart, which includes organizing exhibitions, installations and visiting artists. Along with artists Jake Freilich and Star Montana, they also maintain the Crenshaw Dairy Mart Studios. Cullors founded the MFA in Social and Environmental Arts Practice at Prescott College, in which all five members teach. All this to say that the team keeps busy.
The group first met at the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design while completing their MFA. Cullors says they all shared an interest in “challenging the traditional art world” and, more specifically, exploring “how arts and culture in particular impacts our movement spaces, our social justice spaces.” The art world — particularly storied institutions — continues to be called out for its focus on and support of white artists while largely failing to ensure that marginalized communities are included in exhibitions, staff rosters and contemporary art history. For the Crenshaw Dairy Mart team, the space became a way to create what they so often didn’t see. It became an alternative to gatekeeping institutions and a way to merge art with social justice.
Cullors, Dorriz and Olivas check in with each other via text every day, not just for practical reasons, but to continually foster their friendship, too. They read each other's horoscopes. Cullors says they’re like siblings.
Initially, the team considered land in Antelope Valley for the Mart to stand, particularly as a retreat center. But when Cullors’s child care provider nudged her to see a space in Inglewood, the plans changed. The Dairy Mart, first erected in 1965, includes a laundromat as well, which Cullors’s child care provider initially planned on using as a child care center. But when Inglewood’s fees for permits felt too overwhelming, she decided not to move forward with her plan — and instead opened up the opportunity for the space to become a project for Cullors.
“The Crenshaw Dairy Mart in some ways was gifted to us,” says Cullors. “And we took that gift very seriously. We spent two years before we opened up to the public just being present.”
Olivas got to work tending to both the inside and outside of the space, clearing the construction materials inside, watering the plants and “giving care to the space and knowing that there was something that was going to be happening there.” Olivas says the team slowly got to know the neighboring businesses, like Mingles Tea Bar, Big Fish Market and Royalty Barbers & Grooming.
At a time when Black and Brown neighborhoods are wary of new businesses opening in disenfranchised communities, the team behind Crenshaw Dairy Mart is clearly being intentional with how it approaches the space. Olivas says that the team, especially during COVID-19 times, has offered the surrounding businesses the use of the lot in the back of the Mart in case they might need it.
The team also keeps the history of Black-led arts organizations at the forefront of their approach, particularly when it comes to the history of Los Angeles during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Brockman Gallery, Dr. Samella Lewis’s Museum of African American Art, Suzanne Jackson’s Gallery 32, to name a few, are the spaces that Dorriz says the team has consistently kept in mind.
“We're within this long legacy of Black-led arts institutions,” says Dorriz. “And Noé and I as sort of these co-conspirators in this space, [a term] which Patrisse used first… We're just navigating that and thinking of that history and what happened to those spaces. At what cost those Black-led art institutions struggled with the rest of the greater Los Angeles art world — the mostly white art world.”
The space operates as a clear connection between politics and art. The exhibition “Yes on R! Archives and Legal Conceptions (Part 1: 2011-2014),” curated by Dorriz and Autumn Breon, Williams is one such example. It looks at how artists rallied behind efforts to pass Measure R, which would primarily give more civilian oversight to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department, on California ballots.
Public art highlighting the work of organizations like Dignity and Power Now, Reform LA Jails and Justice LA became part and parcel of the efforts. Cullors created the performance art piece “Stained: An Intimate Portrayal of State Violence” in 2012 to shed light on the brutality her brother, Monte, was subjected to during his incarceration — as well as to respond to the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit against the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department for inmate abuse. The performance helped to spark the creation of the Dignity and Power Now/The Coalition to End Sheriff’s Violence in L.A. Jails. In 2016, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission was implemented. The exhibition included archival materials and artworks showing the efforts towards these significant events.
The Crenshaw Dairy Mart has continually responded to and stayed enmeshed in what is happening in the community. After the death of Nipsey Hussle, artists Oto-Abasi Attah and Paul Cullors collaborated on a mural on an exterior wall of the Mart. And amidst the pandemic, the team saw an opportunity to work with Lauren Halsey’s Summaeverythang community center to bring art supplies to Watts and South Central communities. Cullors reached out to Halsey to ask if, in addition to fresh food, they could add specially-created art kits to the distribution.“What often happens is that we only think about basic survival for our folks, especially for poor folks,” says Cullors. “We think… Well, at least we'll give them some food and that will be fine. But I believe that we deserve art, too.”
Click left and right to see images from the Mart's art kits project:
So far, the center, with Freilich as lead organizer, has distributed hundreds of art kits, with more to come. Each kit contains not just tools but also instructional zines with information like an intro to the color wheel and tips for mixing watercolor paints. A recent kit, created by Montana and Abasi, includes a step-by-step guide on drawing a figure’s head and making a cyanotype print. Another kit contained a papermaking exercise by Zeina Baltagi. It incorporated shredded paper from the Mart’s “Yes on R!” exhibition and paper scraps donated by Josephine Press, along with a rubber block printing tutorial (with a pattern that reads “Free the Land”) by Olivas.
“Abasi is from Inglewood,” says Cullors. “He remembers going to the Dairy Mart. So [that’s] really important as part of our work at CDM, is working with local artists. I love that that continuation is happening.”
Without the ability to gather, and with many artists’ livelihoods and resources at risk because of coronavirus, the team also wanted to think of other initiatives to support creatives. The Care Not Cages relief fund called for submissions from artists, including folks who are currently incarcerated. The team received around 60 submissions from across the country, including 10 from incarcerated artists. Three artists received funds, and all 10 of the incarcerated artists did as well.
Click left and right to see some images from Crenshaw Dairy Mart's "Care Not Cages" project:
The team created a mural on the ground of their outdoor space, near the Hussle mural; they also joined forces with GalleryPlatformLA — an online platform of 81 Los Angeles art galleries created during the pandemic to promote L.A. art — to further generate funds for the incarcerated artists. Dorriz sees these pieces as “an actual timestamp of exactly the conditions and the artist statements of the conditions of what's happening in the carceral state, at this very moment in with the rise of COVID.”
The team approaches each project with intentionality, even during an unprecedented time.
“We really do believe that art is healing,” says Olivas. “And that's why those art kits are super important for us to distribute... there's pedagogical aspects happening, but also imagination.”
And even while they work on their own activist and educational work, the space keeps them together.
"The Mart is where I get to practice joy in real-time," says Cullors. "It's a place that I get to center my work and my art practice and my artwork and also share it with the community," Cullors recalls events where there was music, dancing and kids running around. Joy in its purest forms.
In the meantime, the core team occasionally spends some time in the Mart working on programming and their individual art practice (while employing all safety procedures).
By fostering their own artistic practice, and that of the community, the team continually transforms the possibilities of the Mart. No longer a space for buying goods or washing clothes, but an environment to show the political power of art and what happens when Black and Brown and other communities of color are given a chance to express themselves fully.
Top Image: Visiting artist Oto-Abasi Attah from Nigeria and raised in Los Angeles paints a mural of Nipsey Hustle, "Saint Nip" at the Crenshaw Dairy Mart | Courtesy of Crenshaw Dairy Mart