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Karen Mack: Artists Are at the Center of Society’s Transformation

Watch "Southland Sessions | S1 E1: Change(Makers) - The Future of Arts and Culture"

We are at a point in our evolutionary cycle in which our institutional infrastructure is breaking down.  This process has been going on for a while now with once-powerful organizations, the latest of which are police departments. In small and large towns across our country, they are being brought to their knees by human misconduct and man-made and natural forces that are difficult to control.

Despite the malevolence inside these institutions and the resulting harm that has come outside them to countless individuals, we sometimes wish things would all fall neatly back in the box so that we could go back to our "normal" lives. The stress and chaos of our current situation are hard to manage.  But this feeling of disequilibrium is necessary for us to transition to the new reality on the other side.

It feels as if COVID-19 arrived to clear away the rubble, to put extreme pressure on the system in order to transform it.  And once we get the vaccine, the metaphorical end and beginning of the transformational process, everyone will be ready to start anew, with the chance to rebuild our society and start a new, radically different cycle.

People walk during the Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks procession in 2016
People walk during the Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks procession in 2016, which brings people together to show off the masks, costumes and drum dance and chant skills they learned over several months. | Jamie L. Perez

The protesters are on to something: This is the moment to strike, raise the alarm, and pull out the brick so that the walls upholding law enforcement and all the rest of our inequitable institutions will come tumbling down. It has been incredibly inspiring to witness this activism; not only are we demanding the moral leadership we have been sorely lacking, but we are also creating and playing a starring role in the drama to sustain human existence going forward.

Often the chief failure of our leaders is one of imagination. It is so much easier to maintain the status quo and adhere to old narratives rather than imagine the new ones that will ensure our survival. This is where artists can add tremendous value. Art is an important tool to bring untold stories to light and shift to a narrative that uplifts everyone.  

We need the leadership of artists now, guiding us all in imagining this new narrative.  This catalytic moment calls for a creative process with artists at the center, in which we come together to envision a city, a country and a world that is more just, healthy and livable for everyone.  

Since 2000, LA Commons has helped communities claim public spaces, making room for people — particularly young people — in marginalized places to assert their identities in a city where they are often rendered invisible. By engaging them in artistic and cultural expression that tells their unique stories, we create the basis for dialogue, collaboration and an enhanced sense of belonging. 

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Click through below to see some of the work LA Commons has enabled.

“blue and red sky with baby (Avalon Alley Murals, 2016)” by Noni Olabisi.
“blue and red sky with baby (Avalon Alley Murals, 2016)” by Noni Olabisi. Olabisi worked with a team of 15 youth artists from South LA to collect stories as inspiration for the design of a mural that was part of an alley reclamation project. This mural honors how we grow from past experiences now and into the promise of the future. Avalon Alley, near Maya Angelou High School, South Los Angeles. Acrylic on concrete, 26 ft x 5 ft 4 in. | Rafael Cardenas
A MacArthur Park Puzzle Piece (2013) by Sonia Romero and CARECEN Youth
A MacArthur Park Puzzle Piece (2013) by Sonia Romero and CARECEN Youth. This piece is a flip side of a youth art piece and is a portrait of the youth by Sonia Romero created as a paper cut and printed. Thirteen youth collaborated with artist Sonia Romero on the creation of the MacArthur Park Puzzle Pieces, a light pole medallion community art project. Linoleum Print transferred to Wood, 24” x 36.” MacArthur Park. | Rafael Cardenas
Panel II of “Heart of Hyde Park (2019)” by Moses Ball.
Panel II of “Heart of Hyde Park (2019)” by Moses Ball. It features a local poet and singer, a phoenix rising in recognition of the 1992 L.A. Rebellion, an Olmec figure connecting African, Mexican and Indigenous ancestors and youth artist Kimani at work as a scholar. Acrylic on metal panels. US Bank, Crenshaw and Slauson. Hyde Park, Los Angeles. | Rafael Cardenas
“Transformative Illuminations (2016)” by Wenceslao Quiroz
“Transformative Illuminations (2016)” by Wenceslao Quiroz and 15 youth artists. MLK Mental Health Urgent Care Center, Willowbrook, California. Acrylic on canvas, 28 ft x 26 ft. | Rafael Cardenas
 Three young girls pose with their contributions to an installation designed around the question: what sustains a community?
Three young girls pose with their contributions to an installation designed around the question: what sustains a community? The installation includes wood cut-outs of words of hope and inspiration, as well as animals and plants representative of the nearby wetlands. Harbor Gateway. | Beth Peterson
Willowbrook Touchstone Healing Room Mural (2019) by Grace Lynne Haynes.

Willowbrook Touchstone Healing Room Mural (2019) by Grace Lynne Haynes. Artist Grace Lynne and LA Commons staff engaged the community at the We Are Willowbrook Summit. At this event, the community had the opportunity to tell stories around trauma prevention, hope and healing by creating glass touchstone to be incorporated into the “touchstone tree” mural. L.A. Department of Public Health Healing Room, Willowbrook, California. Acrylic on wood. | Courtesy of Karen Mack

“Windows To Health (2013)” by Noni Olabisi.
“Windows To Health (2013)” by Noni Olabisi. Olabisi worked with youth artists at Augustus Hawkins High School to collect community stories about building a healthier South L.A. | Martha Benedict

With this in mind, this fall, we will launch Creating Our Next LA, a multi-platform campaign to engage artists young and old to lead the people of Los Angeles in telling our stories and sharing our visions for a post-crisis city where everyone thrives.

Achieving the equity that is now on everyone's mind requires deep community engagement that enables Angelenos, particularly those in places long ignored, to bring our authentic selves to the table, voicing the challenges, the needs and the hopes, to remake L.A. into a place that more fully reflects those within.

Artists can show us the way, given their courage to lead us into unknown places and their capacity to reflect on our collective past, present and future. They can help us push past the boundaries of our current vision of reality to see the possibilities in a new one. Consider Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, a movement that is transforming our world based on a vision of justice, freedom and peace for Black people and by extension for all people.

There are more future leaders and visionaries like Patrisse Cullors out there. Our opportunity is to identify them and follow them so they can guide us in remaking our world.  Let's work together to Create Our Next L.A. 

Top Image: “One Love (AVALON ALLEY MURALS, 2016)” by Noni Olabisi. Completed in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, Council District 9 and 15 youth artists from South L.A., this mural honors how we grow from past experiences now and into the promise of the future. Acrylic on concrete, 34 ft x 6 ft. South Los Angeles. | Rafael Cardenas

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