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The Arts Are More Than Entertainment: L.A. Art in Tumultuous Times

Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange, Los Angeles | Denys Nevozhai/Unsplash
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Last March, the reality of COVID-19 hit Los Angeles. The city’s usual bustle of activity came to a sudden halt. A jarring stillness came over L.A., shuttering businesses, daily activity and creative spaces. In a city where crowds can’t come together anymore, the effects on these spaces were quickly seen. Author talks canceled; exhibitions installed halfway; social distancing enforced for public artworks.

The Los Angeles Times surveyed 35 galleries in April and found that a quarter were “facing the permanent closure of their spaces in 2020 if the situation doesn’t improve quickly.” 14% said “closure is a possibility.” And when it came to their workforce, more than a quarter of galleries had let part-time staff members go; nearly a quarter furloughed employees.

There’s been a significant impact on artists and art workers across the country. The U.S-wide Artist Relief Survey found that artists and creative workers saw an “average decline in estimated total annual income” of a little more than $27,000. Out of the 11,000 responses to the survey, 62% indicated they lost their jobs because of the virus.

A screenshot of L.A. Art Workers Relief Fund, June 2020
A screenshot of L.A. Art Workers Relief Fund, June 2020

In addition, Americans for the Arts reports that across 120,492 non-profit arts and culture organizations, there’s been a $5.9 billion loss. 96% of organizations have canceled events and laid off a little over 62,000 employees, with around 49,283 furloughed (at the time of writing).

“We were in a mode at the beginning of the year — before COVID-19 hit — where we were seeing the potential growth of arts funding in the state of California," Julie Baker, Executive Director of Californians for the Arts tells Southland Sessions. “And as soon as this hit and we saw, of course, what that meant in terms of essentially the economy shutdown ... we went from a growth mode to a protect mode in terms of state funding.”

Yet with numbers so bleak, the Los Angeles art world (and the arts and culture sphere at large) has come together to offer creative solutions: for its audiences, colleagues and a public that has been dealing with an unprecedented public health crisis, heightened by new organizing around racial injustice. Out of all these efforts, comes the idea — championed by many — of artists as second responders. First responders show up at the scene to save lives; second responders help to ensure those lives are enriched with joy, catharsis, release and, in many cases, mutual aid.

How the Art World Adjusted — And How It Wants to Help

As new restrictions forbid gatherings, arts institutions and artists are looking for alternative modes to keeping the city’s cultural offerings available. Much of this involves social media live streams and Zoom meetings., a project by the Gallery Association Los Angeles, hosts “weekly rotating gallery viewing rooms and original editorial content.” Its operating committee includes Rick Garzon of Inglewood’s Residency Art Gallery, David Kordansky of Mid-Wilshire gallery David Kordansky Gallery and Sara Hantman of Fairfax’s Various Small Fires. Hyperallergic reported on the Drive-by-Art initiative, an outdoor display of art that included a little over 120 Los Angeles artists. It was modeled after a Long Island version; both were created by artist and activist Warren Neidich.

Of course, arts institutions have always offered more than just the artwork itself, taking a holistic approach to the reflexivity and interiority that the arts open up. The California African American Museum continued its yoga sessions via Zoom; the Hammer museum did the same with its mindful meditation program.

Arts organizations also started using their platforms to encourage mutual aid. LACE dedicated space in its newsletter to spotlighting THE CENTER in Hollywood, which organizes a drop-off food drive for food-insecure communities, and My Friend’s Place, which gives clothing, meals and medical care to homeless youth.

In mid-April, the LA Opera Costume Shop created a pattern for masks to send along with accompanying materials to staff and community groups. These first masks were made of “existing stock of cotton and elastic,” according to the organization’s blog post; they hoped to make 1,500 masks a week. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) gathered personal protective equipment (PPE) from departments like Art Preparations & Installation and Conservation to donate to the LAC + USC Medical Center. The museum’s contributions included almost 300 N95 masks and 150 shoe covers. The museum also partnered with Open Editions — a company that collaborates with artists to produce retail goods — to create face masks from Jim Iserman and Elza Sunderland patterns sold in both the museum store and the Open Editions site.

Arts organizations have found ways to help people with both urgent and creative needs. Plaza de la Raza announced bilingual services where families could call staffers to ask where to find certain resources. The organization also offers free printable coloring pages, and case managers recently took a wagon full of them (along with supplies) to families in Lincoln Heights.

These efforts aren’t only by institutions, however. Artist Lauren Halsey hoped to open her Summaeverythang Community Center in the near future, but the virus interrupted those plans. In March, Halsey worked with Korina Matyas and organized a system to deliver organic produce to homes in South Central L.A. On May 31, Halsey shared on Instagram that the team — made up of studio assistants, family and neighbors — packed and delivered a little more than 300 boxes. The center is now aiming to donate 600 to 1,000 boxes a week to South Central, Compton, Watts and neighboring areas.

Similarly, Analia Saban had to close her studio when COVID-19 hit and soon saw an opportunity to help with the growing need for PPE. Teaming up with architect and artist Curime Batliner, Saban began to prototype a face shield that would be created using her studio’s laser cutter. The team wanted to make a model that could be easily assembled without the need for a large team.

Saban worked full-time on the Shield-19 project for the first few weeks; now, her studio assistants and volunteers help call nursing homes and homeless shelters, as well as deliver the shields.

“I felt as artists, you know, we have to be flexible, and we have to just do what's needed,” Saban tells Southland Sessions. “I feel like art is such a luxury, you know. So it's okay to step away from that if there is something more urgent.”

Makers Analia Saban and Curime during one of their working sessions prototyping in Los Angeles | Analia Saban
Makers Analia Saban and Curime during one of their working sessions prototyping in Los Angeles | Analia Saban

The team has distributed face shields to spaces like Union Rescue Mission, Hyde Park Convalescent Hospital, Inglewood Health Care Center and the Downtown Women’s Center, to name just a few. Saban says she’s started receiving requests for health care workers at schools, too. Her studio assistants continue to help from home. Initially, the team aimed to make 450 shields but upped that number to 10,000. Now, the number could be even higher.

“The mission is growing, and now I'm running out of the 10,000 shields,” says Saban. “We feel like the need is so big. Every person we called, they are desperate — they just don't have them.”

Art workers began to organize as well — particularly those with salaried jobs who saw their colleagues with low pay and lack of benefits losing their already tenuous positions.

The L.A. Art Workers Relief Fund, a crowdfunded project financially supporting art workers, was established to raise $250,000. This fund would be used to give out $1,000 grants for art workers facing dire straits. Applications, which go to an independent review committee, opened on Friday, June 5 and closed that same day after the team received 250 applications. Just recently, Metabolic Studio announced a $25,000 matching grant; artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya donated photographs for sale, with the full funds going to the organization.

“As we continue our outreach with it, we're hoping that museum boards [and] trustees will step up and look to the bigger picture of this art economy,” according to the Relief Fund. “And realize that there is still a lot of need out there, and will reinvest in the well-being of the community.”

Efforts have been created on a national level, too. Around mid-March, the Museum Workers Relief Fund was established by museum workers across departments like education, collections, marketing and curatorial. The fund is receiving applications from across the country.

“The first people to be let go were the workers in the most vulnerable and least valued positions already, such as visitor services staff and educators,” Paula Santos, creator and host of Cultura Conscious, tells Southland Sessions. “Alyssa Greenberg, of Museum Workers Speak, joined as my initial collaborator and offered their platform as the initial jump-off point for the fund.”

The team grew to a collective of 11 people. Santos says they "plan to dive deep into the survey data" they've gathered and share their findings to illuminate these workers' situations.

In May, the California Community Foundation (CCF), J. Paul Getty Trust, Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts, Sam Francis Foundation and Shepard and Amanda Fairey Foundation announced the joint creation of the Relief Fund for L.A. County Visual Artists. It offered grants of up to $2,000 to individuals, with $655,000 available in total.

The J Paul Getty Trust also announced a $10 million initiative — administered by CCF — called the LA Arts COVID-19 Relief Fund. It focuses on “small and mid-sized museums and visual arts organizations in Los Angeles County,” according to the CCF’s website. To date, 80 organizations have received $2.7 million in total grants, supporting financial needs such as salaries, rent, as well as purchasing supplies to comply with public health requirements. Up to $2,000 each has been provided to 400 local arts working in visual arts disciplines.

The efforts of collectives, institutions and individuals point to the importance of the arts in Los Angeles and beyond. First responders rush to the scene and save people from immediate situations or physical harm. Second responders like those in the creative community save lives after, or during, a crisis in sometimes immeasurable ways.

In addition, Baker emphasizes that many arts and culture organizations do important work with the city’s youth, homeless and imprisoned populations. The arts, says Baker, are more than entertainment — they are “providing vital services that are related to social services.” Californians for the Arts is currently working on communicating the importance of artists as second responders to Governor Gavin Newsom; Baker says the Governor met with members of the TV and film industry and put together a “task force on business and jobs recovery” — but arts and culture organizations weren’t represented. More than 40 organizations signed a letter to the Governor.

"A lot of times, the arts will be looked at as sort of like, oh, well, that's not very necessary right now," says Baker. “Coining it as ‘artists as second responders’ says, no, we're providing an essential service and that service is necessary, is needed and is going to help our communities…  our state to rebuild and recover.”

Looking to the Future

Recently, the death of George Floyd galvanized the Los Angeles community to protest, organize and speak up about police brutality and systemic racism against Black lives. It's important to mention the overlap between the virus and the protests. Creative people were organizing to create items like masks, which are now being worn on the streets as people join daily protests. And while the virus affected the art community at large, artists and art workers asked that museums and creative organizations speak out in support of the Black community.

Although currently closed to visitors, East Los Angeles-based Self Help Graphics & Art distributed free posters during the weekend of June 6 and 7 with live screen printing by Dewey Tafoya and Ni Santas (made up of Andi Xoch, Joan Zamora and Trenely "Clover" Garcia), respectively. Executive Director Betty Avila tells Southland Sessions that the event (and poster designs) came together quickly. The organization found it “challenging and painful” to not be able to “open our doors to a large-scale communal poster making experience” in light of the protests. Staff (including Avila) handed out posters at a safe distance.

Black Lives Matter poster | Dewey Tafoya for Self Help Graphics
Black Lives Matter poster | Dewey Tafoya for Self Help Graphics
Black Lives Matter poster | Ni Santas for Self Help Graphics
Black Lives Matter poster | Ni Santas for Self Help Graphics

When people started asking about buying the prints, Self Help Graphics encouraged followers on Instagram to donate to Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, before posting about their fundraising efforts. The organization announced new dates for poster pick-up, and the prints are now also downloadable on the organization's website. Californians for the Arts currently has a page dedicated to “Anti-Racism Resources.”

That same weekend, Saban and her team posted up near the Wilshire Federal Building in Westwood to distribute 200 face shields to protestors. Other artists joined the protest sidelines, like Oscar Eliseo Moreno, who set up a mobile printmaking station at Grand Park to print patches for protestors.

At the time of writing, paused its usual programming in support of Black Lives Matter. In the last two weeks, their front page has focused on Halsey’s organic produce deliveries, committing to match donations to the project (up to $20,000), and Noah Davis’ Underground Museum. A statement on the site promises that would continue sharing community-driven projects such as these in the long-term.

A screenshot of Lauren Halsey's Summaeverythang site, June 2020.
A screenshot of Lauren Halsey's Summaeverythang site, June 2020.

The L.A. Art Workers Relief Fund hopes to raise funds through July and distribute more financial help around the end of July or early August.

Creative solutions only spark more innovation within the arts community, at both institutional and grassroots levels. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what Los Angeles would look like if divested of its arts programming and community outreach. The virus might be unprecedented, but the creative problem-solving of the arts community is not.

“We are, at this point, rooting for [first responders] and supporting them, and they carry this responsibility of public health in a very real and serious way,” says Avila. “And at some point when that pressure is off, a lot of the other community-serving sectors are going to have to step up.”

Editor's Note: Recinos previously worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Top Image: Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange, Los Angeles | Denys Nevozhai/Unsplash

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