Boulevard Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Los Angeles Field Research course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities in Northeast L.A.
Subject: Kathy Gallegos
Organization: Avenue 50 Studio
Boulevard: Figueroa Street
Kathy Gallegos is the owner and founder of Avenue 50 Studios, a multicultural alternative art space in Highland Park with an emphasis on Chicano and Latino art. Born in New York, Gallegos moved to the San Fernando Valley early in life and considers herself an Angeleno both in heart and soul. She is a former musician, a lifelong artist, and since 1999, an impromptu gallery owner.
Gallegos first came across the building where Avenue 50 Studio now stands in the late 90s, when she was searching for affordable studio space. To help cover the rent for the building, Gallegos solicited her friends to come together, hang art in all the spare gallery space, and sell a few pieces to the local community and other artist friends. The "rent parties" were a success from day one, and soon Chicano/Latino artists from across Los Angeles were coming to Gallegos, asking her if they too could utilize this gallery space for shows. At that time, Chicano artists really had no place to showcase their work, as elite Westside galleries were rejecting them left and right. Recognizing the demand for such a space grounded in Latino/Chicano art and culture, Gallegos decided to open the doors to her Avenue 50 studio.
I met Kathy Gallegos on a rainy Thursday afternoon in October. Although it is dark and dreary outside, Avenue 50 Studio is teeming with warmth energy and as curators and artists throughout Los Angeles and as far away as St. Louis are preparing for the opening of "Que Te Vaya Bien!," Highland Park's very own Day of the Dead exhibit and celebration. As I settle down in Gallegos' small darkroom-converted office, I see years of Highland Park's artistic development chronicled across her walls. Flyers from Avenue 50 events passed, clippings of local press releases on the artistic community, magazine covers featuring Los Angeles Chicano/Latino artists, and pieces of artwork from local artists both old and new. We sit down to chat about the developments on Figueroa Boulevard, the struggle to beautify Highland Park and the changing nature of the neighborhood identity.
Nafeesa Andrabi: What is the mission of Avenue 50 Studio? What do you aim to accomplish in your position at the studio?
Kathy Gallegos: When I first got here my main goal was to create a strong market for Chicano/Latino art. I wanted to raise awareness of the beauty and depth of Chicano/Latino Art. At that time, it just was not being taken seriously. I wanted to show everyone that the work of Chicano/Latino artists stands right next to some of the strongest contemporary art that is coming out of the city today.
That was back then. Today, I'm still a crusader for Chicano/Latino art, but I have started thinking more about how to take the art outside of just the gallery walls. Now I want to show that art is not just a pretty picture to hang in your home or your office. Art is also incredibly important to our spiritual and mental wellbeing. Art can be used to make important and powerful political statements. Art can reflect our struggles and our fights, but art can also pick us up. And I want this multidimensional aspect of art to be taken out of the gallery and into the streets for all to see.
How do you think recent efforts to improve the boulevards by promoting beautification, pedestrian life and park spaces affect the community? Any further improvements you'd like to see?
It is certainly important to beautify and have these hot spots where you can cluster organizations and businesses as a destination place. But I believe we should focus our beautification on other parts of the neighborhood as well. Right now, we have a substantial amount of LANI (Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative) money to beautify downtown Highland Park, right here on Figueroa between Avenue 50 and Avenue 60. The problem is there's already way too much eye clutter on that section of Figueroa. That is where all the Highland Park beautification efforts seem to be focused, that ten block space. I wish, instead of pooling money, kiosks, benches, etc. onto that one part of the street, we would spend our efforts simplifying the streets so that people can actually see. The notion of simplicity being beautiful is completely nonexistent here. As far as the LANI money is concerned, I want to keep it on the ground, literally. No more banner, signs, and sight pollution. I want artistic mosaics on the sidewalk corners announcing the streets. Or perhaps even crosswalks that light up when someone begins to cross. Simple beauty, in lieu of vibrantly colored benches crammed into ten blocks so that the whole city could hypothetically fit on those benches.
What role do you think beautification plays in the neighborhood's identity and the culture of the neighborhood?
If you want to come in and beautify an area, the best way to go about doing is most certainly to talk to the neighbors. Talk to the individuals who drive on these streets every single day, see these benches every single day, see and interact with the art every single day. Ask them what they think. What does beauty mean to them? You're not going to get a consensus, obviously, but you can at least get an idea of what the people want. And at the end of the day, it's about what the people want, not what you, as the "beautifier" wants. It's important to remember that beautification is not synonymous with glamor. Sometimes beautifying means something as basic as removing an ugly chain link fence or bringing in money to pull weed. Throughout the whole beautification process, the needs and desires of the neighborhood should always be in the forefront to the fragmented needs and desires of developers, city officials, etc.
What is your impression of the current neighborhood identity of Highland Park and Eagle Rock? How has it changed in the last several years or decades?
The Highland Park identity is changing, but it's changing very slowly. I think this has something to do with the HPOZ and the individuals in charge of this community. I still see them renting out to a lot of small nail parlors, hair salons and furniture stores. The approach here on Fig is different from that on York, where they are opening up the doors and saying "look, we'll give you a deal if you're a gallery and you come open up down here". They are calling for a very specific type of business on York to fit a very specific/framed/planned identity. What I find here on Figueroa is that a lot of people don't want to move real fast. We don't necessarily want to be the next York Boulevard. We don't want to see that up here. We are okay with the small town, slow moving feel of Fig.
There is one change, though, that I've noticed. I've recently started asking myself, "Where are all my street vendors?" There used to be this man selling his corn on a stick -- one of my favorite meals -- who used to push his cart and blow his little horn as he passed by Avenue 50. I used to work here all by myself. I couldn't leave the building. He would push his cart right to the front door of this gallery. He's gone. And the ice cream man selling his palletas? He's gone too. The taco trucks right around this corner on Fig are quickly disappearing as well. I can still remember those fabulous smells in the air and as you strolled the streets, there was just an incredible, beautiful and homey feel to Fig because of those street vendors. I don't understand why anyone would ever want to do away with that. Is raising the property value and attracting wealthy renters and buyers really worth the sacrifice? I don't know. I mean, can you ever go wrong with a taco for a dollar?
What are your thoughts on the integration and comfort level between the older Highland Park community and the up and coming community?
It's water and oil, in some respects. Just the other day I was walking by this area on Monte Vista where these gentlemen are renting space for a gallery. And yes, there are fabulous things going on inside that space, but who is actually going to go inside from the neighboring Monte Vista? The gallery owners are doing very little, actually nothing at all, to make the neighbors feel welcome or invited into this space. The neighbors know that. They don't feel comfortable going inside so they're not going to go inside! Is that what we want? Galleries on Fig are doing the same thing. There are no signs in Spanish, nothing to make it a comfortable and accessible space for the Latino neighborhood to come walking in. I realize that the owners don't even intend on gearing their space towards these neighborhoods -- they are seeking their audience out in other areas -- but even that affects the dynamic between the residential communities (primarily Latinos who have been there for years and years) and the young, hip newcomers. Exclusivity. That is what I see being promoted here.
You talked about how Figueroa is slower to change. How do you feel about gentrification and driving away the taco trucks?
I think integration is a wonderful thing -- it's a fabulous thing. I grew up in a very multicultural neighborhood. So I feel comfortable around a lot of different people. Also I feel much more comfortable in an integrated area than an area that is one culture. So I support integration -- integrating the street vendors with coffee shop owners, etc. But here in Higland Park, we're not necessarily practicing integration, we're practicing gentrification. And the individuals that want to gentrify Highland Park seemed ashamed of the preexisting culture; I don't think you should feel ashamed just because there are folks in your community who are street people trying to sell their palletas.
Even if I can't single handedly convince all members of the Highland Park community to integrate instead of segregate and gentrify, I can make sure that our shows at Avenue 50 are really integrated. Our shows are truly inclusive across the board -- we want other cultures to display their work on our walls. In fact, we need that. African Americans. Chicanos. Asians. Jews. How do they understand Dia De Los Muertos? Perhaps by looking at and understanding a wide variety of perspectives on one event -- Dia De Los Muertos, or anything really. We can transform a segregated lens into one that is integrated. Only when we embrace integration can our community progress.
How have trends such as gentrification and racial transitions in Highland Park affected Avenue 50 Studio?
Honestly, this gentrification business is good for homeowners and for businesses -- so I'm rather torn because I fall into both those categories. Gentrification means people with more money coming in. When people with more money come in they start to raise property values, so that is inherently good for business. But then look at us, here at Avenue 50. We are here because it is cheap for us. That's why we came here. We're not here to change property values and bring in a whole other subset of people.
So it's true that galleries and business like this and also the racial change will bring more money into the neighborhood. In a sense, this will advance the beautification process because when you have money you have the opportunity to renovate all these beautiful old homes that are falling apart. I've seen some fabulous homes that people have changed -- when you're poor you don't have the money to fix the roof or have a great garden.
Unfortunately, this process also pushes out people who don't have the money. I actually see this process, pushing out a lot of really great artists because -- let's be real -- most artists don't have money. For them, it's about finding the most affordable place to have a studio. As I previously mentioned, I ended up here because of cheaper, available studio space. But what happens when this space is no longer cheap? Artists will inevitably be pushed out, and so too will the street cart owners and, frankly speaking, the less affluent Chicano/Latino community.
You recently partnered up with the Violence Intervention Program at the LAC+USC Medical Center to present the exhibition Clusters -- Personal Visions. Can you tell me about the background of this partnership?
I'm a big fan of public art. I mean a really big fan of public art. I love those moments when you're sitting in a train and you stop at a station and look up to see all this fabulous public art. Art is just so good for the soul. I believe it should be everywhere. Not just on gallery walls, but in the streets, on the walls of train stations, in small backyard gardens, everywhere. Truly, art is so good for the soul. So of course, when we were asked by the Los Angeles Arts Commission to submit a proposal for the commissioning of three exhibitions at this clinic and county general hospital, I jumped on the opportunity. I took a trip down to the hospital to see where this place was located and what is was all about. I needed to get an idea of what to propose. The space certainly did say violence -- the people coming through this space were a lot of foster kids, victims of rape and abuse, and senior citizen abuse. As a result, the work that we had to ask from artists had to be uplifting, funny, inspiring, or something relatable and accessible.
Now that the art is up, the most beautiful thing is hearing some of the staff talk about how they'll take their lunch hour and breaks out in the lobby so that they can sit and enjoy the art. I've had numerous long conversations with people about the artwork -- it's amazing how it has opened up a whole new dimension in this community of people. Even the customarily stoic and robotic security guards come to life when they see and interact with the art on the clinic walls. Art is a very humanizing force. I'm so glad we had the opportunity to engage in this collaboration. Even though we only have three commissions, we are working to keep this project ongoing. It's important to bring in the new and take out the old, as it is with the ebb and flow of things. Plastering a mural on the wall for the next years doesn't do some type of good for the soul. Soon, it becomes unnoticeable and fades away.
This collaboration has been fantastic, and I hope it continues, but has also been exhausting. It's already about as much as I could possibly take on. So we'll see what happens with any future collaboration. I definitely believe in taking advantage of great opportunities when I get the chance.
The third and final exhibition in the collaboration, titled Arte, Vida y Amor, opens this Friday, January 25 at the LAC-USC Medical Village in Boyle Heights. For information, visit www.avenue50studio.com or their Facebook page.