Common Fields Convenes; Discusses Artist Evictions and LA’s “Big Lie”

My post from December 10, 2015, Now That Artists Can’t Afford the Arts District, LA Needs to Re-Think Its Role As A Creative City, written by Caroline Miranda of the Los Angeles Times, is worth revisiting upon the recent occasion of the Common Field Convening.

Held this past November 2-5 at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in downtown Los Angeles, Common Field Convening “is an itinerant annual gathering that brings together 350+ local and national organizers to explore the state of the field of arts organizing and to share resources, knowledge and methods for artist-led, artist-run, and artist-centered projects, spaces and practices.”

There were numerous presentations and panels and particularly relevant was Evictions, Artists and Displacement; 800 Traction, and Beyond. The gathering took place in the contested downtown Arts District, which has undergone a pace of development so fast that the rate of artist evictions exceeds that which Caroline Miranda reported about in 2015. Rental rates of $3.50 per square foot have jumped to over $6.00, and what merely ten years ago was a section the City touted as an integrated area of diverse creative working persons and small businesses. What was then a model for place making has become an upscale consumer destination displacing local communities with unforeseen and sometimes ugly consequences. It is not only artists who are being displaced, but also the areas where the homeless made encampments are being cleared away and lower income housing is being swept aside and not replaced. The adjacent Eastside Boyle Heights neighborhood is an emerging national story. In this instance community activists want some artists and newly arriving commercial galleries out of their neighborhood as they are seen as harbingers of gentrification as the realities of uncontrolled development begin to engulf them.

The panel included Robby Herbst, Michael Parker, Julian-Smith Newman, Dulce Ibarra, and Nancy Uyemura. It opened with Michael Parker, who moderated the panel and who is in eviction proceedings from his loft, announcing that his landlord may have a “mole” in the crowd hoping that something might be said that could be used against him in court. This had a somewhat chilling effect on the dialogue in the room.

The reason for the tension is real. Anuradha Vikram, Artistic Director of the 18th Street Arts Center, is an intelligent voice in the national discussion about equity and inclusion in arts and culture. She spells it out in the opening lines of her essay, The Big Lie,

“This fall, Los Angeles finds itself in the international spotlight. The Getty-led initiative Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA (PST: LA/LA) is well underway, boasting more than sixty exhibitions of Latin American and U.S. Latinx art across the broader Southern California region. Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee has designated Los Angeles as the host city for the 2028 Olympic Games. As the world turns its attention to the artistic and economic vibrancy of the city, L.A.’s future appears to be bright. Yet Los Angeles continues to operate like a large town with aspirations of becoming a big city, not like an international metropolis. Corporate investment and cultural cachet have yet to produce tangible benefits for the majority of city residents, apart from the wealthy. Rising perceptions of affluence and commensurate luxury development mask the significant gap between wages and the cost of goods and services in the city. These disparities disproportionately affect Latinx Angelenos, many of whom struggle with language barriers, poverty, and uncertain legal status.”

The Big Lie was commissioned by Art Practical as part of Field Perspectives 2017, a co-publishing initiative organized and supported by Common Field as a part of their Los Angeles 2017 Convening.

Julian Smith-Newman from the Los Angeles Tenants Union read a four-page statement that summed up a position that has been staked out in terms of why the human interests of the citizens of Los Angeles must come before the profit motives of development. Essentially though, Los Angeles, which once was known as an affordable city has a major housing shortage and is not affordable for many of its citizens who put a major portion of their income into rents.

Curator Dulce Ibarra described her experience organizing pop up exhibitions in Boyle Heights. She ceased this activity when she realized her shows, in the buildings of developers who merely wanted her to dress up the neighborhood for further development, were helping the gentrification effort.

What became clear from the panel is that artists are unable to afford downtown Los Angeles, including Nancy Uyemura. Her home and studio of 25 years is at the famous 800 Traction Building, a stones throw from Hauser & Wirth Gallery, now a major arts tourist destination and whose arrival presaged a predictable rise in rents. This is the course of development and it is hard to contain. 800 Traction has been sold, and there seems to be no saving the artists there from being legally displaced as it is remodeled into upscale lofts. Where she will go is anyone’s guess, but downtown LA, maybe even LA altogether because of affordability, will lose her presence permanently.

Michael Parker for his part has been creatively fighting back by developing an activist project called the Artist Loft Museum of Los Angeles. He got the ball rolling in a major way with a Hyperallergic spread, and his best defense seems to be a lot of publicity and hopefully it will work. You can see what he is doing at this link, and unlike Nancy and many other older artists he more than likely has time to land on his feet again.

While it may be that the juggernaut of development will overrun him, and the Artist Loft Museum of Los Angeles is a stalling tactic, I admire him for standing and fighting and trying to bring attention to the situation in the Arts District. It is important to see artists developing strategies that can be shared as proactive models others might use. Robby Herbst, Co-founder and Editor of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest presented a project that was attempting to roll back the effects of development in his neighborhood that would effectively hike up rental rates and create another situation of inevitable displacement.

When Caroline Miranda wrote back in 2015 about the Arts District and its diminished promise, what was missing was the City of Los Angeles that seemed to have stepped out of a leadership role. Julian Smith-Newman of the panel felt the City had left the playing field in terms of any real role regarding substantial affordable housing for not only artists but also the homeless or just ordinary citizens feeling that a healthy city is a diverse city and this as a paradigm is failing.

It is worth recalling that Caroline Miranda ended her post with these words;

“In 2013, Mayor Garcetti posted a photo of himself to Twitter holding a sign that read #ArtsMatter, with the statement: “Let’s make sure L.A. is the creative capital of the world for years to come.” Good idea. Let’s start by finding a way to keep the artists in town.”

Since 2013 the trend has been more like the current proposed Federal tax plan; wealth flowing upwards. It is not a sustainable trajectory without serious social and moral consequences, locally or nationally as the panel and the news we are hearing daily tells us. This post updates what Caroline Miranda was talking about three years ago viewed through the prism of the Common Field Convening.


Posted on November 28, 2017 in Newsworthy, Presenters and Presentations

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