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Saturday Art: Los Angeles City Council Targets Municipal Gallery for Privatization

Barnsdall Art Park is vital part of Los Angeles — and municipal art gallery and park that the LA City Council now wants to privatize, citing budget issues. To do so would limit citizens’ access to enjoy and create art and go against the goals of the land’s donor. Sadly, the privatization seems to be steamrolling ahead with minimal community outrage input as a way to keep Barnsdall open.

Barnsdall Art Park, atop a hill in the center of East Hollywood,  was the gift of Aline Barnsdall to the people of the city of Los Angeles to be used for arts exhibits and arts education. Aline Barnsdall, who had moved West to develop a theatre company, commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design her home  on land at the intersection of Vermont Ave. and Hollywood Blvd. The resulting building, Hollyhock House, still stands and is part of the facilities at Barnsdall Art Part which also includes the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. . . .

The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery is a facility of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Founded in 1952, its mission is to promote, interpret, and present to the art of emerging, mid career, and established artists from culturally diverse Southern California. The Gallery showcases art from other parts of the world that is of relevance to the people of the City of Los Angeles.

Programs at Barnsdall include the Junior Arts Center which offers affordable arts education programs to young people both on site at Barnsdall Art Park and in extensive outreach, and eight-week classes that include everything from figure drawing, photography and weaving to ukulele playing and drumming. There’s also the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, available a low-priced rental house for live theatre, dance, music, spoken word, lecture, film and special event presentations. Barnsdall is also a go-to site for weddings and there’s a weekly farmers market held in the parking lot. Oh did I mention admission is free? And so is parking!

Barnsdall was recently the site of the second annual Beyond Eden Art Fair which showcased contemporary Low Brow/Pop Surrealist artists,  a West Coast movement that is gaining worldwide recognition thanks in a great part to Robert Willams whose paintings, mentoring of art geeks and his creation of  Juxtapoz Magazine have inspired artists and collectors alike to delve into the brash figurative style with its emphasis on pop iconography and exquisite technique.

The city Los Angeles faces serious budgetary problems. Heck, my street has needed repaving for over a decade and we’re always overlooked for pot hole filling.  That minute detail I can live with — it helps cut down on speeding shortcut takers, since nothing like hearing some maroon’s testosterone-mobile bottom out to really brighten my day — but the city council is mulling the idea of privatizing of Barnsdall, which is short sighted and stupid. The main contender: MOCA, Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art.

The mandate of a municipal gallery is to provide art for the people and by the people. In a letter on behalf of the board of Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery letter asking for community support, Maria Luisa de Herrera, board president wrote of Barnsdall:

It occupies a unique niche in the city’s cultural landscape, being neither a museum, nor a commercial gallery, allowing it broad curatorial latitude not enjoyed by other institutions…We should be questioning the wisdom of, or the lack there of, any idea ceding total governance of such an important asset to any institution or individual who’s agenda is not in keeping with the public character of the LAMAG. Such a move has the effect of a greater stratification of the visual arts in a city where the disparity between so called “new school” or “high art” and more populist artistic genres is growing ever wider. Other cities are expanding their municipal exhibition spaces and establishing new ones. Many of these cities are facing the same budget challenges as are we, and see public safety as their number one priority. However they have never lost sight of the fact the that part of their responsibility in providing public safety includes promoting the general well being of its citizenry.

Mat Gleason, the editor of Coagula Art Journal, himself a maverick and strong supporter of the Los Angeles art scene had this to say to me:

Let’s get angry and maybe put energy into making these spaces a little more vital – the problem is not the administration of these spaces, it is the art public that is spoiled and passive, what are they going to do when all the spaces are privatized and operate as a monolithic statement of fashion?…As far as privatization, it would make for stunningly boring and insignificant art spaces catering to nobody outside of small cliques of whoever might be close to the players connected to taking over the space. It is the difference between the current slow suffocation and a quick one.

Gleason offers a radical solution:

make all of these art community centers lottery exhibition spaces for artists. the city budget can basically be for maintenance and insurance. Have lotteries for artists to get month long exhibits. Have an on-site administrator act as a den-mother/bad cop to hold of extremes that threaten the physical property but otherwise, let artists nobody knows have a chance at magically being awarded their fantasy of having the space for a month to show their art.

The shows would be interesting and would engage a much wider democratic dialogue than all of the insiders could ever deliver what with all the friends and relationships that the art world naturally foists on all of its players. And that is what the city stands for any way, right, we the people?

This would save boatloads of money and excite the "what the hell might happen next" in all of us.

I’d add to this by throwing in two curatorial lotteries for group shows. And let Barnsdalls, like any gallery get a percentage of the sales of art exhibited.

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.

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