Category: Watts Towers

NEA-style community-building via arts has lost ground in state

February 24, 2012 |  3:30 pm

Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, came to Watts and neighboring Willowbrook on Thursday for walking tours and briefings on how $720,000 in grants funded or coordinated by the NEA is being spent. 

The money was generated by Our Town and ArtPlace, two programs begun under Landesman that aim to use the arts as a tool for neighborhood improvement and fostering economic growth.

But a major new California state policy works at cross-purposes to what Landesman is trying to accomplish on a federal level. From the late 1960s on, municipal redevelopment agencies in the state often funded arts and cultural projects on the same theory that guides Our Town and ArtPlace -- that in addition to their aesthetic and educational value, arts attractions foster tourism, an engaged and active citizenry, and economic growth.

Those efforts ended on Feb. 1, when California's redevelopment agencies, which were created to fight urban blight and promote economic activity, ceased to exist. Driven by the budget crises lingering over Sacramento and municipalities, and questioning the efficacy of redevelopment spending, Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature abolished the agencies so that billions of dollars in property taxes they'd controlled could be diverted to other government purposes.

More than $350 million in arts projects have been funded by redevelopment agencies in Los Angeles County over the past 45 years, including construction of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Grand Avenue headquarters ($23 million) and the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts ($60 million).

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PST, A to Z: ‘Civic Virtue’ at LA Municipal Art Gallery and Watts Towers Arts Center

January 25, 2012 |  5:00 pm

Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.

When Josine Ianco Starrels became the director of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG) in 1975, she had a clear vision for the space: “It’s City money. City money comes from L.A. citizens. And I think it should support L.A. artists…where are local artists going to cut their teeth? And who is going to show them?”  

Although Pacific Standard Time has told us much about who was indeed showing local artists, Starrels’ point about the city’s money supporting the city’s artists is a key idea behind “Civic Virtue: The Impact of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and the Watts Towers Arts Center.” Split between the two venues, with each institution emphasizing its own history, this sweeping exhibition provides a much-needed vision of art created and presented, not for art’s sake or for profit, but for the public good.

Commercial galleries, no matter how adventurous, are still businesses, and non-profit museums and art spaces, with few exceptions, are beholden to wealthy donors and benefactors. It’s tempting to imagine that government-run institutions, funded by taxpayers, might truly reflect the tastes of the people. The convoluted histories of LAMAG and the Watts Towers Arts Center (WTAC) prove that reality is more complex than that, but “Civic Virtue” still succeeds in reminding us of that original, idealistic impulse: that art should be a central part of civic life.

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Watts House Project lands $370,000 grant

September 20, 2011 |  9:30 am

The Watts House Project, in which artists lend their talents to community improvement, has landed a $370,000 grant that will enable it to finish converting three houses across the street from the Watts Towers into a headquarters it has dubbed “The Platform.”

The money comes from ArtPlace, a new program in which federal agencies led by the National Endowment for the Arts are working with leading charitable foundations to funnel private funds to projects in which artistic creation isn’t strictly an end in itself, but a neighborhood development tool deployed to generate economic opportunities while making communities more vibrant.

The first round of $11.5 million, announced last week, will fund 34 projects nationwide. For the Watts House Project, launched in 2008, it means the money is now in hand to finish renovating three houses on a single lot that it bought two years ago to serve as its operations base.

Executive Director Edgar Arceneaux, an award-winning artist himself, said Monday that although the renovations will include carving out a space that can be used for exhibitions, presenting art shows is  “low on the totem pole for us. We’re focused primarily on housing and working with families to bring about improvements.”

While modernizing the hundred-year-old buildings during the coming months, Arceneaux said, the Watts House Project aims to provide jobs for some local contractors and laborers, and training for others. While building its own nest, Watts House Project will continue its ongoing efforts to improve private homes in the neighborhood, drawing on the volunteered skills of artists and architects. The ArtPlace grant is the largest donation the Watts House Project has received, topping a $125,000 gift from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in 2009. 

One of the private homes on East 107th Street that the Watts House Project is working on has been dubbed the “Love House.” The design plans had called for planting a large sculptural landmark on its roof –- the word “love,”  enclosed in a circle. But objections arose in the community,  House Project board member Eliane Henri said,  including concerns that the sign could detract from the Watts Towers. Now the design by artist Alexandra Grant is destined to be earthbound, framing a bench on the home’s front lawn.

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Art review: 'Possible Worlds' at Los Angeles County Museum of Art

July 14, 2011 |  6:00 pm

“Possible Worlds,” a new installation of objects from the collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, adheres to a now familiar format, blurring the line between curating and art making. Artists Mario Ybarra Jr. and Karla Diaz (of the artists’ collaborative Slanguage) created the installation as part of a residency at Watts House Project, an artist-driven urban revitalization initiative near Simon Rodia’s iconic Watts Towers. A more complicated back story is hard to imagine, and the danger of course, is that the show relies too heavily on a context well outside the museum walls. However, it ends up being less about Watts or community art than a reflection on how they might influence the museum.

Ybarra and Diaz have selected works that envision other realities, whether idyllic or dystopian. Roughly focused around themes of home, identity and spirituality, the show offers a different take on LACMA’s collection, eschewing chronology and geographical proximity for a more impressionistic scheme.

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Metro Blue Line is the route for `traveling circus' plays

July 1, 2011 |  6:30 am

William Shakespeare wrote plays in five acts; now comes Watts Village Theater Company, organizing a theater piece in five light-rail stops. Dubbed "Meet Me @Metro II," it'll be performed along the Metro Blue Line between Watts and downtown Long Beach over the coming two weekends.

Like last year's inaugural run, it's the brainchild of artistic director Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez. Figuring that the previous show was a bit scattershot, he's added a unifying theme, "traveling circus," for the sequence of short new works by five theater companies and a large experimental jazz collaborative, Killsonic. An assortment of puppeteers and other performers will join in along the three-hour round-trip.
Aviles-Rodriguez makes no claim of originality in turning a railway into the spine of a theatrical event, citing New York City's "A Train Plays" and the San Diego Dance Theater's annual "Trolley Dances" as longstanding forerunners. The unique thing about "Meet Me @Metro," he says, is its goal of turning railway ties into ties that bind L.A.'s famously splintered and sequestered geographical communities, if only for the duration of a theatrical trek.

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LACMA to start weekend shuttles to Watts Towers

June 16, 2011 |  9:00 am

Watts Starting in late July, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will begin running weekend visitor shuttles to the Watts Towers in South Los Angeles. The shuttles will include a guided tour of the towers site and the adjacent Watts Towers Art Center, as well as transportation to and from the museum.

LACMA said that the shuttles will depart at 11 a.m. from the Urban Light sculpture in front of the museum on Wilshire Boulevard. So far shuttles are scheduled for July 23 and 24, Aug. 20 and 21, and Sept. 10 and 11.

Tickets for the tours can be purchased by calling (323) 857-6010. The cost for a Saturday tour is $20 per person ($15 for museum members). The Sunday tours include lunch at the Watts Coffee House and cost $43 per person ($38 for members). 

The Watts Towers are a national historic landmark that consist of 17 structures that reach as high as 99 feet. Artist Simon Rodia completed the towers around 1954.

LACMA is a partner with L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs on the preservation of the site. (The towers are owned by the state of California and are managed by the city of L.A.) In February, LACMA received a $500,000, one-year grant from the James Irvine Foundation to carry out its work on the towers.

The Watts Towers have been a source of contention among various local groups over the maintenance and preservation of the fragile structures. The towers have been repeatedly vandalized throughout their history.


 LACMA gets $500,000 grant to fund its new role as Watts Towers conservator

City deal with LACMA to conserve Watts Towers hits snag over insurance

LAPD commander says Watts Towers may be the only viable place for a Watts skate park

'The Simpsons' pays tribute to Watts Towers

-- David Ng

Photo: Watts Towers. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

'The Simpsons' pays tribute to Watts Towers

February 21, 2011 | 10:39 am

The Watts Towers in South Los Angeles have been in the news a lot recently, mostly for the financial problems dealing with the conservation of the historic site. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art said it had received a $500,000, one-year grant from the James Irvine Foundation to carry out its work on the towers.

On Sunday, the famous sculptures received some publicity in the form of a brief tribute on "The Simpsons." In the episode, Bart Simpson is nominated for an Academy Award for his short animated movie "Angry Dad." The family visits L.A. during awards season, but to prevent dad Homer from attending the Oscars ceremony, Bart sends him on a tour of the city's less glamorous attractions, including the Watts Towers.

Artist Simon Rodia completed the towers -- which stand about 99 feet tall at their highest point -- in 1954.


Wattstowersskalij2001Watts Towers ready for their closeup at conference, if not yet a skateboard park

Watts Towers may get LACMA as a guardian

Battle is brewing over proposed skate park near the Watts Towers

Strapped city wants donors for Watts Towers conservation

Towers of power


-- David Ng

Photo: Watts Towers at night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

LACMA gets $500,000 grant to fund its new role as Watts Towers conservator

February 10, 2011 |  2:11 pm

The new partnership between the city of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to conserve and promote the Watts Towers has paid its first dividend – a big one.

The museum announced Wednesday that it has received a $500,000, one-year grant from the James Irvine Foundation to carry out its work on the towers. The city couldn’t have landed the grant on its own because the San Francisco-based foundation doesn’t fund government agencies.

Facing extreme financial pressure, the city, which manages the towers under a long-term contract with the state of California, which owns them, had budgeted just $150,000 for this year’s work, down from a peak of $300,000 a few years ago. Last spring Virginia Kazor, the historical curator who had  supervised towers conservation, took an early retirement offered as part of the drive to reduce government spending.

Conservation work came to a standstill; Olga Garay, executive director of the Department of Cultural Affairs, said no one else on the staff had the expertise to oversee it.

WattsTowersChrsKnight The solution was the partnership with LACMA, whose director, Michael Govan, has loved Simon Rodia’s folk-art masterpiece, now a national historic landmark, since the 1980s, when he was a graduate student at UC San Diego and made special trips to see it.

James Canales, president of the James Irvine Foundation, said Govan himself broached the idea of a grant supporting LACMA’s work. The foundation’s most recent grant to LACMA, in 2006, was a three-year, $900,000 gift to create a multimedia tour for museum visitors. 

LACMA will funnel $25,000 of the Watts Towers grant to the cultural affairs department to use for programming at the towers-adjacent Watts Towers Arts Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center. For the on-site conservation work, said Melody Kanschat, the museum’s president, LACMA will hire a project manager who will look to the neighborhood for paid, part-time helpers.

Plans also call for using some of the grant money to run summer bus tours from LACMA’s campus in Hancock Park to the towers, and to create ways for Watts residents to stay informed about the conservation work. Kanschat said museum officials already have begun showing the towers to prospective donors.

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LAPD commander says Watts Towers may be the only viable place for a Watts skate park

October 23, 2010 |  3:44 pm


Capt. Phillip Tingirides of the Los Angeles Police Department says he understands why people who cherish the Watts Towers as a work of art, as a landmark and as one of the few attractions that can pull tourists into Watts are unhappy with a proposal to install a $350,000 skateboarding park in the towers’ shadow.

"I get their concerns," says Tingirides, commander of the LAPD’s Southeast area, which includes Watts. "The towers is one of the only places where people come from other places to see Watts, and they don’t want to lose that" or see visitors’ experience diminished by noise and tumult.

Indeed, it’s not uncommon to hear Watts Towers advocates wonder if anybody would ever consider plunking a skate park in Hancock Park, next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or beside some other comparable cultural attraction. Ted Watkins Memorial Park, which is for active recreation, including a community pool, is just a few blocks away, some note. Why not put the skate park there?

But spend 15 or 20 minutes talking with Capt. Tingirides, and you quickly become aware of some reasons why it's not so simple. If Watts is to have a major skate park in the near future, he says, the towers-adjacent site may have to be it.

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Watts Towers ready for their closeup at conference, if not yet a skateboard park

October 22, 2010 | 10:45 am

WattsTowersLuisSinco Scholars, activists and artists who are gathering Friday afternoon for the start of the three-day Watts Towers Common Ground Conference at UCLA and in Watts will arrive to some good news: After a contractual snag over liability and insurance issues had held up the deal, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs have found some common ground of their own, and LACMA will become officially involved in helping to conserve Simon Rodia's folk-art masterwork, as well as pitching in with help in fund-raising for the towers and with ideas for marketing them as a cultural-tourism attraction.

Another issue that may stir some chat among conference-goers is City Councilwoman Janice Hahn's controversial proposal to plant a major skateboarding park on a strip of vacant land that begins about 40 yards from the towers. Some of the towers' most enthusiastic advocates say that although it would be great for kids in Watts to have a skate park, the government-owned land around the towers should be for culture and quiet relaxation.

The notion of putting a skate park next to the Watts Towers is "ridiculous ... it's almost offensive," said Luisa Del Giudice, the independent scholar who spearheaded the Watts Towers conference and a companion event last year at the University of Genoa in Italy.

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