Andy Warhol Foundation funds bid to rehab homes near Watts Towers as live-in art objects
The Watts House Project, a grassroots nonprofit that’s enlisting neighborhood residents and volunteer artists to turn the row of homes facing the Watts Towers into an aesthetically engaging place to visit and live, will get a $125,000 boost from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
The grant comes from the foundation’s Warhol Initiative, aimed at helping smaller arts nonprofits learn to raise money and improve their business operations so they’ll be better able to support and sustain their creative work.
The word came via a letter about three weeks ago, capping a “really phenomenal year,” said Edgar Arceneaux, the Pasadena-based artist who is the Watts House Project’s volunteer executive director. He said renovations are in progress on seven homes — out of 20 in the 1700 block of E. 107th Street that the group aims to rehabilitate with artful flourishes by 2018. About $250,000 has been raised over the past 18 months.
The Warhol grant will provide $100,000 to be paid out over several years. An additional $25,000 will cover the cost of assigning a consultant to work with the Watts House Project to, as Arceneaux puts it, “get the machine running well.” The consultant also might be asked to help brainstorm an identifying genre-label for the kind of art-as-housing-improvement in which the Watts House Project is engaged. "Social art" just doesn't capture it, says Arceneaux; the group's website calls its efforts "a collaborative artwork in the shape of a neighborhood redevelopment."
Relying on a combination of volunteer creative and construction workers, donated materials and local tradespeople working for below-market wages, the project’s costs come to about $50,000 per house, Arceneaux said, plus about $75,000 to $100,000 a year in organizational overhead.
Supporters already on board include the Hammer Museum and LAXART, a nonprofit contemporary art space on La Cienega Boulevard that was itself one of the five previous L.A. recipients of Warhol Initiative grants.
Arceneaux said that Jeffrey Soros, president of the board of trustees of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and his wife, Catharine, have provided a $100,000 low-interest loan this year so the Watts House Project could buy three homes on a single lot opposite the Watts Towers Arts Center. Along with four privately owned residences, they are being rehabbed as a headquarters building, a coffee shop that will be run by neighborhood residents, and a gallery and meeting hall that can also house out-of-town artists who come to Watts to pitch in — such as a group from the San Francisco Art Institute that’s planning to create a neighborhood-oriented Internet radio station in March.
The Warhol grant also creates the unlikely, face-to-face juxtaposition of Andy Warhol, whose bequest established the Warhol Foundation and funds its work — and whose own work was famously collaborative — with Simon Rodia, the Italian immigrant artisan whose single-handed creation of the hundred-foot-high, ornately sculpted and decorated Watts Towers over more than 30 years established him as one of art history’s ultimate do-it-yourselfers.
"You don’t hear Warhol and Rodia spoken in the same sentence usually,” said Arceneaux, whose work was shown in the 2008 Whitney Biennial in New York City, and recognized in 2007 with a $50,000 United States Artists grant. “It’s nice that we can be a crossroads where they intersect.”
Arceneaux says he's reserving judgment on another, more controversial plan to improve the neighborhood: the proposed creation of a huge skateboarding plaza on vacant, city-owned land about 40 yards from the towers. "I'm in a completely neutral position" until officials reveal more of the details, he said. "What needs to happen is open discussion among the residents who would be directly affected."
-- Mike Boehm
Photos: Home across from Watts Towers gets a floral makeover from Watts House Project workers; Photo of 1762 E. 107th St., one of properties being rehabbed; Renovation design for 1762 E. 107th St. Credits: Watts House Project (flower house); Edgar Arceneaux (1762 E. 107th St photo); Francisco Arias/Watts House Project (1762 E. 107th St. design).