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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.

Another Los Angeles-based initiative, GOOD Ideas for Cities, will get $85,000 to help it expand to additional cities a 3-year-old program in which artists and designers are enlisted to brainstorm solutions for real-life problems posed by civic leaders, then present them at public events. So far, the sessions have taken place in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

The biggest grant by ArtPlace, $1 million, went to an effort to turn a former East Harlem public school into a combination community center and residence building housing 90 artists and their families. In San Francisco, the community group Intersection for the Arts received $777,000 for 5M, a downtown mixed-use development project it's doing in tandem with a private developer.

The role of the NEA and other federal departments in ArtPlace is to ensure that grants go to groups whose work is in "alignment" with the government's urban development projects; the foundations funding the first round include the James Irvine Foundation, Ford Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

In July, the NEA announced a $350,000 infusion of federal arts grant money into Watts and neighboring Willowbrook as part of Chairman Rocco Landesman's new Our Town initiative, which also aims to use the arts as a tool for community improvement.


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Watts House Project: art meets architecture near the Towers

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Artists and neighborhood youths paint private residence as part of Watts House Project in 2008. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times