PRINT May 2019


Sign in the window of La Conxa Autonomous Community Space, Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, February 22, 2018. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon.

356 S. MISSION RD., an art space that once served as a studio for painter Laura Owens, opened in 2013 in Boyle Heights, a largely Latinx neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles. Then came eleven more galleries, including Maccarone at 300 South Mission Road and, one block away on Anderson Street, Venus Over Los Angeles both in 2015, followed by UTA Artist Space and Ibid the following year. But what spurred the first protests against the art world’s migration into the area was a boosterish New York Times article from September 16, 2015, that framed Boyle Heights as an art-world discovery, quoting gallerist Michele Maccarone as saying that the area “still has a dangerous quality.” In November 2015, a group of local high-school students cited the article as the impetus for Ambularte, a guerrilla protest exhibition that projected messages such as RESISTANCE IS FOR EVERYONE onto the exterior of Maccarone’s gallery. The Times article, and subsequent coverage in other national papers and magazines, often mischaracterized the neighborhood as a no-man’s land, omitting the fact that the light-industrial zone the galleries occupied was less than a half mile from housing projects, parks, and private homes. Spaces like 356 S. Mission Rd. offered youth programming with their neighbors in mind, but this did not stop activists from targeting them with special zeal, claiming the space’s purportedly community-friendly purpose could not mitigate their complicity in the district’s gentrification. Thus began a divisive cultural crisis in Los Angeles that brought international attention to the fight over Boyle Heights and left the local art community racked with conflicts it has yet to resolve. 

Further protests were incited by a profile of artists Barnett Cohen and Jules Gimbrone that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on April 8, 2016. As founders of PSSST, a nonprofit dedicated to underrepresented artists and located one block from residential Boyle Heights, the two told the paper that they would keep “artist needs top of mind.” A group called Pissst and Resisting formed in response and held a meeting on May 9 at the local community organization Union de Vecinos to discuss how Cohen and Gimbrone failed “to see the connection between art, speculative capital, real-estate and displacement.” Activists, residents, and members of the art world, including me, attended. There, a fact sheet circulated accusing Cohen and Gimbrone of “racial and educational privilege,” though its objectivity and aims were later questioned when it became clear that the document had been cowritten by Kean O’Brien, the founders’ former classmate at CalArts.

Pissst and Resisting dissolved into Defend Boyle Heights (DBH) and Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD), two groups with similar aims. Union de Vecinos—founded in 1996 by members of the long-standing artist-activist collective Ultra-red—served as their hub. These groups began to hold protests in front of galleries during events, write open letters, and spearhead online callouts.

Some protesters also took issue with the fact that the donor who had purchased the building for PSSST remained anonymous, arguing that such invisibility protected them from culpability. Few gallerists actually owned the buildings their galleries occupied, and known holders often proved disinterested in the activists’ demands. Vera Campbell, founder of textiles company KWDZ Manufacturing, owns both Maccarone’s current building and the one formerly occupied by 356 S. Mission Rd., as well as the modest storefront on First Street that served as headquarters for the feminist-activist group Ovarian Psycos—until Campbell raised the rent. Other galleries in Boyle Heights leased their spaces from similar investors who hold multiple nearby properties. One exception was Robert Zin Stark, founder of MaRS Gallery, who owns his building on Anderson Street and made a habit of trying to engage in dialogue with the picketers at his openings. Late in September 2016, after protesters hung oversize faux eviction notices on the facades of his and other spaces, tensions escalated.

What became clear—at least within the art world—was how much this fight was in fact about questioning the sincerity and radicalism of one another’s politics.

In February 2017, 356 S. Mission Rd. hosted the inaugural meeting of the Artists’ Political Action Network (APAN). As their open-ended invitation stated, they were gathering to “use our creative energy to resist this [Trump] administration by all means necessary” and to “leverage our cultural capital to effect meaningful change in our communities.” Members of BHAAAD formed a picket line outside of the meeting, which prompted artist and APAN cofounder Charles Gaines to write an open letter accusing protesters of a “hyper simplified reading” of gentrification. BHAAAD responded: “It is an outrage for well-established artists and artists with financial and housing security . . . to contest the voices of Boyle Heights residents.” Targeted gallerists and artists, in turn, pointed out that some protesters held MFA degrees or had only recently relocated to Boyle Heights, while others didn’t live there at all; they also noted the relative privilege of certain activists, citing the salaries of Union de Vecinos’s founders. Artists Guadalupe Rosales and Raquel Gutierrez, both from East Los Angeles, expressed nuanced, conflicted feelings about the tactics of the protesters, as did Joel Garcia, director of programs at Self Help Graphics & Art, a forty-seven-year-old nonprofit promoting Latinx and Chicanx artists. “You have white guys telling a brown guy from the projects what to do in the community he grew up in,” Garcia told the Guardian in October 2017, after protesters called him out for allowing Campbell to sit on his non-profit’s board, and for cooperating with pro-development councilman Jose Huizar, who is currently under FBI investigation for corruption. What became clear—at least within the art world—was how much this fight was in fact about questioning the sincerity and radicalism of one another’s politics.

Galleries started closing a year after the protests began in earnest. PSSST shuttered in 2017, citing activist opposition. When Owens announced the end of 356 S. Mission Rd. in March 2018, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, BHAAAD posted on Facebook: “Bye, picket line-crossing hipsters, artists & collectors!” UTA Artist Space moved out months later. When Stark decided to halt operations in April of that same year, he asked BHAAAD members to plan the closure with him in order to address their role in it. He met with them twice, but ultimately vacated quietly in November. Chimento Contemporary and Ibid soon left, too, and by January 2019, it seemed that the protesters had largely gotten their wish.

But the art world’s exit was not a clean victory. Tech and event companies, such as the Container Yard, moved into Boyle Heights, and Venus’s Adam Lindemann bought a building just west of the area on Imperial Street, in order to transform it into a market-rate live-work complex. As of now, the art world’s departure has not ceased the kind of development activists feared all along. 

Catherine G. Wagley is a critic and journalist based in Los Angeles.