An arts nonprofit closes shop after 'constant attacks' by anti-gentrification activists

Citing harassment and online trolling, the co-founders of an art space in Boyle Heights announced Tuesday that they will close the nonprofit, calling it a casualty of a raging fight over gentrification.

PSSST, which opened on East 3rd Street last year, came under fire from some residents and activists concerned about a new wave of galleries moving into the largely Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

“We are unable to ethically and financially proceed with our mission,” co-founders Barnett Cohen and Jules Gimbrone and community outreach coordinator Pilar Gallego said in a statement on their website. “Our young nonprofit struggled to survive through constant attacks.” 

Staff and artists were routinely trolled online and harassed in person, according to the statement from the nonprofit.

“This persistent targeting, which was often highly personal in nature, was made all the more intolerable because the artists we engaged are queer, women and/or people of color,” the statement read. “We could no longer continue to put already vulnerable communities at further risk.”

“While our closure might be applauded by some, it is not a victory for civil discourse and coalition building at a time when both are in short supply,” the statement added.

Fundraising became an impossibility as a result of a “mischaracterization” of the art space “as being fundamentally in opposition with the varied intersectional communities we aimed to support,” the statement continued.

Cohen declined to comment beyond the statement. 

Members of the activist group Defend Boyle Heights, who  for months have called for a boycott of the galleries, shared the news on Facebook shortly after. 

“We hope the rest of the galleries follow the example set by PSSST an[d] leave Boyle Heights,” the post reads. The majority of users responded congratulating the group. 

Defend Boyle Heights and the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) later released a statement championing the space closing. 

“This closure is thus a victory for BHAAAD and Defend Boyle Heights, and we claim it as such,” the statement read. “Civil discourse only functions when it is intersectional: the erasure of a predominantly working-class community of color demanding your removal is nowhere near intersectional, therefore void.”

The statement credited the loss in funding to “responsible conscious funders that understood the mistake of their actions.”

In the last few years, more than a dozen galleries have appeared in the area, mostly in the industrial zone just west of the 101 Freeway. Community activists say they fear the galleries will inflate property values and push poorer residents out.

Boyle Heights has become a battleground over gentrification, although it hasn’t seen anything remotely like the changes that neighborhoods such as Silver Lake and Highland Park have experienced. Still, many residents have long sensed it’s a neighborhood on the brink of major change. 

Defend Boyle Heights and BHAAAD stressed that there is a need in the neighborhood for affordable housing, emergency housing for homeless people and those displaced by gentrification, an affordable grocery store and a laundromat, among other things. 

“Why was there funding for a 501(c)3 to run a gallery to attract new people to Boyle Heights, but not for services for the existing community,” the groups’ statement read.

Late last year, Los Angeles police were investigating three acts of vandalism targeting art galleries in the neighborhood, including graffiti at one gallery that attacked “white art.” An officer said they were being treated as possible hate crimes.

It is unclear what will go in the space occupied by PSSST, as the owner will now assume control of the building, the gallery’s statement read.

In its Facebook post, Defend Boyle Heights said it would keep a close eye on what the landlord will do with the property and “involve the immediate community to resist.”

“We will not stop fighting until all galleries leave,” BHAAAD and Defend Boyle Heights stated. “Boyle Heights will continue to fight against the false promises of development and community improvement that are supposed to benefit us, but end up displacing us from our home. Once again we call on ALL galleries in Boyle Heights to reconsider your position and leave immediately.”

Mihai Nicodim, owner of the Nicodim gallery in Boyle Heights, said his gallery “will not close for sure.” A vulgar curse against “white art” was spray-painted on his gallery last year. 

“I don’t think this boycott affected commercially any of the other galleries — it surely didn't affect me. On the contrary,” Nicodim said. “But PSSST is different if they depend on their business to be from fundraisers … I’m pretty sure they [protesters] will try to get credit for it and maybe they did influence it … but I’m pretty sure none of the galleries are affected by this protest.”

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

Twitter: @Brittny_Mejia

 

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UPDATES:

10:51 a.m.: This article was updated with comment from a gallery owner, as well as statements from activists.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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