Watts House Project and the challenges of social practice


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It’s easy to understand why curators, critics and others have a soft spot for artists engaged in ‘social practice’ -- those who roll up their sleeves and use their skills to try to bring about some sort of real-world change, whether raising awareness about domestic violence or helping to rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans. But is it possible that when it comes to social practice that the art establishment has a blind spot too?

That is one question raised by our report on the problems behind the scenes at Watts House Project, a highly lauded community redevelopment effort founded by artist Edgar Arceneaux to bring artists and architects together to renovate homes on East 107th Street, across from the Watts Towers. They called it ‘an ongoing, collaborative artwork in the shape of a neighborhood redevelopment.’


Despite serious art-world support and funding (about $700,000 in all, from the likes of LACMA, the Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and ArtPlace), the small, 3-year-old nonprofit has been struggling with resident dissatisfaction, construction delays and board defections. In October alone, seven of Arceneaux’s 12 board members left, including doctor-collector Joy Simmons, LAX Art founder Lauri Firstenberg and real estate developer Eve Steele. Residents are now talking about pulling out.

Known for his thoughtful gallery installations, Arceneaux has in the past described the tension between Watts House Project as an artwork (‘responsive,’ ‘amorphous’ and ‘unruly in its power’) and as a nonprofit organization that requires some structure and procedures (or ‘rigidity’ and ‘clarity’). ‘There’s a line we have to balance between the heart and the business,’ he said to this reporter. ‘But that tension is not anything I shy away from. I think it allows for an interesting dialogue.’

Rick Lowe, the social practice pioneer who founded Project Row Houses in Houston (and whom Arceneaux also credits as his mentor and predecessor in Watts for his early work there), says a project’s dual status as a work of art and a community project should not let it off the hook in terms of accountability and responsibility to the community at hand.

Reached by phone in March, Lowe made clear his assessment of Watts House Project, a response, unlike many others, based on talking to Watts residents directly. “I applaud Edgar for his ability to develop the cultural capital for...the project. If it comes to communication with funders and the art world about the project, I’d give him an A+. But when it comes to internal stuff, how he’s been able to use the project as a way to access the potential of the existing community, that’s a different story.

“I’m torn,’ Lowe continued, ‘because I really like Edgar, I consider him a friend and an excellent studio artist. But if I had to give a grade, I could not give WHP a passing grade as a socially engaged art project. So many of the things you might consider best practices are just not there, though it’s being held up as this great example.’

Lowe also spoke more broady about the importance of accountability in this relatively new field. ‘Everyone is so polite. You don’t want to cut someone down who is trying to do something. But at the same time this could keep social practice from being serious: It can’t be serious if you can’t have a rigorous critique of it.’


Click here for the full report on Watts House Project.


Watts House Project lands $370,000 grant

Edgar Arceneaux at Susanne Vielmetter

-- Jori Finkel

Photograph: 1760 East 107th Street, also known as the Love House, is one of the partner homes in Watts House Project where a renovation has stalled. Credit: Jori Finkel / Los Angeles Times.