In what is expected to be a boost for the struggling mall, Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza has been picked to be host of the largest West Coast exhibit of artwork depicting black history and lifestyles.
Barbara Wesson, the organizer of the Artists' Salute to Black History Month Exhibition, pulled the show from its traditional location at the Fox Hills Mall in Culver City after she was unable to reach an agreement with officials of that mall on space for next year's 10th-anniversary celebration.
Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza officials stepped in and offered space for the February exhibit after talks with Fox Hills broke down. At the Plaza, where officials have been struggling to increase foot traffic because of the lack of retail stores, landing the show was well-received.
"This is a major coup," said Linda Gray, the Plaza's marketing director. "The Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza is becoming more aggressive and competitive in the marketplace, and this is consistent with our plans for growth."
This year, more than 125,000 people attended February's five-day event, in which the work of about 80 artists was displayed on the floor level of the Fox Hills mall. The exhibit featured about 5,000 paintings, prints, sculptures, batiks, masks and mixed-media works.
The event has a multiracial following, but is particularly well-attended by blacks.
"This will bring the exhibition to a beautiful mall, which happens to be in the heart of the African-American community," Wesson said. "But I would take this exhibit anywhere, to Disneyland, as long as it is well-received and has appropriate space. The artists mean more to me than anything."
When Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter heard the news, her reaction was simple. "Far out," she said. "The Plaza is where it ought to be."
The Plaza is in Galanter's district, and she has been among the city officials working to make it successful.
Plaza officials see the art exhibit as an opportunity to strengthen the mall's ties to its local community and help reverse the tendency of many area residents to shop elsewhere.
The city-subsidized mall opened in 1988 and was touted as the first modern shopping center built in a predominantly black community. But the Plaza has been plagued by the sluggish economy and a reluctance on the part of many national retailers to lease space. It is still only about 60% occupied.
The Plaza and the Fox Hills Mall draw from overlapping regions, including the largely middle-class Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights, View Park and Windsor Hills areas. A large majority of the Plaza's customers are black, and more than 50% of those who shop at the Fox Hills Mall are black.
Fox Hills officials discounted the potential economic impact of the art exhibit's relocation.
Referring to show organizer Wesson, Fox Hills marketing director Deborah Hardy said, "This is strictly Barbara's decision, not some competition between the two centers." She added: "Baldwin Hills is having some problems, and they are doing the best they can in the community, but they don't have the stores to compete with us."
Hardy said Fox Hills began sponsoring Wesson's artists' salute in 1983 because it recognized "the need to celebrate the ethnic diversities in the mall."
Wesson and Fox Hills Mall officials parted company after the officials refused to limit the number of independent vendors who sell merchandise from leased carts in the shopping center. The carts restricted the space the artists could use to display their works, Wesson said.
"We are disappointed in her decision, and we would gladly welcome her back," Hardy said, adding that the mall plans to continue to celebrate Black History Month next February. "We feel very strongly that our customers associate the mall with a large (February) salute," she said.