Watts House Project under fire

When National Endowment for the Arts chief Rocco Landesman flew to L.A. in February, he visited Watts House Project, the nonprofit group that artist Edgar Arceneaux founded to remodel homes on the block across from the Watts Towers. Landesman walked away impressed.

"You see just how aesthetically these houses have been transformed to create a whole different mood in the neighborhood -- a mood of joy and hope in what had been a very run-down and challenged neighborhood," he wrote on an NEA blog.

He's not the only person to see the project as a model -- or in his words a "poster child" -- for artist-driven urban revitalization. Since its founding three years ago, the nonprofit has raised about $700,000 from donors including the L.A. County Museum of Art, the Andy Warhol Foundation and ArtPlace, a consortium spearheaded (but not funded) by the NEA.

But a number of disgruntled Watts residents say that there are serious problems behind the cheery facades. They describe Arceneaux as charismatic but unreliable, his relationship with community leaders as distant at best, and his real contributions to Watts -- beyond marketing, fundraising and a few bright paint jobs -- as minimal.

Originally, the plan was to have an artist-architect team "partner" with each family across from the Watts Towers on East 107th Street to "transform the interiors and exteriors, front and backyards of all 20 homes" on that block and "reimagine the neighborhood," to quote early mission statements. They also called it "an ongoing, collaborative artwork in the shape of a neighborhood redevelopment."

But only three homeowners on the block agreed to the ambitious renovations. And despite years of discussions and a flurry of architectural plans featuring new bedrooms, bathrooms and space-saving solutions for the multigenerational families living in these single-story homes, only minor or cosmetic improvements like painting and landscaping have been completed.

By last summer, the group's focus seemed to be holding art workshops for kids. In October, seven of Arceneaux's 12 board members resigned. Now some partner residents say they've had enough unfulfilled promises and are talking about pulling out.

Visions and frustrations

Reached by phone in Sydney, Australia, where he was preparing for a new museum installation, Arceneaux said that he remains committed to the homeowners despite delays that he attributes to the building permit process and a "serious" tax-law issue. "The only thing we can do is to say: Hey, we understand, we're working with you, we're pushing forward," said the artist. "Hopefully we'll stay together along the way."

But the partner residents don't sound hopeful. One, Noemi Madrigal, said her family "is very discontent with the way things have been handled in the past, and the length of time it takes to get anything accomplished." Of Arceneaux, she said: "If he thinks he's helping an impoverished community of primarily Mexicans and African Americans, he's done nothing but put us to shame."

Another participant, Maria Garcia, said: "Like most of our neighbors, we are not interested in working with them anymore because they haven't really done anything. They hold meetings once a month, but we don't even go because we're so frustrated."

Even Houston-based artist-activist Rick Lowe, whom Arceneaux credits as a mentor for Lowe's early work in Watts and others regard as a pioneer in this real-world application of artists' skills known as "social practice," sounds critical. Though not directly involved with the current project, he says he has stayed in touch with a number of Watts residents and arts leaders.

"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+," said Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses in Houston. "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."

Lowe considers Arceneaux, who has made acclaimed gallery installations inspired by such diverse sources as Plato, Michael Jackson and the 1967 Detroit riots, "an excellent studio artist." Yet as for his community work, he said, "So many of the things you might consider best practices are just not there, though it's being held up as this great example."

Arceneaux, who lives in Pasadena, said he has heard these complaints before and asked himself: "Maybe it's me? Maybe I am doing something wrong? But I realized it's just the way that it goes there," he said, describing the area as a particularly tough place to build trust. "We're in Watts, where historically nonprofits fail within the first year," he said, citing a "rampant territorialism" among nonprofits competing for public money.

"Before we got the grants, nobody gave a damn," he said. "As soon as you get money, the knives come out."

As for Landesman, reached by phone in Washington, D.C., he said he based his positive impressions on a slide show by Arceneaux as well as a tour of the block, "and it all looked good." He also talked to one enthusiastic 107th Street resident, Rosa Gutierrez, whose home received a bright flower mural as part of the program.

He said he was not told she was on staff at Watts House Project. And he didn't have the chance to talk to residents of the three main homes promoted as renovation projects.

Disgruntled residents

He didn't talk, for instance, to Moneik Johnson, whose home on 107th Street has not been remodeled, despite 2009 plans by architect Mike Niemann that would add a new bedroom, two new porches, and sleeping lofts to accommodate 10 family members then living there.

The residence was dubbed the Love House, after artist Alexandra Grant drew sketches showing a large metal sculpture spelling the word "love" in a loopy sort of cursive planted on the roof of the house.

Now the nickname seems ironic. Niemann was replaced by another architect, Roberto Sheinberg. The idea of a Love sculpture -- too heavy for the house -- was ultimately reconceived as a Love bench. Grant, who raised about $32,000 toward the house renovation through sales of a Love necklace and other limited-edition artworks, left the board in January 2011.

Construction on the Love House has not begun.

"They did a new garden in front and paved my front yard so we could park there without getting a ticket for parking on the grass. But that was about it," said Johnson. There is no Love bench.

Jose and Maria Garcia, longtime Watts residents who own two adjacent houses on the block that they share with their adult children and grandchildren, have a similar story.

At the end of 2009, Arceneaux lined up artists Mario Ybarra Jr. and Karla Diaz and the architecture firm Escher GuneWardena to rehab the property. According to the architects, who said they pulled permits last summer, plans included adding two rooms and a bathroom to one home, remodeling the kitchen and bathroom, fixing an uneven foundation and replacing some plumbing. They also planned a two-car carport in back that would double as "a dining pavilion" for the whole family.

LACMA, which signed on to sponsor the Garcia project in 2009, reports that it has provided a total of $67,000 in funding, including a $27,000 payment in January. According to an accounting sent to the museum in December, the architects have been paid about $15,000 and the artists $6,500. The Watts House Project website ran a banner this year heralding "all the improvements" at the Garcia house: "Progress!" it said.

Yet the most noticeable addition to the Garcia property has been a series of colorful mosaic murals in front designed by Augustine Aguirre, an artist in residence with Watts Towers Arts Center across the street who is not affiliated with Watts House Project. Aguirre alleges that Arceneaux's group has used images of his murals without his permission in its own promotional photographs and videos. "They've been using my work to promote the project," he said. (After he discovered a Watts House Project video last year on the LACMA website featuring his mosaics without credit, the museum took it down and sent him a letter of apology. An image of the murals on the Watts House Project website now credits Aguirre.)

In an interview at their home in March, the Garcias reported that nearly three years of renovation discussions and plans by Watts House Project have led to about three days worth of work by them. "They did paint the outside of the house, and they did the stucco around the back. But originally the plans were much bigger," said Jose Garcia.

His wife, Maria, who was sitting near a pile of tiles on her porch that have yet to be installed in her kitchen, said she is ready to walk away from the project altogether and would rather do any home repairs on her own whenever she has the money. "I don't want to talk to Edgar or see him again."

A few doors down, Noemi Madrigal said she would not let Watts House Project work on her family's house again. The first house to be renovated under Arceneaux's vision with the help of a $30,000 grant from the Hammer Museum, before the nonprofit was officially founded, the property gained a new wooden shed in back, a walkway and wrought-iron fence in front, and a lamp for the porch.

But Madrigal called that phase of the remodel "horrific" and said the shed alone "ended up taking over six months" to build, destroying the grass in her backyard in the process. When Arceneaux came back to the family in 2010 to discuss the more extensive renovation, she said she insisted on his putting into writing a timeline for completion. It never materialized. "If he can't build a storage shed in six months, why would we allow him to tear down the walls of our home?"

Delays and departures

When asked about the reasons for the various delays, Arceneaux and his board president, Channing Henry, said money is not the problem. "We have not wasted any of our funds," Henry said. "We are eager to spend them on the things they're intended for." Arceneaux added that the Madrigal project is "on hold" pending more fundraising but that the organization has money in the bank for the Love House and Garcia property, with $42,000 and $52,000, respectively, remaining for each.

(Meanwhile, a $370,000 ArtPlace grant received in September has been earmarked by the nonprofit group for its work on the Platform, a cluster of three run-down houses on the block that Arceneaux described in interviews last year as his future headquarters and community center. He now talks instead about using the property, which his group owns, for families at risk of going homeless.)

Arceneaux said one reason for the delays was the lack of proper building permits for past work in the houses, which makes doing new work more challenging.

He also described a legal issue, which he said "was not flagged in a serious way" until last year, that could affect his plan. For charitable organizations, the IRS has a prohibition against "inurement/private benefit" that prevents someone from setting up shop to direct money to, say, a friend or board member. The code specifies that a charity "must not be organized or operated for the benefit of private interests, such as the creator or the creator's family, shareholders of the organization, other designated individuals, or persons controlled directly or indirectly by such private interests."

Because of this tax law, the group's former lawyer Peter Gelles said it could not give free home renovations to residents as planned. "What if they wanted to sell the property and take the money and go to Tahiti?" Gelles explained. With private inurement issues, a nonprofit "could lose its tax-exempt status," he said.

The board's solution was to draft contracts for the residents stipulating that they would "reimburse" project costs should they ever sell their homes at a profit or do a cash-back refinancing, with the reimbursement not to exceed 50% of their profits.

Arceneaux, who called his current five-member board "more efficient, more nimble and clearer in focus," summarized it as "a yearlong journey to find the right financial architecture" for the project.

Resident Moneik Johnson, the only partner homeowner who is also on the board, said she was shown a contract last year and refused to sign it. "From Day 1, I thought this would be a gift," she said. "You can't go telling people it's going to be a gift and then two or three years later change your mind and say: If you ever have a sale then you have to repay the amount. That's not what I call a gift," she said.

Last month Johnson was offered new reimbursement contracts with different financial terms. This past week she said she had not agreed to any of them and was "still considering" her options.

Noemi Madrigal said that her family has not signed any contracts: "They wouldn't dare ask us."

Maria Garcia did sign the contract in November when the Watts House Project board president, another board member and two employees stopped by her home. But Garcia could not explain the basic terms contained in it to a reporter. "They brought me all these papers," she said. "I'm diabetic and didn't have a chance to eat yet and my blood sugar was dropping. So I'm telling them I'm feeling really sick, and they won't stop talking. I signed it to make them go away."

Arceneaux was not part of this meeting. Henry, the board president, said she did remember Garcia saying she didn't feel well, but "my sense is that the family wasn't asking us to leave," she said. "We tried to be as quick as possible, and we also said we were very happy to leave the contract with her and her daughter, and we would come back for it."

Several former board members have said that if and how to proceed with these contracts was a divisive issue for many months. More broadly, they described Arceneaux's habit of starting more than he could finish as an ongoing problem.

Former board chairwoman Joy Simmons, an art collector whose departure in October triggered several of the other board resignations, said she tried during her tenure to establish policies and procedures that weren't in place early on.

"Watts House Project could have been, and maybe still could be, a real template for a much larger process for other cities in this country and beyond," Simmons said. "I think many of us really wanted that, and that's why it was so important to get those nitty-gritty details, legally and financially, right."

But without being able to resolve those things, she said she felt uncomfortable moving ahead with fundraising. "Being responsible for and to our grantors was something I was very concerned with, and that was one of the major reasons I left. I wanted to be sure that if we accepted any funds we would be able to fulfill the grant completely and be responsible," she said. "I was not sure we would be able to do that."

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jori.finkel@latimes.com

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