In 1984, L.A.-based performance artist Susanna Bixby Dakin ran for president of the United States against Ronald Reagan. She gave the campaign her all, traveling around the country giving speeches, posting lawn signs and running TV ads.
Her campaign slogan? “An Artist for President. The nation is the artwork and we the people are the artists.”
Dakin didn’t expect to win – the undertaking was a feminist-minded, yearlong “durational performance work” that she called “An Artist for President.” But her message was clear. When she was asked, in a TV news interview what, exactly, she would do if she were to actually make her way into the White House, she replied: “Turn it into an alternative art space.”
So it’s no surprise that, four years later, Dakin co-founded Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Center, a multicultural, socially conscious alternative contemporary art space.
This week, 18th Street Arts Center — now the largest artist residency program in Southern California, hosting about 100 artists each year — celebrates its 30th anniversary. Its mission, all these years later, remains the same: unconditionally support artists and promote public dialogue through contemporary art-making.
“18th Street is focused on that space before the work gets made, the liminal space before a project gets realized,” says longtime executive director Jan Williamson. “The creative space in time, the research, the incubation of ideas, and just supporting that – giving artists space and time to take risks and try new things.”
When Dakin and Linda Frye Burnham officially formed 18th Street Arts Center, it launched with a bang. The two women had been co-publishing the nonprofit High Performance magazine, then based in downtown L.A., and the artist residency program grew out of that venture. Dakin purchased a group of five warehouse buildings in Santa Monica that included an auto body garage, a light bulb factory, architect offices and artist studios. It’s now the arts center’s permanent home.
Fresh ocean air, she felt, could only be a good thing for artists.
The center hosted 20-30 artists its first year. Early participants include Phranc, the self-described “All-American Jewish lesbian folk singer," muralist Francisco Letelier, performance artist Tim Miller, playwright Keith Antar Mason and performance artist Coco Fusco. Not long after 18th Street opened, Mexican-born, San Francisco-based performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, also a founding artist-in-residence, was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1991, catapulting the budding art space into the national spotlight.
To celebrate its 30th birthday, 18th Street Arts Center will host “We the Artists,” a free “live performance festival” on Saturday. Gómez-Peña and his performance troupe, La Pocha Nostra, along with Highways Performance Space, will co-host the event along with 18th Street Arts Center.
There will be new commissions on view by artist alumni Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Asher Hartman and Amitis Motevalli, along with current artist-in-residence Marcus Kuiland-Nazario. They’ll create live performance and theater-based works spanning spoken word, experimental dance and video projections.
Current artists-in-residence Kate Johnson and Po-Yen Wang, along with alum Daniel Canogar, will show site-specific video installations.
Other current artists-in-residence will open their studio doors, as will 18th Street’s main art gallery, which will show an exhibition by visual artist Neha Choksi.
Plus, of course, food trucks and craft beer.
The L.A. punk bands Egrets on Ergot and Sebeyu will play at the end of the night.
There may be far more artist residencies around the country today, compared with the dozen or so that existed when 18th Street Arts Center opened its doors. But the need for such spaces, Williamson says, is just as crucial today, maybe even more so.
“18th Street is even more relevant now,” she says, “because the environment is so politically charged that being a brave space for artists to imagine and create and work in as a community is really important. And often they’re doing work that has real social benefit, and we’re interested in that, in getting their ideas out into the social sphere.”