Art that makes a public spectacle of itself

Share via

A giant bulb atop the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood that goes on and off for no apparent reason. A letter denying a Mexican citizen a visa, plastered across the façade of the Geffen Contemporary. A billboard on Fairfax advertising a used 1994 Cadillac Fleetwood. Banners pinned to chain-link fences recounting fragments of dreams in both English and Spanish. The words “leave the land alone” scrawled by plane across the sky.

There’s been a striking upswing in the production of public art in Los Angeles in recent years, but it may not look like what you’ve come to expect from the murals and bus shelters that have long predominated. Indeed, if you happened upon any of these recent projects (by Piero Golia, Moris, Brandon Lattu, Nebojsa Milikic and Bruce Nauman, respectively) you may have had little idea what you were looking at, or that what you were looking at was artwork at all.

The shift reflects the emergence of a relatively new institutional player, one that’s set to fill the gap between aging models of public art and L.A.’s contemporary art scene: the independent public art nonprofit. Unencumbered by the obligations of a city agency, the commercial demands of a gallery or the institutional identity of a museum, these organizations have managed to carve promising inroads into the jungle of the city’s public sphere, mounting projects — mostly temporary — of an exceedingly varied nature, from billboards to sculpture to guerilla performance.


West of Rome, Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND), LAXART, Outpost for Contemporary Art and the Watts House Project — all of which emerged or received their nonprofit status within the last five years — are dedicated solely or in large part to the production of art in public spaces. Exhibition-oriented nonprofits such as the MAK Center and the Armory Center for the Arts also have commissioned significant public work in recent years. For Your Art, not technically a nonprofit but operating in the spirit of one, has also been producing and supporting public projects.

They follow on the heels of artists and collectives such as Fritz Haeg, Joel Tauber, Fallen Fruit, Islands of LA, the LA Urban Rangers and the Pocho Research Society (PRS): artists engaged with questions of public space and community but operating largely independent of — indeed, sometimes in defiance of — official sanction. PRS has installed mock plaques around the city commemorating moments of history not officially recognized; LA Urban Rangers organized public beach safaris in Malibu; Islands of LA stages events on that loneliest stretch of urban territory, the traffic island.

The public art nonprofit fills the sizable gap between this loose affiliation of renegade projects and the heftier frameworks of the powers that be. These are small, administratively nimble institutions, funded, for the most part, through grants and individual contributions. (Both West of Rome and LAND have their first major benefits scheduled for July.) Working, typically, in networks of collaboration — with artists, with the city of Los Angeles and other municipalities, with museums and with one another — they cover a great deal of ground with real flexibility.

“It’s such an exciting time for nonprofits,” says Alexandra Grant, an artist and founding member of the Watts House Project’s board. “There’s an opportunity to think of these legal entities as a very creative space for people to organize. To think about the relationship between money and creativity and how they’re applied, and how a small nonprofit that’s on the ground can rethink some of the bigger, slow moving boats of culture.”

The difficulties plaguing public art in Los Angeles are myriad in even the best of circumstances. A geographically vast region encompassing multiple municipalities and enormous cultural diversity, with little to no pedestrian presence and a visual sphere dominated by commercial messaging, the city is a complicated slate, one that upends traditional notions of what “public” even means.

Bureaucratic conditions are no more favorable. Muralists have been hamstrung for years by a pending moratorium on new billboards, waiting for city attorneys to get around to crafting a legal distinction between art and advertising. The city ranks well below other major U.S. cities in arts spending, meanwhile, with a Department of Cultural Affairs reduced, in every new crisis, to battling for its very existence.


The predominant means by which public artworks are generated has been the Percent for Art program, whereby private developers and city and county departments are required to contribute roughly 1% of construction costs for capital improvements to public art. It’s better than nothing but problematic in its limitations, principally in its implicit favoring of those artists — a minority, it turns out — willing to take on the onerous rules and regulations. The result, on the whole, has been public art strikingly out of step with the city’s thriving art scene.

The nonprofits, by contrast, are artist-driven rather than site-driven: They receive proposals and seek out artists, much as a museum would. “A nonprofit like ours that’s independent and that’s built around artistic and curatorial freedom, artistic and curatorial risk,” says LAXART’s Lauri Firstenberg, “we have the ability to work freely in the public realm. A lot of institutions don’t have that freedom.”

The recession has done as much to help as to challenge the nonprofits’ emergence. It’s freed up real estate and billboard space, making it much easier for the MAK Center, for instance, to mount a 21-billboard “exhibition” across the city earlier this year. It’s also tempered the traditional hegemony of the gallery system, loosening its hold on both the time and, with luck, the imagination of its artists.

“I really feel that the professional structures of the art world are collapsing on themselves,” says West of Rome founder Emi Fontana. “They were very fragile, coming together with the last economic bubble, when the art world was trying to professionalize itself and look more like a corporate world. And now the money is gone — boom, collapsed.”

Fontana ran a commercial gallery for 20 years in Milan, Italy, before coming to Los Angeles but grew frustrated with what she describes as the “the tyranny of the space, the constriction.” “I have never been good at selling little things,” she says; “it was the production that interested me, and also the idea of selling bigger work, which is more like selling a vision.”

She launched West of Rome in 2005 with a site-specific installation by latter-day Light and Space artist Olafur Eliasson that took over the interior of a modernist residence in Pasadena. She’s become best known since for large-scale projects by similarly big-name artists: a video installation by T. Kelly Mason and Diana Thater in a former bridal shop in Westwood; billboards by Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger; and a viral poster and sticker campaign by Jenny Holzer.


Outpost founder Julie Deamer came from a gallery background as well, in San Francisco. She launched Outpost in 2004 as an itinerant endeavor, intending to open an exhibition space when she’d raised a sufficient operating budget. Over time, however, she came to feel that she was better off without one.

“Working in public spaces, and in temporary venues, really having to develop a strong partnership base and a collaborative approach, I realized that that was what I wanted to do, that I had grown tired of the exhibition format,” she says. “There’s something sort of static about it, getting people to come in and always working within the same sort of space. It just wasn’t as dynamic as what I experienced with the type of programming that we were generating in our first program cycle.”

Outpost does operate a space now — dubbed Outpost HQ, in Highland Park — but it’s a meeting place rather than a gallery, with room for events and a library that’s open to the public. Its artistic programming is structured around two-year residency cycles, in which a handful of artists from a given international region are selected to come and create projects in L.A. The last two years were devoted to Eastern Europe; this fall, the focus shifts to South America.

LAXART, the most established and prolific of the nonprofits, has paired public and exhibition programming since its emergence five years ago — it mounts 12 shows a year in its La Cienega gallery — but has greatly expanded its public activities in response to the number of proposals it receives from artists. It recently paired with For Your Art to establish a special initiative for off-site works, LA Public Domain ( LAPD), and hired a curator dedicated specifically to public art: Cesar Garcia, a recent graduate of USC’s public art program.

In all of these discussions, the city itself emerges as a pivotal factor: a sprawling, difficult, ever-changing entity that allows for — indeed, demands — a nontraditional approach.

LAND founder Shamim Momin, who spent 12 years at the Whitney Museum in New York before moving to L.A., came to know Los Angeles over the years through its artists, whose work she saw embodying a concentration of the shifts she outlined in the 2008 Biennial (which included 25 Angelenos) — toward socially based practices, for instance, and hybrid ways of working.


When she and LAND co-founder Christine Y. Kim (now at LACMA) began to conceive of an organization flexible enough to reflect these shifts, “the only place that really made sense was L.A.” she says. “Partly because of the artists, but also because of the structure of the city, the openness of the possibilities here, compared to New York, which is feeling more and more codified and overly structured.”

What’s at stake in all of these endeavors is not only an increase in the presence of public projects but a reevaluation of what public art can be, how it functions, what it offers. Nothing embodies this state of flux more than the ever-evolving Watts House Project. Billing itself as “a collaborative artwork in the shape of a neighborhood development,” the organization pairs artists and architects with residents along a single city block in Watts, adjacent to the Towers. Its goals are pragmatic on the one hand — the installation of fences, landscaping, solar panels — and visionary on the other: the creation of “a physical and social infrastructure for creativity,” in the words of its mission statement. They’ve planted vegetables, repaired roofs, laid driveways, painted a mural across one of the resident’s houses (designed by the artist Carolyn Castaño), hosted readings and other events, and put numerous local residents to work. In the future they hope to open a cafe.

“We’re constantly trying to push that the houses are not the end result,” says Edgar Arceneaux, the project’s director and a respected artist in his own right. “It’s not this fixed thing that we’re trying to produce but this series of interlocking and intermingling activities that can benefit each other — and that can collide with each other sometimes.”

In moving beyond the 1% model — a public art yoked solely to development and buried in bureaucracy — Watts House Project and these other ventures are poised to help L.A. live up to its cultural potential by facilitating this channel between the city’s artists and its public realm.