The author is the artistic director at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica and the author of Decolonizing Culture (Art Practical/Sming Sming Books, 2017).
In recent years, as Los Angeles has gained greater visibility on the international stage, the presence of more players in the art market has challenged the city’s outsider ethos, forged largely in opposition to Hollywood’s vernacular modes of visual culture. Artists who come here are increasingly ambitious in their expectations of the city. They come expecting New York or Berlin and are surprised to find that the total number of contemporary art galleries in the city is closer to a hundred than a thousand. Still, artists want to be in L.A.—where reasonably large studios can still be found, the weather is good nine months out of the year, and even the superstars in the art community tend to be genial and accessible. The L.A. art scene has long been inclusive, maybe because we’re reacting against exclusion by the entertainment industry or because we take our position at the far edge of the Western world seriously. One thing, though, is certain: for all our openness, our art world has a diversity problem.
In 2017 the Los Angeles County Arts Commission published a report on a Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative (CEII) that the city had launched two years prior in response to a perceived access gap between white Angelenos and those of color in the cultural sector. The report addressed cultural equity and inclusion in the areas of institutional boards of directors, audience, programs, and artists, and it explicitly called out inclusion in the workforce: while 73 percent of the population of Los Angeles County identifies as people of color, the arts workforce is 60 percent white. Among concerns cited with respect to underrepresentation in staffing were low pay, limited social and hiring networks, and a lack of respect for culturally specific leadership experience in larger institutions.
This has led to a great deal of discussion about what a career path might look like for a person of color in the arts. But prospective trajectories for professionals of color at mid-career look different than they do for white curators because the right opportunities are so scarce. A good example of this is my own experience as a South Asian American woman.
The first artist I met while growing up in the suburbs of New York was a neighbor who painted in the garage while her kids were in school and one year made her son a splatter-covered Jackson Pollock costume for Halloween. The other artist I knew then was my father’s old friend from Delhi, an actor who played a significant role in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning biopic, Gandhi (1982), but had taken to grumbling with frustration over all the cabbies and newsstand vendors he was constantly asked to play. No one in my world thought of culture for a full-time career, and I was 30 years old before I met another South Asian working in contemporary art—a passion I developed while my relatives and neighbors had trouble reconciling expectations for life goals with my interest in the humanities. Many of my Indian-American friends aimed to be physicians, like my parents. As the artistic director of 18th Street Arts Center—an artist-founded residency and exhibition program celebrating our 30th year of operation in the Pico neighborhood of Santa Monica on L.A.’s Westside—I like to think I became a healer of a different kind.
When I was in my early 30s and living in San Francisco, a friend at a museum invited me to come down to L.A. for an interview. There were two positions available, for a curatorial assistant and an assistant curator. I had by then managed the New York studio of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, run a residency program and a respected community-based exhibitions program, and produced a sizable art and technology festival, so surely I would be suited for one of them. Yet during the interview, the museum director was cordial but clear: I would never work in her museum, she explained, unless another museum were to hire me first. My years in private collections management—working for a canonical artist and a curator who had apprenticed to Harald Szeemann—and my work in noncollecting institutions, together with minimal mentorship, were irrelevant. Nor was I welcome to start at the bottom, as it was not the museum’s policy to hire assistants who would seek to move up.
The most obvious choice for me might have been to seek out museums specific to South Asian contemporary art, but I would have had a tough time finding one, on either coast. Unlike other immigrant communities, South Asians have yet to establish institutions for contemporary art and culture. Our institutions tend to be houses of worship, folkloric programs, and schools for the classical arts. As a recent immigrant group, with significant numbers arriving in the United States only after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 repealed immigration quotas from Asia, we have created institutions that commemorate the accomplishments of our countries of origin. We gather for Bollywood dancing, qawwali music, or celebrations of cuisine that foreground our sense of ourselves as new Americans. Perhaps for that reason—that we still think we are “new” here after more than 50 years—attention devoted to contemporary art by South Asians working in the U.S. is rare.
There do exist institutions devoted to Chinese and Japanese contemporary art: the Chinese American Museum, the Japanese American National Museum, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, and the Los Angeles Chinese Cultural Center came out of the Asian American movement for political recognition in the 1970s, which itself took cues from the Black Panther Party and the Latinx-led United Farm Workers labor rights campaign. These organizations create opportunities for emerging curators of color to gain experience with collecting museums, like those in other marginalized communities that gave rise to culturally specific institutions like the California African American Museum and the Museum of Latin American Art.
But the number of opportunities in such institutions is small when compared with those that exist for curators outside that museum sector and seems smaller still when you consider how few aspiring artists and curators of color are able to emerge from within. Culturally specific institutions are a pipeline for talent from all kinds of communities to jump the first hurdle to museum employment—collection experience—so what happens to artists and curators of color who don’t have such institutions to graduate from? Who supports them in the early critical stages when mentorship and opportunities can make or break a career?
The small number of culturally specific collecting institutions can never produce enough veterans to diversify the entire field. Museums that fail to recognize this will inevitably come up short on equity and inclusion even if they appear to be succeeding on diversity in other ways. So what is to be done?
Although the CEII was aligned with a similar undertaking by New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, one of its most interesting findings is an articulation of the ways in which L.A. differs from New York—and Europe. When assessed as a community, artists’ typical characterization as individual practitioners of studio-based pursuits is not fully reflective of the collaborative, social, or performative interests of many in Los Angeles County. The report describes a dissatisfaction among the L.A. artists surveyed with the object- and event-oriented Euro-American tradition of prioritizing collectible artworks made by individual artists, as opposed to collective or communal work rooted in cultural traditions, including indigenous practices. Artists in L.A. create works that have social and historical functions as well as—or instead of—serving as art objects. Indeed, L.A. has produced many uncategorizable artists working at the intersections of identity, liveness, and the expanded field. The city is home to boundary-pushing performance artists like Ron Athey, Nao Bustamante, and the late Reza Abdoh. It’s where Ed Ruscha envisioned gas stations as art and Michael Asher made art disappear completely. L.A. is a hub of feminist art practice, as the birthplace of The Dinner Party, the CalArts Feminist Art Program, and the Women’s Building.
The CEII report was inspired by rapidly shifting demographics on course to make for a majority of Americans of color nationwide by 2045, according to a 2018 projection by the U.S. Census Bureau. Reports from both New York and L.A. identify a chasm between the high percentage of residents of color and the very small number of cultural workers of color serving their needs. In this respect, L.A. is perhaps ahead of New York, having been “majority-minority” since the ’80s and having produced some of the most recognized artists and curators of color currently working in America. L.A. artists like Mark Bradford, Henry Taylor, Kahlil Joseph, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and Martine Syms have helped define African-American art for the 21st century, in the city and beyond. It’s worth noting that, while they have been able to work and live in L.A., crucial career opportunities for artists identified with the city have often come from elsewhere. As the money-minded prospects of L.A.’s art scene change, individual artists can achieve dizzying career heights—but something crucial about the personality of the place is put at risk.
So what does all this mean for individual institutions like mine?
Along with other arts organizations that want to remain eligible for L.A. Arts Commission grants, 18th Street Arts Center drafted and approved an institutional Cultural Equity and Inclusion statement. Since we are an institution that has devoted years and considerable resources to cultivating local audiences of color, we wanted our statement to have some backbone, and thinking it through was a helpful exercise that created opportunities for dialogue around inclusion with our audience, artists, staff, and board. I was pleased to see that the statement we adopted included a commitment to enacting and promoting racial anti-oppression training, and that our board’s response was to commit enthusiastically to diversifying itself further. (The 18th Street board tracks with the CEII report’s average of around 30 percent participants of color, which is a number that we hope to exceed but must work merely to maintain. The report found that 68 percent of board members at arts organizations in L.A. County were determined to be white. Reasons cited for such a high number are the prioritizing of financial wealth over other forms of board contribution, the lack of a pipeline for cultivating diverse board members, and a dearth of examples of diverse boards to identify with and learn from.)
With respect to audience, we have engaged in extensive outreach to local organizing groups in the Pico neighborhood—named for the historic boulevard that is its southern boundary, extending all the way to Downtown L.A.—to build a sizable Latinx constituency for our nonculturally specific institution. We recently introduced cultural asset mapping, a community-led process of identifying and documenting local culture keepers in partnership with neighborhood groups and civic partners such as schools and libraries as a means of more closely engaging with those in our area and its surroundings. Asset mapping has helped our programs be more responsive to our neighbors, particularly those outside the typical art crowd, and it has manifested in the form of Culture Mapping 90404, an interactive and customizable online map of the historically diverse Pico neighborhood, where African-American, Japanese, and Latinx immigrants were long able to thrive in an era when they were redlined out of more upscale neighborhoods. The map is bilingual (English and Spanish) and highlights arts enterprises like Cabeza de Vaca Cultural Dance School and the Santa Monica Juneteenth Festival, founded by local storyteller LaVerne Ross in 1992 to celebrate the emancipation of African-Americans at the end of the Civil War. We also included local businesses like Tacos por Favor, whose clientele includes everyone from the Latinx elders who frequent the nearby Henry’s Barbershop and the Libertad Soccer Club to scooter-riding students and employees of the TV/film production company Bad Robot. Our goal was to put our elders and peers on the map, literally and figuratively.
We have also trained local residents in oral history interview techniques by way of workshops—developed in partnership with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts—in which participants learn how to conduct and document interviews and how to interact with community members in a culturally sensitive manner. Participants in the program have created more than 50 short documentaries about the neighborhood with 18th Street staff support in editing, subtitling, and uploading the videos into the map online, and this work—initiated with the support of major grants from the James Irvine Foundation and the California Arts Council—has proven crucial and urgent in a moment of drastic gentrification and widespread displacement. The interviews have also become source material for our artists, such that the words of our neighbors now appear on a 17-by-155-foot-long mural by artist Brendan Fernandes that greets the Metro Expo Line’s more than 64,000 daily riders as they pass our campus.
With a majority of staff comprising people of color, a commitment to serve international artists, and an exhibition and commissioning ethos that supports artists of color, women, and gender nonconforming artists in 75 percent of the program overall, 18th Street Arts Center is broadly multicultural and devoted to diversity. We meet or exceed industry standards for artist fees as defined by Working Artists in the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), and our overhead goes directly to paying workers fairly in an increasingly expensive city. For local partners including Virginia Avenue Park Parent Connection Group, Familias Unidas Latinas, and the Pico Library, we have been facilitating workshops with artists featured in our on-site exhibitions—such as Sherin Guirguis, Kenyatta A. C. Hinkle, Mariángeles Soto-Díaz, and Paul Pescador—and garnering enthusiastic responses from participants who have had little prior exposure to contemporary art.
As usual, the challenge comes down to funding. I worry that institutions like ours, which are modeling change, may be ignored by funders all looking to the same big players—the major museums—to lead the way. Our small size and the experimental nature of our programs mean that what we do is not always visible from a certain altitude.
Funding in 2018 continues to be highly dependent on individual gifts from people of means. Los Angeles is a diverse city, with some high-net-worth individuals of color. But if equity is in fact the goal, the strategy cannot simply be to add extremely wealthy patrons of various races to the boards of institutions. Nor can it be the responsibility of overextended nonprofit fund-raisers to compensate for a racial wealth gap that—as reported in 2017 in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey—puts white family wealth at a ratio of $100 to every $5.04 per African-American family. On top of that, institutions with lesser means have to do even more to make up for the administrative and staffing shortfalls that can cause ethnically inclusive and diverse institutions to be insufficiently equipped to manage the requirements attached to the largesse of the biggest culture funders.
Making matters worse is the double whammy of the escalating price of real estate and inflation consistently outpacing wage growth—the real assets of black and brown families are shrinking as the richest members of society get richer. In 2000, according to the last U.S. census, the ZIP Code that includes the Pico neighborhood was 37 percent Latinx, 36 percent white, 13 percent African-American, and 14 percent Asian. By 2010, the population had transformed to 65.3 percent white (up 29 percent), 7.9 percent African-American (down 5 percent), and 10.8 percent Asian (down 3 percent). Dramatic demographic changes of that sort reflect the rising costs of housing on L.A.’s Westside, which have pushed many of the Pico neighborhood’s formerly diverse residents into cheaper areas to the north, south, and east. In fact, so many homeowners of color have been priced out of the Pico neighborhood that we now observe a weekend commuter population from more distant points in L.A. This commuter group includes many of our artists, particularly those under 50 who represent the most diverse population and are overwhelmingly unable to find affordable housing on the Westside even as organizations like 18th Street aid them with subsidized studio space. Santa Monica is a small and wealthy city with the capacity to provide meaningful support to artists, but that doesn’t mean much if artists with real needs cannot live within the city limits and thus qualify for support.
L.A. has the capacity to effect real change as a city that is extremely collaborative. What other locale could pull off not just one but three major Pacific Standard Time area-wide initiatives, coordinating programming for dozens of institutions each time? And yet that same initiative also illustrates shortcomings: last year’s PST: LA/LA, which focused on Latinx and Latin American art histories, made tremendous contributions to scholarship but far less progress in employment in a field in which Latinx individuals are still severely underrepresented. Latinx people make up 48 percent of the population in L.A. County but only 14 percent of its workforce in the arts, according to the CEII report.
We won’t reach equity if people of color continue to be underpaid for fewer hours with fewer staff and fewer benefits than their white counterparts. We won’t reach equity if their opportunities for promotion are limited by financial constraints that diminish the size of the teams they lead. We won’t reach equity if we hire arts workers of color only from museums in New York or enlist trustees who won’t cross the 405 to attend a board meeting. We won’t reach equity if galleries move into neighborhoods where they don’t consider their neighbors their clientele. Like the city itself, the arts in Los Angeles suffer from an unequal distribution of resources. The way we reach equity in the arts sector is by considering culturally specific questions and concerns in the broader context of equitable living conditions in the city and the county as a whole. What we need are institutions, patrons, and critics who appreciate that Los Angeles artists are “culturally specific” to our polyglot city—and that they should be cultivated, not corralled, free of expectations or attitudes imported from elsewhere.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the title “Equity and Inclusion for All?”