Jamillah James, curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA), and Betty Avila, executive director of Self Help Graphics & Art, are young women—both in their 30s—who have recently taken leadership positions at L.A. institutions that have been through multiple iterations since their founding decades ago.
Four artists, one of them a nun, established Self Help in Boyle Heights in the early 1970s, with the mission of producing and distributing prints by Chicano and Latino artists. The organization moved to East L.A., but was displaced in 2011 from its longtime mosaic-adorned home on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, and moved back to Boyle Heights. At the end of 2017, the organization purchased the Boyle Heights building it was renting. Avila joined Self Help in 2015, and was named executive director this past summer.
ICA LA opened in Downtown L.A. in 2017, after announcing an identity change and a new location the previous year. Founded as the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 1984, it later served as a centerpiece of the Bergamot Station arts complex established in Santa Monica in 1994. James was named ICA’s curator in 2016, after previous stints at institutions including the Hammer Museum, where she worked with artist Mark Bradford’s innovative Art + Practice, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. She is co-curating the 2021 New Museum Triennial in New York with New Museum curator Margot Norton.
Both institutions participated in the 2017 Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA exhibition initiative—Self Help with “Día de los Muertos: A Cultural Legacy, Past, Present and Future,” and ICA LA with its inaugural show, “Martín Ramírez: His Life in Pictures, Another Interpretation.”
James and Avila joined ARTnews for lunch at Church & State Bistro in Downtown L.A. For Avila, the roasted butternut squash. For James, the Nicoise salad. For the table, a bowl of olives and a warm baguette with butter.
ARTnews: How did you first come to art?
Betty Avila: I grew up in northeast L.A., which is relatively close to the Eastside and Boyle Heights. When I was growing up, there wasn’t the sense there is now of hard lines between neighborhoods. I got into the arts by way of my brother being a teenage tagger and my parents being like, Oh my God. He had all kinds of run-ins with authorities. My parents were having a meltdown: “What do we do? Our son’s a criminal!” I was having to step in and say, “No, he’s an artist.” That’s what led me to apply to an internship at the Getty. I got a little bit of the institutional art world, which is very different from a place like Self Help. When I went to Self Help, I felt a powerful sense of being home in a way that I hadn’t experienced in an art space prior. I feel very fortunate that I’m here at Self Help now, at an earlier stage in my career than I thought I’d be in for a role like this. I’m excited to see this legacy institution have younger leadership at the helm because the Chicano and Latino community of L.A. is always evolving, and the organization should reflect that.
Jamillah James: My trajectory was a bit indirect. When I started college, I was a film major and became more interested in theory and criticism and history than actual production. I changed my major a number of times, but art history was a constant. It wasn’t understood as visual studies back then—this hybridized convergence of art studies, film studies, media studies—but that was where I was going, self-directed. When I transferred schools and moved to Chicago, I became active with galleries. I did a stint trying to make art, and that was disastrous. [Laughs.] While I was a student, I was involved in the experimental music scene. I was in a band, and organized concerts at my house. I had a great apartment with a bunch of School of the Art Institute students. Living in that space, I got a handle on what curating could be, outside of a museum or gallery. I went on to work with various arts institutions in different places like Baltimore and Brooklyn. I started working with museums in 2010, at the Queens Museum in New York. I got a fellowship there and it’s been one institution after another. Four years ago, the gig at the Hammer with Art + Practice brought me out here.
ARTnews: What ended up making L.A. attractive?
James: This willingness to collaborate and not to close oneself off. L.A. is more hospitable to artists than New York. It makes it easier to be more expansive in one’s thinking. None of the artists I know here are independently wealthy. They’re working people. They’re able to pull together what resembles a comfortable life but not sacrifice their artistic practice in order to do it. It’s a harder hustle in New York. It’s expensive; there aren’t as many art jobs available; the studio spaces tend to be more modest because of the cost; and people are very focused on trying to make their way. There’s plenty of collaboration in New York among artists, but here, it’s in the city’s DNA.
ARTnews: Betty, how does Self Help Graphics work with that?
Avila: I spend a lot of time reminding people that we’ve been around for 45 years. I will bring up the example of the barrio mobile arts studio, one of Self Help’s original programs. There was no word then for what they were doing. There wasn’t a thing called “social practice” at the time. These artists were carving out a way of working that a lot of them didn’t live to see formalized. Collaboration is part of L.A.’s DNA despite the crazy geography of this place, beyond demographics. Self Help is closely associated with the Latino community but has always worked with a diverse group of people. It has close ties with the history of the Woman’s Building. There was actually a Woman’s Building publication in our PST show to help make that connection.
ARTnews: PST must have brought Self Help greater visibility both within and beyond Los Angeles. Did it help?
Avila: Yes. Self Help is important as a Chicano anchor, and it’s important internationally. We have to think about our public in that way: we have a local community that we serve, but then there’s this whole incredible community of people who follow us on social media and for whom we represent a very important body of work—though they have never set foot in the building.
ARTnews: Jamillah, how do you identify ICA? As an alternative space? As a museum?
James: Museum is a loaded term. If you say museum to most folks they get a little nervous, or have these conceptions of what a museum is. But there are different scales within the category. We are a museum. That is the history we have; it speaks to the types of programming and research that we support. The name change, from the Santa Monica Museum of Art, is curious, because there are so many Institutes of Contemporary Art now globally. What does that stand for? I think there has to be a little bit of flexibility in people’s thinking about what an institution can be and what a museum could look like. The really important and cool thing about the PST initiative is that it puts all these organizations across Southern California on the same plane. A Martín Ramírez show was our PST exhibition. Our director, Elsa Longhauser, is a longtime scholar of Ramírez. Even though we’re a contemporary art museum and Ramírez’s career fits outside of what we understand as contemporary, younger artists find so much resonance with what he did. And the exhibition brought up important social issues, like incarceration, the rights of the mentally ill, what it means to be an outsider artist, the problems of establishing an inside and an outside.
ARTnews: The question of how art and art spaces can affect social change is important. Museums have long supported forms of community outreach and education, but what does it mean to think of it more as—as a recent article on the innovations at the Baltimore Museum of Art put it—going to the core of how a museum defines itself and its mission?
Avila: An institution that shall remain nameless reached out to us wanting to go in that direction, wanting to more authentically reach their community. They wanted to learn from Self Help. But the phrasing was, “Can I bring my department out to pick your brains?”—pick our brains in terms of what it means to make community engagement the center of the institution. But I think it has to start inside that institution. It’s horribly inappropriate to ask an institution like ours to give away their intellectual experience and knowledge for free—this community-based organization serving, at no cost, a major institution. But that said, I’m excited about the transition. I’m excited that at least very superficial conversations are happening. I think it’s going to be a long time before that internal work within institutions that needs to be done actually happens, because it’s really uncomfortable.
ARTnews: Institutions have been thinking about future arts leaders, but why aren’t we seeing more diversity?
Avila: Staffing is one part of it. But if you’re preparing people of color to be part of the art ecology anywhere—and particularly in Los Angeles, where it is as diverse as it is—you want to set them up for success. You don’t want to throw them in to be tokenized, to be the one person of color or the one woman of color. It has to go beyond the superficial. It has to go beyond “Look, we have young people, we have people of color.” It’s much more about how are we centering those voices within our work and not having it be window dressing.
James: To the point about a larger institution asking essentially for the free labor of a POC-led institution to help them think about how to do community engagement, how to diversify—figure it out yourself! It shouldn’t always be on my black shoulders, your brown shoulders, to help folks figure out how to be good partners and committed to questions of inclusion and diversity and engagement. It can’t just be a facade. There has to be a deep-seated commitment. Culturally specific institutions have carried the banner for so many years, giving opportunities to artists of color. Certain institutions are just now catching up, but it can’t just be about who you collect and who you show. It has to be an institution-wide transformation.
The question of tokenizing is touchy. While it’s exciting to have a curator of this background at that institution, it can’t be just a Band-Aid. There is this constant conversation about the lack of diversity on museum boards, a matter of trying to find people who are representative and not just importing folks based on what financial value they might bring. There are other types of capital that a diverse board can bring to an institution. There is no scarcity of fantastic candidates of color.
Avila: As larger institutions are becoming aware of communities they may not be serving, there’s a strategy to parachute in. I think that’s where those institutions need to leverage spaces like Self Help but in a way that is reciprocal, that isn’t putting more burden on the smaller culturally based organization. You bring resources to a place like Self Help and, in turn, they become a partner to you. This notion of dropping in—this very ugly savior approach that some spaces are taking because they don’t know how else to do it—is going to backfire, because a lot of these neighborhoods are very aware of what’s happening around them. We work with young artists from South L.A. who are very worried. I try to encourage them: you need to work with those spaces when they open up. They’re like, “No, no, no, we don’t want to become part of that process or that system.” So it can’t happen quickly, and it has to be done in dialogue with the people. There has to be a sense of “Well, let’s actually find out what’s needed” versus “Here’s what we think you need. We’re going to give you all of our amazing art and culture because obviously this is what you need.”
ARTnews: Jamillah, how do you make challenging art accessible to your various audiences?
James: I’m trying to think about each season as a proposition to a viewer. There are always some connections between the exhibitions. This current season, it’s B. Wurtz, Nina Chanel Abney, and Adrian Piper—three very different artists but all thinking about self-representation. We’re trying to approach our exhibition-making with a heavy dose of generosity, knowing there are going to be people who know the players but many more just coming for an experience. We want to give those people as varied an experience as possible and use exhibitions as a way to teach. With our Abigail DeVille exhibition, we touched upon displacement. We’re not blind to our role in conversations about the arts community and its relationship to gentrification. We’re being transparent about our methods and the things we’re thinking about. We’re not operating in a vacuum.
ARTnews: Betty, Self Help started out in the early 1970s in Boyle Heights, then spent 30 years on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, in unincorporated East L.A. In 2011 the organization moved to its present building in Boyle Heights. How has location played a role in how Self Help defines itself?
Avila: The move back to Boyle Heights was a forced move—we were displaced. But it was also an interesting opportunity to remind people that Self Help is beyond East L.A. It’s a gem of the city, a resource for artists and the broader art world. Not everybody who comes to Self Help wants to be in an institution. Some do. For us it’s about figuring out how are we supporting all those different needs. The way that Self Help has been a bridge for art institutions is one of the most important facets of the organization for me, that we’re able to advocate for certain artists. There are artists that some institutions won’t look at. Their curators don’t have the context. They don’t realize why they’re important. We’re in a position to help them understand.
ARTnews: Self Help got caught up in the Boyle Heights gentrification debates of the past few years. An anti-gentrifying group was saying that Self Help is part of the problem and demanding that you distance yourself from any arts organizations that weren’t hyper local. How did you view the role of art in all this?
Avila: You have a community that feels they’re under attack. They’re being forced out of their homes, priced out, harassed by landlords. It’s a neighborhood that is primarily renters, so the homeowners, who aren’t in the community, aren’t invested in the same way. Young people start to see these markers of change, but it’s hard to designate one villain of gentrification, so you go after what you see.
And what were people seeing? What was the media covering? When I first came to Self Help in late 2015, the New York Times had put out a piece about Michele Maccarone’s gallery. In the article she is quoted as being sort of proud of having to ramp up security around the building. There’s a kind of framing that’s set up for Boyle Heights. Then there was another New York Times piece that characterized Boyle Heights as nothing but stray dogs and taco stands. When you get to the summer of that year, there are more galleries popping up. People are feeling more and more pressured, and I’m not surprised they went after art.
ARTnews: Meanwhile real estate development rolls on.
Avila: That’s been part of our argument: you can have every single art organization leave and it won’t stop what’s happening. But it’s also not unrelated. What I came to understand was that, because Self Help is a place that has been able to support the community in various ways, in that protest was a call to action: “You need to help us.”
ARTnews: How does one respond to that call for action? What are the productive conversations that can happen?
Avila: It’s not easy for a place like us, a place by and for people of color, to just say, “You know what? We’re not going to take any more corporate support, we’re going to walk away from donors.” Our thing is, let’s go toward the policy work. We’re part of a coalition of organizations in Boyle Heights’s cross-sector focused on the community’s health and wellness. There are youth organizations, a Catholic organization, after-school programming, an affordable housing development—Self Help is part of this. We are having conversations with the city planning department. There’s policy work happening that isn’t as visceral or as sexy as protesting a gallery, or throwing human feces at a coffee shop.
ARTnews: The ICA is to the west of Self Help, across the L.A. River—not so far away but in a different context. Jamillah, how are you thinking about ICA’s engagement with its immediate community?
James: We are figuring out how best to think creatively as an institution about what our new context is. We are near Skid Row, an area that has gotten completely out of control. There is no reason, in a city as wealthy as Los Angeles, we should have people who have no resources available to them living on the streets. It’s completely galling. But the museum can’t solve that. What we can do is think of ways to provide resources of an educational variety to think through the crisis. I’ve been thinking a lot about Martha Rosler’s If You Lived Here [a 1989 project in New York that responded to housing, gentrification, and homelessness in the form of installations and town meetings] and what that work set up for people in the area where it was staged and the kinds of resources that it provided. Programmatically we try to do things, like clothing and food drives, to be a part of the landscape and not ignore what’s happening right outside our doors.
ARTnews: Betty, how important was it for Self Help to finally purchase its building?
Avila: Now we are in a position to create a long-term sustainable structure. A lot of small organizations of color don’t get that luxury of just focusing on art. Of course we’re now in the middle of a capital campaign to renovate what was a former fish packing plant, so it’s a process. But owning the building is a game-change. We are only the fourth Latino culturally specific organization in the country to own its space, and the only one in L.A.
ARTnews: What are some of the initiatives you’re considering?
Avila: I want to bridge into local universities, like Rio Hondo College, where we have an exhibition opening. It’s mind-boggling to me how many young people don’t know about Self Help and the resources that exist there. And I want to leverage our intellectual knowledge base around education—not art education in a traditional sense but in terms of community-engaged practice that helps Self Help grow in a way that is beneficial to the community and the organization. We’re trying to figure out where a 50th anniversary exhibition should live. Who can give it the right resources? There is an anthology in the works, because there’s no one place you can get a deep history of Self Help. It’s important to position Self Help as a story that needs to be told, at a citywide level.
ARTnews: Jamillah, how do you see ICA evolving?
James: By continuing to think expansively about what it means to be a museum in this city and also globally, and expanding our capacity in terms of the types of exhibitions we do, community outreach, and programming. I want to see us be a serious publisher and to think about being a research institution in a way. I’m thinking about how we can operate as a museum of a small scale in a larger cosmos in this city.
ARTnews: We live in extreme and divisive times, politically. Do arts institutions have a role to play in helping people to process things?
James: We’re all citizens first—
James: —and curators, directors, artists second. We’re all seeing things that are happening in our country and elsewhere in the world, and we’re affected by it. It is our responsibility to be as responsive as we can be. It doesn’t have to be overt. MoMA reinstalled their collection [in response to the Trump administration’s travel ban]. That’s one way of working. It can also be as overt as extending an institution as a sanctuary, as was the case at the Queens Museum. A lot of people, after the election, were shell-shocked and had lots of questions: What does it mean to do the work we do in the arts? What’s the efficacy of this work? Why is this important? Should I be doing something else? Should I go to law school? Should I learn how to perform abortions? You want to feel as if what we’re doing in the arts is important and has gravity and can actually make things change in this world. I think we’re all still grappling with that.
But I think we also realize how important it is to have a counterargument, a counter-narrative. The arts are constantly undermined and underfunded, dismissed by our government and other parties. It’s our responsibility to show that we do play a very important role. We are educators. The institution as a public square is a space that should be able to bring up issues and not be afraid to talk about difficult things. That’s always been the role of artists, so it’s time for it to trickle up to museums. Museums can address some of those things as well.
Avila: It’s interesting to see large institutions responding and feeling a sense of responsibility, whether they have it or not. At Self Help, we couldn’t possibly amplify what we’re doing more in response, because we’ve been doing that from our inception.
ARTnews: Have you seen a lot of people wanting to make topical work?
Avila: Absolutely. Just this past Saturday, we had a group of teenagers from all over the state come together to make creative sandwich boards. All of them say “Vote here” or “Vote aquí,” to lead people to voting places. The biggest moment for me in terms of understanding that we were needed more now was when we hosted a poster-making party for the Women’s March in 2017. When we have people in, I always ask, “Who is here for the first time?” I didn’t have to ask that time. It was obvious that a lot of people had never been, and some of them didn’t even know where they were. They just needed to be in a space, creating with other people.
ARTnews: What was the feeling in the space?
Avila: It felt like we were ripping art off walls and people were just creating it together, which was really powerful. It was also this moment of, We’ve been working with a community dealing with these issues for generations, and we’re now in a moment where there’s a different demographic experiencing forms of oppression that our community has experienced for a long time.
James: As a museum we are able to extend our space in a way that’s neutral. Our director of learning and engagement, Asuka Hisa, was the engine behind having the ICA made into a voting registration site, which has been incredible. We’ve also led workshops teaching others how to register people to vote. Some large institutions have reached out to us saying, “Hey, that’s a great idea—how can we do that here?” I think we’re all trying to find our way to be active as best we can.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 30 under the title “Jamillah James & Betty Avila.”