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Have Art, Will Travel--to Skid Row, or Jail : National Gathering Shares Joys, Frustrations of Exhibiting, Performing in Non-Traditional Sites

August 28, 1986|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

Visual artist Susan Hill was rearranging chairs in a small UCLA classroom before convening an afternoon workshop. Splitting up unfriendly unconnected rows to create a friendlier circle, Hill smiled and explained, "I believe in creating an image anywhere I can." That, after all, was what this conference was all about.

"Art in Other Places" was the theme for this first national gathering of artists and administrators working in innovative programs in alternative settings--prisons, mental hospitals, senior centers. But some of the 130-plus participants--dancers and poets and visual artists who labor in non-traditional "studios"--had difficulty with the theme itself.

Wrap-Up Session

Judy Baca, the muralist who is director of SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center), hosted the group for a wrap-up session Saturday morning at the center, a converted 1920s Art Deco jail in Venice. Baca noted, "I have some objection to the term 'other places' because I think perhaps that's the only place" for art.

As a case in point, she stood before one of two giant murals being painted under her direction by Southern California art students with funding from RKO and coordination by Las Familias agency, scheduled for installation at a Skid Row hotel at 6th and Stanford on Oct. 17.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 1, 1986 Home Edition View Part 4 Page 2 Column 2 View Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
The Corporate Volunteer Council, an umbrella organization of corporate funders, was inadvertently omitted as a major sponsor of "The Street Speaks," a mural project for Skid Row, in Thursday's View. The mural, being created by muralist Judy Baca, artistic director of Venice-based SPARC (the Social and Public Art Resource Center) and Southern California art students, is scheduled to be unveiled at the Ellis Hotel at 6th Street and Stanford Avenue on Oct. 18.

By any definition, the murals, depicting Skid Row life and titled "The Street Speaks," will be art in another place. The intended art-watchers: the homeless, the jobless, the drug addicts, the disabled, dropouts and misfits who inhabit the mean streets. The canvases convey nitty-gritty information such as where to find food and shelter and medical aid but, Baca hopes, they will also give off subtle messages about self-esteem, networking and political reform.

And, she told artists who wondered about the hazards facing an artwork on a public street on Skid Row, the acrylic murals will have a "graffiti catch coat" that can be removed with solvent without harming the undercoat. With any luck, Baca said, this is street art that ought to be able to withstand smog and other abuse for about 20 years.

At the kickoff session for three days of discussion, exhibits and performances, keynoter Lenwood Sloan, a dancer and writer who is former deputy director of the California Arts Council and is now affiliated with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, laid it on the line about money for alternative arts in 1986 and beyond:

"I think we should sell our product like we sell catsup."

Historically, much of these artists' work has been funded by small grants but Sloan was here to say, "I don't give a damn if you write another grant in your whole life. . . . I think you need to move with your product into the mainstream." That, he explained, means "demystifying your work. If you're the only one who understands what it's about, you're the only one who's going to fund it."

If alternative art is going to get major corporate funding, Sloan said, those who are producing it are going to have to put aside "artspeak" and tell the corporate world exactly how their art effects change, and for whom. Further, he said, alternative artists have to move into the 21st Century and that means computer networking, brain banks and paid lobbyists.

"People are wondering," he observed, "when there are people sleeping in the streets, why they should give money to us." His advice: "Don't get into that (corporate) line with your cap in hand. Get in that line with your project prospectus."

Unless artists get political, Sloan said, "We're an endangered species."

His rallying cry: "Move on to the board rooms, move on to the banks and move on to the ballot box."

It was a message that made some in the audience uncomfortable. Later, participants would talk as a group about the dangers of selling out, of losing artistic integrity, about clean money and dirty money.

One of the respondents from the podium was Rebecca Rice, an actress and writer who is co-founder of the Human Bridge Theater, a Washington, D.C., women's theater committed to social and political change. She spoke of "discrimination within the art community itself" against those who are non-traditional artists.

Every day, Rice said, "I struggle to elevate the circumstance of the people that I work with. . . . I do what I do because I got salvaged by somebody like you." But in doing the salvaging, she told her colleagues, they must not forget their own souls. She asked who among them had recently "danced a dance; who sang a song, who wrote a play?"

Liz Lerman, for one, was there to dance a dance. Lerman, founder-director of Dancers of the Third Age in Washington, introduced her performance by explaining that she dances about "things that are just incomprehensible to me." She then performed two dances from an original suite, "Nine Short Dances About the Defense Budget and Other Military Matters."

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