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The Downtown Art Scene Is Not Dead

August 02, 1993|JON PETERSON | Jon Peterson is an artist who is part owner of several downtown properties and a former member of the LACE board of directors

The downtown arts scene is poised for another surge reminiscent to that of the '70s. From the Brewery on the north to Traction Avenue, along Molino Street, to the Santa Fe Art Colony in the south, artists are working in their studios.

Yes, after the departure of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and even Gorky's, there is an art scene downtown ("A New Space for LACE," Calendar, April 27). We're not dead yet, no matter how many obituaries the Los Angeles Times writes.

We're going to miss LACE. I should say we do miss it, because LACE left downtown a long time ago. LACE programmed itself out of the area years ago when it abandoned the downtown artists for the politically correct and sexually oriented art it now represents. When LACE says it is moving (to Hollywood?) because its Industrial Street 'hood has gotten too dangerous, downtown artists know better. LACE has gotten scared. But of what? A few homeless on the street? Panhandlers bothering the clientele?

Originally, LACE was renting a space in the Victor Clothing Co. on Broadway. As a then-member of the LACE board, my contribution was in helping facilitate the move to its present digs on Industrial Street. The concerns of the board at that time were to relocate further east nearer the loft district, and to gain control through owner-ship of its own space. In contrast, the present board seems willing to give up the autonomy of ownership in favor of a "safer" location (in Hollywood?).

Given a recent experience, the board has been given fair warning of things to come. The first show in the new space (a vacant beauty school on Hollywood Boulevard) was sponsored by a group called Nomadic Sites. Titled "Private and Public Pleasures," the show contained work dealing with femininity, some of which offended the landlord, the Community Redevelopment Agency. Instead of packing up the show in righteous protest, the curator elected to censor the work to appease the CRA. Now that LACE is becoming a tenant, will it too be subject to the landlord's whims?

The article on LACE moving is one of many written over the last 10 years that I call "Downtown Is Dead" (DID) articles. All of the DID articles present this scenario for the demise of the downtown art scene: (1) artists have been replaced by lawyers and yuppies, and (2) downtown is too dangerous to live in.

I guess the logical conclusion is that lawyers and yuppies are more adventuresome than artists.

As for the proposition that all the artists have left downtown, or that the art community has moved to Hollywood, it is preposterous. According to informal surveys, there are about 1,200 artist residence/studios downtown. In 1975 there were virtually no studios downtown. Look in the L.A. Weekly, the paper that has declared the downtown scene dead repeatedly for the last 10 years. The classified section for lofts, which didn't exist 15 years ago, is filled with ads for artists' lofts for rent, virtually all of which are downtown.

The typical downtown loft dweller is young, living with someone and without children. Considering these demographics, the art community downtown is remarkably stable. There are painters, sculptors, conceptual artists, performers, photographers, architects, graphic designers, actors, writers, students, printers, set designers, etc. Yes, there are lawyers and other professionals too (not nearly as many as the DID articles would have you believe), but if you look beyond the labels you will find virtually all of them are directly involved in the arts.


In the late '70s, there were many articles proclaiming downtown as "SoHo West," citing Lower Manhattan as the paradigm. Writers worried about the "gentrification" of downtown, as if people were being displaced as they were in New York.

Those articles had it as wrong then as the DID articles do now. Artists were looking for a certain kind of space that is most abundant in the warehouse districts of east downtown. What those artists discovered was a neighborhood, one unique to L.A. In their enclave between the city on the west, Chinatown on the north, Boyle Heights on the east and Vernon to the south, they found a working-class community that is multi-culturalism personified. They also found great restaurants with authentic ethnic food from all over the world.

Mostly though, they found a sense of reality that is hard to find in Tinseltown, a city becoming increasingly separatist and ghettoized.

So long, LACE. Good luck in Hollywood!

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