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.