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Watts House Project under fire

It set out to renovate homes near Watts Towers. Residents say little work has been done.

April 08, 2012|Jori Finkel
  • Artist Augustine Aguirre of the Watts Towers Arts Center, in front of mosaic murals he designed on East 107th Street. He says Watts House Project used images of his murals without permission or credit in promoting its own work.
Artist Augustine Aguirre of the Watts Towers Arts Center, in front of mosaic… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

When National Endowment for the Arts chief Rocco Landesman flew to L.A. in February, he visited Watts House Project, the nonprofit group that artist Edgar Arceneaux founded to remodel homes on the block across from the Watts Towers. Landesman walked away impressed.

"You see just how aesthetically these houses have been transformed to create a whole different mood in the neighborhood -- a mood of joy and hope in what had been a very run-down and challenged neighborhood," he wrote on an NEA blog.

He's not the only person to see the project as a model -- or in his words a "poster child" -- for artist-driven urban revitalization. Since its founding three years ago, the nonprofit has raised about $700,000 from donors including the L.A. County Museum of Art, the Andy Warhol Foundation and ArtPlace, a consortium spearheaded (but not funded) by the NEA.

But a number of disgruntled Watts residents say that there are serious problems behind the cheery facades. They describe Arceneaux as charismatic but unreliable, his relationship with community leaders as distant at best, and his real contributions to Watts -- beyond marketing, fundraising and a few bright paint jobs -- as minimal.

Originally, the plan was to have an artist-architect team "partner" with each family across from the Watts Towers on East 107th Street to "transform the interiors and exteriors, front and backyards of all 20 homes" on that block and "reimagine the neighborhood," to quote early mission statements. They also called it "an ongoing, collaborative artwork in the shape of a neighborhood redevelopment."

But only three homeowners on the block agreed to the ambitious renovations. And despite years of discussions and a flurry of architectural plans featuring new bedrooms, bathrooms and space-saving solutions for the multigenerational families living in these single-story homes, only minor or cosmetic improvements like painting and landscaping have been completed.

By last summer, the group's focus seemed to be holding art workshops for kids. In October, seven of Arceneaux's 12 board members resigned. Now some partner residents say they've had enough unfulfilled promises and are talking about pulling out.

Visions and frustrations

Reached by phone in Sydney, Australia, where he was preparing for a new museum installation, Arceneaux said that he remains committed to the homeowners despite delays that he attributes to the building permit process and a "serious" tax-law issue. "The only thing we can do is to say: Hey, we understand, we're working with you, we're pushing forward," said the artist. "Hopefully we'll stay together along the way."

But the partner residents don't sound hopeful. One, Noemi Madrigal, said her family "is very discontent with the way things have been handled in the past, and the length of time it takes to get anything accomplished." Of Arceneaux, she said: "If he thinks he's helping an impoverished community of primarily Mexicans and African Americans, he's done nothing but put us to shame."

Another participant, Maria Garcia, said: "Like most of our neighbors, we are not interested in working with them anymore because they haven't really done anything. They hold meetings once a month, but we don't even go because we're so frustrated."

Even Houston-based artist-activist Rick Lowe, whom Arceneaux credits as a mentor for Lowe's early work in Watts and others regard as a pioneer in this real-world application of artists' skills known as "social practice," sounds critical. Though not directly involved with the current project, he says he has stayed in touch with a number of Watts residents and arts leaders.

"I applaud Edgar for his ability to develop the cultural capital for ... the project. If it comes to communication with funders and the art world about the project, I'd give him an A+," said Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses in Houston. "But when it comes to internal stuff, how he's been able to use the project as a way to access the potential of the existing community, that's a different story."

Lowe considers Arceneaux, who has made acclaimed gallery installations inspired by such diverse sources as Plato, Michael Jackson and the 1967 Detroit riots, "an excellent studio artist." Yet as for his community work, he said, "So many of the things you might consider best practices are just not there, though it's being held up as this great example."

Arceneaux, who lives in Pasadena, said he has heard these complaints before and asked himself: "Maybe it's me? Maybe I am doing something wrong? But I realized it's just the way that it goes there," he said, describing the area as a particularly tough place to build trust. "We're in Watts, where historically nonprofits fail within the first year," he said, citing a "rampant territorialism" among nonprofits competing for public money.

"Before we got the grants, nobody gave a damn," he said. "As soon as you get money, the knives come out."

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