Beyond Downtown: Do Los Angeles Artwalks Take It to the Streets?


The organized neighborhood "Artwalk" has become the most common way to see art and meet artists in Los Angeles. These were once confined to high-rent Venice and codified locales such as the Brewery and Santa Fe art colonies. But now Southern California enjoys many corrallings of artist studios in one neighborhood onto a map and open for a weekend afternoon.

In their Inglewood studio, artists Kyungmi Shin and Todd Gray pose with one of Shin's collages.

Over thirty artists in Inglewood took part in the Inglewood Open Studios last weekend. Now in its fourth year, the city of Ingelwood and mayor Daniel Tabor are refreshingly cooperative in this endeavor. Two comfortable city-supplied shuttle busses made a continuous loop to the front door of every studio in the roughly two square miles of lofts, storefronts and apartments that are home to working artists. With big names like Todd Gray and Kavin Buck standing out, the sense of community that is forming was evident in two developments. First, the Beacon Arts Building on La Brea, the center of this burgeoning scene, hosted a group show open to the participating artists (Full Disclosure: I became aware of B.A.B. earlier this year when they approached me to curate a show for them in 2011, which may happen). Secondly, in a gesture indicative of the true spirit of community, this artwalk was dedicated to the late Dustin Shuler, legendary for his monumental sculpture (in 1983 he nailed an airplane, yes an airplane, onto the American Hotel and nearly above the then-entrance to Al's Bar). Shuler's longtime studio in Inglewood epitomized the "wild west" aesthetic and attitude that sets apart the Inglewood art scene from the more established enclaves increasingly dotting the basin.

The Food Truck-free Brewery Artwalk manages just fine without all the attendant hype that detracts from the art.

A few years ago I was president of the non-profit group that sponsored the Brewery Artwalk at the Brewery studios in Lincoln Heights. In meeting after monthly meeting we made sure to keep our focus of the event on one thing: the opportunity for artists to sell their art at studio prices. We regularly vetoed any plans for participants to feature bands in their lofts or sponsor name deejays to create a party atmosphere. We actively counterprogrammed the event to be on the same weekend as Coachella so as to diminish the presence of the party crowd and cultivate an atmosphere amenable to art buying. When we sent out a missive explaining restrictions on what participants could and could not do, I got called the other "N" word: the Artwalk Nazi. But not one artist handing out free beers in their lofts volunteered to have his or her name on the insurance rider for the event. It was a lesson in leadership: One had to suffer some slings and arrows along the way. One finds out that the most vocal critics were of course the folks who would never dream of lifting a finger to help make the event happen anyway.

Epicenter of the Downtown LA Art Walk, 4th and Main Streets Downtown, pictured here in 2008.

Fast forward a few years and the chaos that is the monthly Downtown Artwalk almost caused the event to implode a few months ago. A fractious board of directors is disunited and local property owners have basically gelded any independent body from control by paying the city of Los Angeles a quarter million dollars to police and clean-up the event. Asking any of the players how this slow-motion car wreck occurred is unleashing a battle between the cackles and the recriminations. Some "Gallery Row" art galleries on the Downtown Artwalk are pulling out and forming their own event on a different day each month, insisting they are above the devolved "Party Walk". A few years ago, in the search for warm bodies to see their wares, these galleries did not stand up to the street musicians, flea market booth renters and food trucks hungry to parasite off the glamour that the word "art" brings to the critical mass that constitutes a "walk". Visual art thrives amidst the validation of a contemplative crowd. The cacophony of street vendors and amplified sidewalk amateurs attracts the gawkers and college kids that comprise the Coachella set. Once that genie was out of the bottle, the art evaporated from the Downtown Artwalk. Whatever becomes of this TOO-popular event amidst the current turmoil, the tackiness has long since poisoned the well; there will likely never be the art buyers like the Brewery Artwalk is built to attract nor will there be a cooperative relationship between the artists and the city that fosters the spirit of community as in Inglewood. The Artwalk is dead, long live the Artwalk.