"Artist-Driven Urban Revitalization" at Watts Towers: BS For Beleaguered Locals or Overly Complex System Failure?
by Jen Graves
on Mon, Apr 16, 2012 at 11:26 AM
I visited Watts Towers for the first time earlier this year, and pretty much couldn't help loving it.
I've been away from Slog for a week, so I apologize for my lateness in getting this up, but on April 8 the Los Angeles Times published a fascinating and depressing story by Jori Finkel about the artist Edgar Arcenaux's failure to do much in Watts besides piss off the people he said he wanted to help.
Arcenaux set up a nonprofit organization to bring revitalization to the neighborhood immediately surrounding the Watts Towers, a monument of American folk art constructed between 1921 and 1954/55 by Simon Rodia (who once lived in Seattle*).
The head of the NEA went to Watts and crowed about how great the project was.
But instead of renovating homes and supporting the neighborhood, "If he thinks he's helping an impoverished community of primarily Mexicans and African Americans, he's done nothing but put us to shame," one resident told Finkel.
Read the story here and a blog post looking at some of the problems of being polite about "social practice" art here. For the record, there are several good examples of this kind of work, in Houston, and in Chicago, where Theaster Gates works. Gates's installation The Listening Room is at SAM, and had a satellite venue in Pioneer Square called The Record Store early this year. (The Listening Room is not an urban revitalization project but rather a more traditional-ish museum installation, to be clear.)
Then came this response from a former staff and board member, who says the story "plays into the very real systemic inequities and toxic territorialism that makes it so difficult for such projects to succeed in Watts." The writer makes interesting and good points that maybe could point toward another, even more complicated story.
*The closest things to Watts Towers in Seattle (that I can think of) are the Walker Rock Garden in West Seattle, which I've never been to but keep meaning to go, and maybe the folk art house on 26th Avenue near the James and Janie Washington Foundation (links?).