Art Works Blog

Postcard from California and Arizona: Part One

I’ve been California---and Arizona---dreaming for the last couple of weeks. This was probably my longest trip that I’ve had so far at the NEA. I flew into Sacramento, and went right out to Yolo County to visit the Yolo County Art & Ag project, which has received an ArtPlace grant. This is a neat project in which artists will work with a local arts organization, Yolo Arts, to create works inspired by visits the artists make to farms.

You know, you drive five minutes out of Sacramento, and you’re in rural farm country. It’s really quite lovely. I met with quite a few people who are participating in this ArtPlace project. Dani Thomas is the director of Yolo Arts, and Janice Purnell is the project manager. We also met with Scott Hecks from the California Arts Council and Duane Chamberlain, a farmer, who talked with really heartfelt personal experience and engagement on what the arts can do in an agricultural area. The whole concept here is to get the famers and artists to intersect, and to work together. What the artists really do is engage and celebrate this farmland, which has a two-fold effect. It really creates a sense of place and identity for the area that the artists uniquely can create and provide, and when that happens I think you have a lot of sense of identity in the place and pride in being there. So the project works toward getting people’s attention focused on this place and in retaining people who want to live there because it’s a place celebrated by artists. So, not dissimilar to what we found in Reedsburg, Wisconsin with Wormfarm, there is a natural intersection of the arts and agricultural rural areas. And here is a program that really brings artists into a rural area and has them engage with it and celebrate it and create an identity there and a unique character that ultimately benefits the place. This is creative placemaking at its best.

We then returned to Sacramento for an event at the Crocker Art Museum with Congresswoman Doris Matsui, who is the U.S. Representative from Sacramento and a big supporter of the arts. It was great to engage her, since we had not yet had a chance to meet in person (though we had spoken by phone). She is a vociferous advocate for the arts, and it was wonderful to see Sacramento with her.

That evening, I had dinner with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who’s an old friend. We talked about art and baseball and the Kings and everything that is going on in Sacramento. He’s a great arts mayor, really one of the best. And I think he can be a model for arts mayors all across the country.

Next I headed south to Los Angeles. My first night there, I spoke at the convocation for the College Art Association’s annual conference. This was their centennial celebration, and I took a break from creative placemaking to talk about our collaboration with the Knight Foundation on identifying new models for arts journalism. In April, we will reveal which three of the five finalists will get an additional $80,000 each to realize their projects, so this was really a great opportunity to talk about that wonderful partnership.

The next day I started out at the collaborative company GOOD. One of its projects, GOOD Ideas for Cities, is another ArtPlace grantee. One of the things they’re doing is weaving arts and aesthetics into their work and into their publications where they’re literally promoting good ideas for cities, for things that might be transformational for cities. Our hosts there were Alissa Walker, the project leader for the ArtPlace grant, and Casey Caplowe, the co-founder and creative director of GOOD. We met in their offices, and as you might imagine, it’s a bustle of activity. One of the things they’re doing is going around the country holding convenings, and there’s even one coming up in my hometown, St. Louis. Forgive the pun, but they really do very good work. We were joined at that stop by Tim Halbur, who does communications and PR for ArtPlace, and Craig Watson, who’s the relatively new director of the California Arts Council.

You know, Craig walked into maybe a bigger job than he had imagined. I remember him from his days at Long Beach. He was a very dynamic and effective arts leader there and now he’s in charge of the whole California Arts Council. I know he’s going to be a very effective leader there as well. As difficult as the situation there is and as challenged, I think he’s the perfect guy for the job and I think it’s lucky for the arts in California that he’s there. I was glad to have Craig with us for our Los Angeles stops.

One of our visits was to Watts, a community that has received both an ArtPlace grant and an NEA Our Town grant. We first visited the ArtPlace grantee, which is the Watts House Project. Executive Director Edgar Arceneaux was our host there. He explained the history of Watts House, how he had come to run it, and what they’re doing, which is essentially an artist-driven project that takes neglected houses and recreates them as office space, exhibition venues, and work space for visiting artists. It really reflects our model of using the arts to repurpose buildings and to create a different ethos in a neighborhood. I think the work that’s being done there is very exciting. 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.

We then went over to the Historic Train Station, which is the focus of the NEA Our Town project. This project is in partnership with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, which means working with my old friend Olga Garay-English, who does a fantastic job on behalf of the arts in LA. What they’re working on is creating an aesthetic walkway from the train station to the equally historic Watts Towers. We were treated to a tour of the towers themselves, which are amazing. They are the creation of one artist over about thirty years, Sabato Rodia, who created, by hand, these towers that have held up through earthquakes and every natural disaster. The Watts Towers are definitely one man’s vision, one man’s idiosyncratic oddball aesthetic, and they have become an iconic part of the landscape of Los Angeles. And in this very tough difficult neighborhood, they’ve been a kind of icon and beacon. To see the developments going on in the Watts neighborhood and to see the role that the arts have played in this is very heartening. Congressman Laura Richardson was there, a really gracious woman who is very committed to the arts there. At that stop I also visited with Timothy Watkins, who is head of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, the project’s co-sponsor. It was really great to see what’s going to happen with the train station and the linking pathways. It’s really, I think, again a great example of creative placemaking.

Since we were nearby, we visited another Our Town grantee in Willowbrook, where they’re working on an inventory and analysis of the neighborhood’s cultural assets. This project is in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, which is headed by Laura Zucker. Laura does a fantastic job there. She is quite passionate about the arts and understands that the arts have an important role to play in neighborhood revitalization there. In California, you know, the counties have critical importance, so Los Angeles County, which includes not only Los Angeles but a great number of other cities and unincorporated areas, covers a vast portfolio and a big population. We went out to the Rosa Parks metro station and saw a performance by a local acting troupe, Watts Village Theater Company. Margaret Bruning, the director of Civic Art, and Letitia Ivins, the assistant director, really helped us imagine what this revitalization is going to be, and we very much want to be engaged in not just downtown Los Angeles but in smaller communities in the surrounding area and throughout California. The Willowbrook project was very heartening, and I think it’s going to be an excellent Our Town grant.

Back in LA proper, we went out to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for a conversation with Michael Govan, who is the young and dynamic director there. We had a great back and forth, the two of us, about the the role of the NEA today and about his work at the museum. He is an unusual museum director in the sense that he’s not interested in the same old, same old  pattern of basically acquiring works, and keeping them in your basement. What he’s all about is engagement with the artists themselves, finding a way to advocate and promote the artists that LACMA is involved with. And also he’s interested in engaging with the community. LACMA was a big sponsor of the Watts redevelopment projects, and they have a special relationship with what’s going on in Watts and are our partners there. They were really at the forefront, in terms of community engagement. The museum has incredible spaces, it does incredible programming, and it was very exciting to see the work that Michael is doing at LACMA. I mean, he really is a terribly exciting museum director.

From Los Angeles we were off to Phoenix….tune intomorrow to find out what I got up to in Arizona!

Visit to learn more about the NEA Our Town grants!


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