Art + Practice's opening in Leimert Park two months ago was promising for the same reason the 2014 opening of Michelle Papillion's gallery there was: It was poised to add to the vibrancy of the community, known as "the village," an oasis for African-American culture in South Los Angeles. People on the street here use the term "pan-Africanism" confidently, and on weekends you might hear music from jeweler Sika's colorful storefront commingling with sounds from a parking lot drum circle.
MacArthur genius grant-winning artist Mark Bradford and philanthropist Eileen Norton, both African-Americans who have spent time in the neighborhood, are at the helm of Art + Practice along with politics-savvy Allan DiCastro, former president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Council, who has a background in banking.
Organized as a nonprofit art center, A+P occupies an airy, white-walled studio complex on Leimert Boulevard. An art deco building on West 43rd Place will eventually become its main exhibition space and perhaps a cafe, and it also occupies two storefronts around the corner, on Degnan Boulevard.
Even before it opened to the public, A+P began offering workshops for teenagers who have aged out of the foster system — significant given that nearby Dorsey and Crenshaw high schools have more foster kids enrolled than any other high schools in the city.
Artist Dale Davis, who started the Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park with his brother Alonzo in 1967 and staged important exhibitions by minority artists there, since August has been digitizing his archives in a studio A+P provided; it's a project that a major museum should have funded years ago.
So when, on Feb. 28, A+P debuted its first exhibition — a show of meticulous new work by L.A. artist Charles Gaines, organized with the Hammer Museum — it seemed it was engaging the community already.
But certain community members have been apprehensive about A+P from the start.
Musician J.J. Kabasa runs an African drum circle and has been frequenting the neighborhood since the 1970s. "I love art and practice. That's what I'm about — I want to see that applied," he says. "Probably, Art + Practice, they've brought something to the village. But they're not connecting."
Kabasa, like others in Leimert, believes A+P's founders have purchased a number of buildings surrounding their campus, perhaps in a quiet bid to control the cultural development of the area.
A+P's founders have told L.A. Weekly that they do not own the additional buildings in question, eight historic white storefronts along Degnan Boulevard, a prime commercial strip that's currently home to Papillion Gallery and the World Stage performance gallery and once was home to Brockman Gallery.
Bradford and DiCastro, available only via indirect emails from A+P's program lead or the Hammer Museum's communications office, have used careful language. They say they are "not currently investing in other properties in the neighborhood," and that "A+P does not know who owns the property" along Degnan.
Sophia Belsheim, A+P's program lead, told the Weekly in March that A+P does have an office in one Degnan storefront and is renovating 4334 Degnan. She said it plans to sublease this renovated space to Eso Won Books, the black-owned, grassroots bookstore that moved to the neighborhood in 2006 and is currently across the street. But Belsheim said these properties had been acquired through a management company, Clint Lukens Realty, and A+P is not the underlying owner. "We're trying to dispel that rumor," she told the Weekly. "We're not interested in purchasing more buildings."
The problem with these statements is that state and local records appear to support village rumors. These records show the Degnan storefronts being purchased by a limited liability corporation, or LLC, which lists DiCastro, A+P's co-founder and interim director, as its managing member.
According to the county assessor's office, an entity calling itself MBA Mascot LLC owns the Degnan storefronts. The name resembles names of other LLCs with which Bradford and DiCastro are associated (MBA Standford, MBA Wwb), and DiCastro's name appears on the deed for the Degnan property, dated June 7, 2013. On the statement of information the Weekly requested from the secretary of state, DiCastro is the managing member listed for MBA Mascot LLC.
The state of California requires just one managing member to be named in public records, so DiCastro could have other partners, who need not be listed under the law. But if A+P's founders do own the Degnan buildings as well as the art deco building and Leimert Boulevard complex, that means they control approximately 30,000 square feet of a relatively small block — and aren't admitting it.
"Why all this pulling shade, as people say these days?" asks Rene Fisher-Mims, who runs S.H.I.N.E. Muwasi, a women's dance and drum circle that often meets in the village.
"We're befuddled," says Mari Hashimoto, a clinical social worker who serves on the World Stage's board.
It helps to rewind a few years, to the end of 2012. That's when it seemed likely the community's campaign to get a Leimert Park Metro stop on the Crenshaw line would succeed, and hopefully pull businesses out of the slump they'd been in since the recession. That's also when the A+P-controlled West 43rd Place LLC bought the art deco building that now is part of A+P's campus. At that point, few if any Leimert residents knew that Bradford and DiCastro were behind that LLC. No plans for A+P had been announced.
Then, on May 23, 2013, Metro's board of directors voted to approve a Leimert Village Metro stop — a decision that typically increases land values in the immediate area dramatically and leads to new development. Two weeks later, MBA Mascot LLC — the one state records say DiCastro set up — officially purchased the parcel along Degnan. Described in a document as a "real estate investment," the LLC will be in a perfect position to profit when the train comes in.
According to jazz vocalist and World Stage director Dwight Trible, not long after the purchase, a representative from Clint Lukens Realty told him the new owner was not currently renewing leases for existing tenants. Worried because World Stage was one of the tenants, Trible attempted to locate the owner, enlisting the help, unsuccessfully, of staff at L.A. City Councilman Herb Wesson's office. Other tenants on the block also had not had leases renewed, and were paying month-to-month without agreements or receiving pay-or-quit notices.
To raise awareness of its uncertain future, and to raise funds in the face of a potential eviction, World Stage organized a concert in October 2013. Press coverage of the event in the L.A. Times, L.A. Weekly and KCET questioned whether the coming train would stifle Leimert's distinct character and described the new owners on the block as anonymous or, in columnist Erin Aubrey Kaplan's words, "a partnership with no public face."
Then, in spring 2014, soon after Papillion Gallery opened on Degnan, the sisters who campaigned hard for the train stop decided to close their Zambezi Bazaar — a hangout and boutique that was hard to keep afloat financially — rather than navigate the uncertain rental situation. The storefront housing the Bazaar, which has since reopened around the corner, was listed as available by Clint Lukens and described as a "lovely two-level storefront" walking distance from the coming Metro station "in an up-and-coming shopping center." A+P later would occupy this particular storefront, and offer it to Eso Won Books.
In December 2014, World Stage's Trible read a newspaper story detailing A+P's aspirations and realized that DiCastro, whose name he had already found when searching for MBA Mascot LLC's owner online, was A+P's interim executive director.
Early this year, Trible emailed A+P's office, saying he thought its venture sounded admirable and that he would like to discuss World Stage's unrenewed lease with Bradford, one artist-activist to another. He was told Bradford was unavailable.
"If they're doing good work and we're doing good work, why aren't we working together?" Trible says he still wants to know.
In theory, A+P's presence on the block is a good thing, even a best-case scenario. The founders of a nonprofit that helps foster youth, stages exhibitions and supports the history of an important, under-recognized gallery are not the stereotypical faceless corporate landlords.
Filmmaker Ben Caldwell has owned the always-active Kaos Network building, a multimedia training center, on the corner of Leimert and West 43rd since the 1980s and is there most days. "We're still coming up with a definition of what this change is," he said, soon after A+P opened. "Mark [Bradford], an artist, is reinvesting money that he's gotten through the system." But, he added, "The onus of the imperial lord, it falls on you."
Caldwell thinks concerns about Leimert's future and A+P's role in it should be voiced. "We're in a slow process of learning to trust each other, changing so that the culture can get its feeling, its swag, back."
This seemed strangely possible on the first Friday in April, when Sika was burning incense in front of his jewelry shop and Michelle Papillion was installing her ambitious spring exhibition, brown paper still covering half the windows. A+P's office was dark, but next door a concert was starting at World Stage. It went late, and kept shifting. Trible sang something intimate and soulful at one point, then Kabasa's drum circle entered from the street as if on cue, and the experience felt like something bigger, and inclusive.
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