On September 17, the day United Talent Agency officially opened Artist Space, its pseudo-gallery in a former manufacturing building in Boyle Heights, well-dressed visitors ate shrimp tacos outside on Anderson Street. Inside they hovered around the work of Larry Clark, the New York-based filmmaker and photographer who made the gritty film Kids (in which kids have sex and do drugs). Hanging on one wall were photos of Brad Renfro, the actor and addict who overdosed in 2008, shirtless, shooting up and hanging out. Around the main gallery hung eight paintings Clark made by attaching drug paraphernalia to canvases covered in expressionistic marks. The Beverly Hills-based talent agency had brought drugs, art and tacos together in a largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood known for artist activism and for fighting against the pervasiveness of drug addiction.
The opening on the 17th started at two in the afternoon. It had ended by the time the sun set and protesters arrived, carrying an oversized eviction notice and, among other things, a sign that read, “Keep Beverly Hills out of Boyle Heights.”
A year and a half ago, UTA started representing artists in addition to actors and entertainers. It announced its new space only a few weeks before opening. “UTA Artist Space will become a site of cultural exchange across UTA’s roster of artists, musicians, filmmakers,” said their press release, making the space’s goals sound largely self-involved. But they’d chosen the location for a reason. “Right now, the heart and soul of creativity is in downtown Los Angeles,” Josh Roth, the art lawyer heading UTA’s Fine Art arm, told the New York Times. In the same article, UTA head Jim Berkus explained that artists could do business in their Beverly Hills offices and then go downtown to “collaborate and create.”
A member of Defend Boyle Heights (DBH), a group that has since summer aggressively protested the growing gallery scene in its neighborhood, posted the New York Times article on Facebook, writing, “Still think we are making this shit up? Beverly Hills wants in on lil' ol' Boyle Heights. We need everyone on the ground on September 17th!” Plans for a protest panned out in comments following the post. The eviction notice posted on UTA’s already locked door that night read:
YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED BY THE PEOPLE OF BOYLE HEIGHTS, who have fought for decades to preserve affordable housing for low-income families, reduced violence in the neighborhood, and have given their own labor and resources to make Boyle Heights a culturally vibrant community, that you must REMOVE YOUR BUSINESS from the neighborhood immediately.
When art lawyer Josh Roth joined UTA to spearhead the Fine Arts wing early in 2015, art worlders met news of the venture with skepticism and perhaps a little trepidation. The gallery scene, growing in L.A. to an unprecedented extent, is perpetually fragile. Even bigger spaces sometimes rely on sales from just a few high-grossing artists to stay afloat. Would the agency, with its Hollywood resources and aspirations, help or hurt? (“Like a fish, maybe the whole [art meets agency] thing will start to smell bad after a few days,” Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan commented in 2015, even as UTA helped fund a film on his work.)
The day after UTA announced its Artist Space, which would host events in addition to exhibitions, the 44-year-old New York non-profit Artists Space sent out a wry letter dissociating itself with the agency’s venture. Wrote Stefan Kalmar, the executive director (who just recently became director of the Institute of Contemporary Art London): “Artists Space has indeed united many talents, has supported artists early in their career to establish agency … ” He continued to say his space was launching an event series to explore the “urban reality” facing artists and non-profits being displaced as commercial ventures took over formerly affordable real estate. “United Talent Agency opening a new venue in downtown L.A. and calling it UTA Artist Space speaks exactly to this new urban reality,” said Kalmar.
Had UTA chosen a different name for its venture, perhaps Kalmar would have been less biting. But ever since galleries started moving near and into Boyle Heights three years ago, language has steeply contributed to frustration and anxiety. Residents assume, with good reason, that the words put forth in press releases and newspapers reflect their new neighbors’ intentions.
In a New York Times article published in February and titled “Art Scene Heats Up in Downtown Los Angeles,” artist Maggie Lee described Boyle Heights as “desolate.” Artist Sojourner Truth Parsons, who had just moved to Boyle Heights from Toronto, is quoted as saying, “It’s mainly tacos and stray dogs and really nice people.” The writer described “[w]arehouses, abandoned factories, scrap-metal yards and a few strip clubs” and a “rough-and-tumble streetscape.”
Joel Garcia, director of the 43-year-old Eastside non-profit Self Help Graphics, wrote to the Times after reading this. “The article sidesteps the gentrification taking hold of one of L.A.’s oldest Latino neighborhoods that has long shined as an artistic hub,” he said. “Instead of focusing on the artistic glitterati’s plunder, I ask that this publication train its journalistic lens on the consequences of this migration on the community’s well-being.” The Times did not publish his letter.
The afternoon I visited Self Help’s current home, blocks away from a handful of new warehouse-scaled galleries, Garcia and associate director Betty Avila further discussed recent reportage. “Other magazines have copied the New York Times' narrative of the area being up for grabs, basically,” said Garcia, “that this is a new frontier waiting to be discovered, the wild west.”
Avila mentioned the various articles that have casually renamed Boyle Heights, calling it, for instance, the Flats. “What seems like a very benign thing to do is actually really harmful,” she said. “It implies this is us, and all of that is other.”
Garcia and Avila agreed to speak with me but were cautious. Given the narratives that have been published, they weren’t certain they could trust journalists to accurately convey their position. On July 2, members of DBH interrupted a community meeting at Self Help Graphics, calling for Self Help to take a harsher stance in opposition to newly arrived art galleries. Later, in an open letter, DBH explained that Self Help, as a respected non-profit, would and should be scrutinized closely. The press that followed often portrayed Self Help and DBH as being at odds. Garcia and Avila don’t see it that way.
Garcia noted that they’ve been hosting community meetings about changes in East L.A. since 2009 and want DBH representatives in attendance. They also understand the hard line DBH is taking.
“People are so frustrated they don’t know what else to do,” said Avila. “It feels personal when you get pushed out … It’s especially painful when those moving in have the resources to transform the landscape with ease,” she added. “That mobility is privilege, and it’s hard to be confronted with that when you don’t have it.”
The night they delivered UTA’s eviction notice, DBH protesters proceeded down Anderson, stopping in front of other galleries hosting receptions. In front of the Pepto-Bismol-pink Venus Over Los Angeles, they chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, these gentrifiers have got to go.” A few of them yelled, “Get the fuck out,” until the director, forcing a smile and maneuvering between banner-length signs, came out to close the gate.
DBH chanted in front of Museum as Retail Space, aka MaRS gallery, too, and when director Robert Zinn Stark came out to engage, they told him he doesn’t belong here. “Our voice is what counts,” said one woman. Stark, too, eventually closed his gate. Later, he posted about his experience on Facebook and described it in a letter sent out to various journalists. “I closed the gallery doors with DBH chanting, ‘Get out or things will get worse. Get out or things will get worse,’ ” he wrote, adding, “People owning where they live and having control over their community is the answer.”
Stark, unlike many of the gallerists operating on Mission and Anderson, has consistently chosen to speak out and to respond to dissenters who take issue with the perceived tone and content of his statements. Those who spoke off the record acknowledged how incriminating it must seem for gallerists to remain silent, but, one gallery administrator noted, it's better not to talk until they've begun engaging with the community in effective ways. Others opted not to comment at all. Venus Over Los Angeles did not respond to email. A scheduled interview with UTA's Josh Roth was canceled after I sent my list of questions.
Could galleries and art spaces learn to contribute to the Boyle Heights community, even if they moved in with problematic intentions? “That’s a very complicated question,” responded activist and artist Leonardo Vilchis, the executive director of coalition-building non-profit Union de Vecinos, which has aligned itself with DBH. “The galleries are one of the symptoms of a larger neighborhood process that is going on. Even if they were all good, still the prices would go up. That’s why we’re taking a very strong position and saying we’re better off with the galleries leaving.” None have plans to leave at this point.
A week after UTA Artist Space debuted, Ibid Gallery opened a suite of new exhibitions around the corner in a newly renovated complex — UTA is, in fact, Ibid’s tenant. The street was quiet that afternoon. No one held signs or chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho,” but the chant was on people’s minds. Other gallerists, there to welcome their new neighbor, recalled the events of the previous weekend. An artist I ran into on the way to my car noted how strange it felt to be at the opening considering the context.
“It feels tainted,” another artist later said, off the record.