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Boyle Heights Art Space Closes, Blaming Anti-Gentrification Activists

After months of protests, a Boyle Heights art nonprofit has decided to leave the contested neighborhood that activists say is being gentrified with the help of the art community.

PSSST shortly before their opening in June 2016 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — Citing “the ongoing controversy surrounding art and gentrification in Boyle Heights,” nonprofit art space PSSST has decided to close, according to a statement posted on their website. Their 5,000-square-foot building located in the predominantly Latinx neighborhood opened just last June amid accusations from community activists that the influx of galleries was contributing to gentrification and the displacement of long-term residents. Despite PSSST’s non-commercial focus, it was simply their presence that posed a threat, as Leonardo Vilchis of Union de Vecinos told Hyperallergic at the time: “The question of whether the gallery is for profit or nonprofit does not make a difference to us. Serious damage has been done in the community by nonprofit institutions, foundations, public agencies, and private/public investment […] The issue for us is less a question of who is doing the damage, but what damage is being done.”

Community activist groups like Defend Boyle Heights and BHAAD (Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement) have repeatedly called for all galleries to leave Boyle Heights, to be replaced with social services, child care, grocery stores, or laundromats. Many of the galleries do not own their buildings, however, so it is not clear how realistic this request is. “As PSSST does not own 1329 East 3rd Street — and our lease was directly dependent on us maintaining our 501(c)(3) status and mission — the owner will now assume control of the building,” their statement reads. “We have no say in how they choose to proceed or what they will do with the property.”

Anti-gentrification protests targeting the galleries have been a constant presence over the past nine months, as protestors posted mock eviction notices on gallery doors, chanting “Fuera!”[“Out!”] as they marched past posh opening parties. Tensions continued to escalate when “Fuck White Art” was spray-painted on the roll-up gate of Nicodim Gallery, prompting a ill-considered decision on the part of the LAPD to pursue the vandalism as hate crime.

Recently, a protest was held outside of 356 Mission during a meeting of the Artists Political Action Network that was called to address ways to deal with our new political reality. Those who entered the meeting were called “scabs” by the protestors for “crossing the picket line” to attend a meeting in such a politically contested space. Although protestors briefly entered the gallery, the tone of any dialogue that took place, either inside or outside, seems to have been more combative than constructive.

This divisiveness, compounded with what they refer to as personal attacks, “made fundraising an impossibility” for PSSST, prompting their decision to close. “While our closure might be applauded by some,” their statement reads, “it is not a victory for civil discourse and coalition building at a time when both are in short supply.”

They were indeed correct, as DBH and BHAAAD issued their own statement, claiming the closure as “a victory” that they greet with “great joy.”

“If galleries are going to leave Boyle Heights in response to the community’s demands … they can use their power and access to capital to make sure their gentrifying spaces are replaced with something beneficial,” the statement reads, an apparent rejection of the contention that PSSST has no role in the future of the space once they leave. “We hope when the rest of the galleries leave in the future, they will take this into consideration.”

The full statement from PSSSST appears below, followed by the full statement from DBH/BHAAAD:

Dear Friends,

It is with heavy hearts that we announce PSSST is closing.

 

PSSST began as a dream to create an interdisciplinary art space by and for a diverse array of underrepresented artists working in a variety of mediums. Our hope was that PSSST would become an open and dialogue-rich incubator in which artists would be relieved from the common pressures associated with the economies of art production and thereby create new models of sustainability and exchange. That dream became real for the artists with whom we worked: it materialized for our residents, for the participants who playfully experimented in our workshops, through the generosity of spirit in our Crit Club, and through the merging of disciplines in our exhibitions and events. It was beautiful and inspiring, all of it.

 

The learning curve, however, for us as individuals and as an organization was steep with many missteps and challenges. The ongoing controversy surrounding art and gentrification in Boyle Heights caused PSSST to become so contested that we are unable to ethically and financially proceed with our mission. Our young nonprofit struggled to survive through constant attacks. Our staff and artists were routinely trolled online and harassed in-person. This persistent targeting, which was often highly personal in nature, was made all the more intolerable because the artists we engaged are queer, women, and/or people of color. We could no longer continue to put already vulnerable communities at further risk.

 

While our closure might be applauded by some, it is not a victory for civil discourse and coalition building at a time when both are in short supply. The ongoing representation of a divisive battle–nonprofit art spaces versus the residents of Boyle Heights–resulted in the mischaracterization of PSSST as being fundamentally in opposition with the varied intersectional communities we aimed to support. This made fundraising an impossibility. Without financial support, PSSST, a fledgling nonprofit, cannot survive.

 

As PSSST does not own 1329 East 3rd Street—and our lease was directly dependent on us maintaining our 501(c)(3) status and mission—the owner will now assume control of the building. We have no say in how they choose to proceed or what they will do with the property.

 

The three of us will move on and forge our own separate paths. No matter where we land or what we do, we remain committed to the fundamental idea that birthed PSSST into existence: in a world where the value of art is inextricably linked to money but where scarcity prevails, in a country that provides little to no support for the arts, where art schools offer false promises in return for a lifetime of debt, and where institutions privilege the already privileged, we believe art is beyond the monetary. It is community. It is conversation. It is critical thinking. It is the space and time to experiment. It is empathy and generosity.

 

With love,

 

Barnett Cohen
Pilar Gallego
Jules Gimbrone

Statement from DBH/BHAAAD:

It is with great joy for the residents of Boyle Heights to hear that PSSST is leaving our neighborhood. For the 296 families living in Pico Gardens, fighting against the privatization of their public housing and the thousands of Boyle Heights tenants that are struggling against harassment and rent increases, this is a victory. PSSST’s rightful departure confirms the importance of fighting against the “common sense” notion that gentrification is supposedly inevitable.

While we are not giving up on dialogue as part of our strategy, it is clear that the gallerists still do not listen to our voices and the questions that their fellow artists are raising about their complicity in displacing working class tenants living only steps away.  As their letter demonstrates; “While our closure might be applauded by some, it is not a victory for civil discourse and coalition building at a time when both are in short supply”, PSSST arrogantly ignores the reality of the people who must build coalitions and local power to survive! As President Trump escalates deportations, as Border Patrol and ICE enforce the executive orders that violate the civil rights of Muslims and immigrants, and as city planners empower developers to artwash working class communities across the nation, the most marginalized people must continue to build strong national coalitions in order to resist!

This closure is thus a victory for BHAAAD and Defend Boyle Heights, and we claim it as such. Civil discourse only functions when it is intersectional: the erasure of a predominantly working class community of color demanding your removal is nowhere near intersectional, therefore void. The coalitions we build can not be distracted by the naive notion that art galleries can be maintained without direct complicity in speculative development. Coalition building takes active listening and building from within communities, it requires humility and acknowledgement of many voices. It is time to plug yourselves into existing movements and organizations that have been fighting fascism since before Trump.

DBH and BHAAAD celebrate the artists and art workers who have taken a rightful and courageous side in the struggle against gentrification. On Sunday, February 12th, 2017, 356 Mission naively tried to escape complicity by hosting an event for an “Artists’ Political Action Network.” At the same time, we upheld DBH’s boycott against the galleries with more than 50 people, both white and POC, who chose not to cross our picket line and instead joined our fight. Ambar Navarro, a transplant artist originally from San Antonio, was scheduled to have a screening on the following Saturday at 356 Mission, pulled out, and cancelled event to join community in resistance.

PSSST lost funding because of responsible conscious funders that understood the mistake of their actions. Divesting from these spaces is the solution.

We have been telling PSSST and the other galleries what the community needs instead of galleries all along: Authentic affordable housing for low-income people, emergency housing for homeless people and people displaced by gentrification, a laundromat, a needle exchange or harm reduction center, an affordable grocery store, etc. Why was there funding for a 501(c)3 to run a gallery to attract new people to Boyle Heights, but not for services for the existing community? Because the forces that backed PSSST never had any interest in Boyle Heights, except as a real estate investment opportunity. This is the tragedy of artwashing: it channels philanthropy into destroying neighborhoods.

And now that it’s time to move on, PSSST leaves with a thinly veiled threat: “the owner will now assume control of the building. We have no say in…what they will do with the property.” If galleries are going to leave Boyle Heights in response to the community’s demands — if they are willing to join the resistance — they can do it ethically: they can use their power and access to capital to make sure their gentrifying spaces are replaced with something beneficial. We hope when the rest of the galleries leave in the future, they will take this into consideration.

We will not stop fighting until all galleries leave. Boyle Heights will continue to fight against the false promises of development and community improvement that are supposed to benefit us, but end up displacing us from our home. Once again we call on ALL galleries in Boyle Heights to reconsider your position and leave immediately. In addition we call on all our supporters:

  • continue divesting from these galleries and their programming,

  • to all artists to refuse to show your work or participate in their programming,

  • and to all patrons to stop bringing business to these spaces,

  • and to all the local people to join the fight against gentrification in Boyle Heights and everywhere in Los Angeles.

PSSST opened up their eyes. We ask the other galleries to follow their example and and act in good conscience, understanding their impact on our neighborhood.  The community has struggled to make this a peaceful community we have worked and spent energy in making our community the place that we dreamed of.  Don’t turn our lives into a nightmare.

                         From a Resident of Pico Gardens for more than 40 years

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