Inside the February 12 Artists’ Political Action Network meeting at 356 Mission (photo courtesy APAN)

LOS ANGELES — The latest development in the ongoing conflict over art and gentrification here has pitted well-meaning activists in the art world against community organizers. Last November, eight well-known Los Angeles–based artists formed the Artists’ Political Action Network (APAN), motivated by a desire to create “a network for artists to share information, coordinate responses with established organizations, and leverage our cultural capital to effect meaningful change in our communities, at the state level, and nationally,” according to a statement. Their first public meeting was held on February 12, at 356 Mission, a contentious art space that’s being boycotted by local affiliated groups Defend Boyle Heights (DBH) and the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) for what they see as the role of galleries in neighborhood gentrification and the displacement of long-time residents. Attendees of the meeting were indeed met by protestors, who implored them not to “cross the picket line.”

APAN has since faced accusations that its choice to hold a meeting at 356 Mission was ill-considered. In response, the group sent Hyperallergic a statement to clarify its position. “In deciding to stage the event at 356 Mission, we hoped that, rather than ignoring or attempting to avoid the conflicts in the area, the choice of location would create an opportunity for engagement and dialogue,” the statement reads.

While protestors did at one time enter the building to address the meeting directly, how much dialogue took place between the two groups that Sunday is up for debate. APAN’s statement says that meeting attendees “applauded their [BHAAAD’s] intervention,” but at least one person who was present disputes this account. Two artists from New York, Michael Mandiberg and Jacqueline Mabey, who were in town for Mandiberg’s project at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, attended the meeting. Going in, they were unfamiliar with the heated debate over art and gentrification happening in Boyle Heights.

The protesters “marched into the meeting, chanting, ‘a gentrifying space is not a safe space,’ and it appeared that the audience attempted to drown them out by clapping,” Mandiberg told Hyperallergic via email. “They didn’t stop until someone shouted, ‘let them talk.’

“The artist organizers never acknowledged the fact that their event was being picketed so loudly that the sound of the megaphone through the window became background noise for the conversation,” Mandiberg continued, “and they disregarded my attempt to bring it up in the conversation.”

The protesters were allowed to address the meeting for about five minutes and spoke about the role they believe 356 Mission plays in gentrification and displacement. The final BHAAAD member initially seemed to invite attendees to dialogue outside, before abruptly shifting gears and saying into the megaphone, “You know what, fuck all you guys.” He then stormed out.

Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement protesters outside the APAN meeting at 356 Mission (photo courtesy Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement)

In another particularly Rashomon-like episode, an APAN subcommittee was formed to address gentrification and met for 45 minutes with protestors. In the process, APAN claims, one of those protesters joined the committee and volunteered a DBH space for their next meeting.

When BHAAAD was asked to confirm this via email, they replied, “NO we did not join the subcommittee! And NO no meeting was planned afterwards with DBH or BHAAAD, at all!”

Angel de la Luna, a community resident and DBH coalition member, added that he did take part in a discussion of gentrification with members of APAN, but “did not volunteer to be a part of their work. I also did not solidify with them a ‘DBH meeting space’ for their next meeting.”

APAN confirmed that it will hold a follow-up meeting this Sunday at a non-DBH associated venue. BHAAAD, meanwhile, will be holding its own meeting in the neighborhood in March on the topics of artwashing and gentrification.

Mandiberg said he left the meeting shortly after the protestors, disillusioned and frustrated by his first exposure to the complicated and incendiary situation in Boyle Heights. “We were invited by a friend and didn’t know what to expect when we showed up. I certainly didn’t expect the hierarchical structure that was already in place, crystallized along established vectors of art world power.”

As for whether the artists and community organizers can find common ground, APAN says its goal is to “work together,” but de la Luna summed up what seems to be the major rift between the two sides. “The resistance against gentrification in Boyle Heights must center and be directed by Boyle Heights community residents, and not 356 Mission through their attempt to artwash progressive political stances like at Sunday’s event,” he told Hyperallergic.

The full statement from APAN is reproduced below:

The organizing members of APAN regret the conflicts that have developed between artists and Boyle Heights residents and that APAN’s first meeting, held at 356 Mission, enflamed these conflicts. We want APAN to be a vehicle for artists to develop relationships of cooperation and solidarity with a range of activists working on a range of pressing political issues, including gentrification.

In deciding to stage the event at 356 Mission, we hoped that, rather than ignoring or attempting to avoid the conflicts in the area, the choice of location would create an opportunity for engagement and dialogue. While we recognized that 356 Mission is a contested space, we see it as an important artist-run gathering space for the Los Angeles arts community that has hosted many non-commercial cultural and political events. We had no advance notice that Defend Boyle Heights planned to protest the event or directly challenge people arriving to attend it.

Like the organizing members of APAN, most of the attendees were sympathetic to the concerns of the protesters. When members of Defend Boyle Heights came inside and interrupted the APAN event, speaking with a bullhorn, those in attendance heard them out and applauded their intervention. After the DBH protesters went back outside, the APAN organizers resumed the meeting and its planned agenda. That agenda was to form subcommittees that would research various issues and proceed with outreach to existing organizations and groups working on those issues as well as developing their own actions. Gentrification was one of the first issues identified by the attendees, along with immigration, racism, women’s rights, environmental devastation, and effectively intervening in electoral politics to resist the Trump agenda. Once the gentrification subcommittee formed, it reached out to the protestors and spent most of the rest of the APAN event in discussion with a representative from their group. This subcommittee plans to attend the next meeting of Defend Boyle Heights to continue these discussions. All members of the community were welcome to join the APAN meeting, as was made clear on the Facebook event page when the issue was raised in comments in advance of February 12. This was also made clear protestors during the meeting. They are welcome to join future meetings as well.

The organizing members of APAN look forward to working with Defend Boyle Heights and other existing activist and advocacy groups to leverage the cultural capital of contemporary art to effect positive social change. We recognize that the world of contemporary art is a privileged one that is often aligned with oppressive and exploitative forces in society. We recognize that artists and arts organizations are often the vanguard of gentrification, even while they are eventually forced out by the rising rents their presence can initiate. We do not believe that artists are the enemies of long-term residents. Rather, we believe that artists and long-term residents can work together to advocate for tenants rights, rent control and affordable housing, and to protest the red-lining, developer-driven zoning changes, and systemic racism that has contributed to the disempowerment of many communities. We feel that artists can and should be allies to advocate in solidarity around these issues, but first we need to organize ourselves for effective political action. That was the aim of APAN’s inaugural meeting.

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.