Interviews

Anti-Gentrification Activists Protest Laura Owens Exhibition at the Whitney Museum

An alliance of activists from Los Angeles and New York highlighted the role of the artist and her dealer, Gavin Brown, in artwashing the gentrification of working-class neighborhoods.

Members of Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) protest at the Whitney Museum during Laura Owens's opening on Wednesday, November 8. (screenshot by the author via YouTube)
Members of Defend Boyle Heights and Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) protest at the Whitney Museum during Laura Owens’s opening on Wednesday, November 8. (screenshot by the author via YouTube)

“Laura Owens, Gavin Brown, our hoods unite to take you down! Leave our hoods and do what’s right: Give your keys to Boyle Heights!” So went the chant intoned by activists in the galleries of the Whitney Museum and at its main entrance during Wednesday night’s VIP opening for the institution’s Laura Owens survey show.

The activists, from a coalition of anti-gentrification groups in New York City and Los Angeles, were there to remind attendees at the soirée that Owens and her dealer, Gavin Brown, were at the forefront of the influx of galleries into LA’s Boyle Heights neighborhood with their space 356 Mission. Brown’s New York locations, in Chinatown and Harlem, have set off similar allegations of artwashing the gentrification of diverse and predominantly working-class neighborhoods.

On Wednesday night, many of the protesters — including members of Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, Defend Boyle Heights, Chinatown Art Brigade, the Brooklyn Anti-gentrification Network, Equality for Flatbush, Take Back the Bronx, Decolonize This Place, Defend Corona, Mothers on the Move, People’s Cultural Plan, and ICE FREE QUEENS — were stationed at the Whitney’s main entrance on Gansevoort Street, addressing party attendees as they arrived and departed. A smaller group of activists demonstrated inside the exhibition, unfurling a large banner that read “Laura Owens and Gavin Brown Fuera de Boyle Heights” (“Laura Owens and Gavin Brown Out of Boyle Heights”) and distributing information about the LA neighborhood’s fight against gentrification.

A focal point of the action was to draw out the parallels between the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods in New York and Los Angeles, and how artists and galleries in both cities often contribute to that process. Hyperallergic asked members of one of the groups that organized the protest, the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD), to discuss the connections between the art world’s role in gentrification on both coasts and the response to Wednesday’s Whitney action.

Members of Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) and other anti-gentrification groups rallying outside the Whitney Museum during Laura Owens's opening on Wednesday, November 8. (photo courtesy BHAAAD)
Members of Defend Boyle Heights and Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) and other anti-gentrification groups rallying outside the Whitney Museum during Laura Owens’s opening on Wednesday, November 8. (photo courtesy BHAAAD)

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Benjamin Sutton: What is it about Owens’s opening at the Whitney specifically that caused all these anti-gentrification groups from Los Angeles and New York to bend together for Wednesday’s protest?

Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement: The gallery business and the real estate business in New York and LA are deeply connected. Laura Owens and Gavin Brown, the same hip artists, wealthy investors, and blue-chip gallerists are developing their enterprises on both coasts, many of them directly in Boyle Heights and in other working-class POC neighborhoods.

From Soho to Chelsea, to Chinatown, Harlem, to gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, our NYC comrades have witnessed the vicious cycles of gentrification and the late stages of artwashing for decades. They understand the only way out of this is for Boyle Heights to organize and defend the community, and therefore came together to stand with us in our resistance.
Our statement explains the similarities of our struggles in detail.

BS: What was the response — from Owens and Gavin Brown, from the curatorial and security staff at the Whitney, from attendees at the opening — to your action?

BHAAAD: Gavin Brown walked by the outside rally, hid his face from view while flipping the protesters off. Museum patrons also taunted us, flipped us off, PHYSICALLY ATTACKED our NYC comrades, and ignored us. This was all caught on the livestream. (Editor’s note: Hyperallergic has not been able to independently verify some of the incidents mentioned in the statement.)

Workers did not interfere as actions were taking place outside. Inside, security moved to clear flyers that were distributed. After patrons left the opening, when workers were leaving, they spoke with New York organizers to learn more about the struggle.

BS: Gentrification is often discussed as a city-specific or neighborhood-specific issue, but Wednesday night’s protest highlighted that many of the same issues affect communities in two very different cities. What are some of the challenges faced by neighborhoods like Harlem, Chinatown, and the South Bronx in New York and Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, and how have artists and galleries extenuated those problems?

BHAAAD: Our hoods all face challenges of poverty, displacement, homelessness, deportation by ICE, harassment and killing by the police. No one who faces these problems benefits from Gavin Brown’s “outposts” in Chinatown, Harlem, and Boyle Heights. The women of Pico Aliso have made it clear his 356 Mission enterprise with Laura Owens does not benefit Boyle Heights. Chinatown Art Brigade made it clear that Omer Fast’s racist project at James Cohan’s gallery is an insult to Chinatown. Take Back the Bronx made it clear that artists creating bullet-ridden cars and trash can fires are pawns helping developer Keith Rubenstein profit from their community’s trauma. Why do artists continue to go along with these violent and unimaginative projects and even reproduce them?

Groups like ICE FREE QUEENS, Queens is not 4 sale, Mothers on the Move, Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, Equality for Flatbush, People’s Cultural Plan, Take Back the Bronx, Brooklyn Hi-Art Machine, Mi Casa No Es Su Casa, East Harlem Preservation Coalition, East Harlem Anti-Rezoning Project, East Harlem No Se Vende, Defend Corona, Queens Neighborhoods United, SPARC, Chinatown Art Brigade, Decolonize This Place, People’s Power Assembly Queens, People’s Power Assembly Manhattan are all trying to solve problems that artists and gallerists haven’t even figured out how to articulate, because the violence against working-class neighborhoods is palpable to us. Instead of supporting groups that combat these issues directly, those who displace us tell us to vote and enact change by currying favor with politicians whose real-estate interests will always trump the concerns of the community.

Members of Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) and other anti-gentrification groups rallying outside the Whitney Museum during Laura Owens's opening on Wednesday, November 8. (photo courtesy BHAAAD)
Members of Defend Boyle HeightsBoyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) and other anti-gentrification groups rallying outside the Whitney Museum during Laura Owens’s opening on Wednesday, November 8. (photo courtesy BHAAAD)

BS: In their search for affordable studio spaces, artists often feel incapable of doing much to stop real estate developers from exploiting them as early gentrifiers; what are some steps artists should take to end this process?

BHAAAD: First of all, we want to emphasize that Laura Owens and Gavin Brown can afford to be ANYWHERE. Our statement clearly explains the economics behind their facades. They are colonizing POC neighborhoods to benefit both their public image and their enterprises.

Artists need to listen to the demands of the communities that have built strength despite being looted by those in power. The people of Boyle Heights, Harlem, Chinatown, South Bronx, Corona, Flatbush are all organizing and fighting landlords and developers. Support them to build community control and autonomy. Listen to their demands. Redistribute your creative labor, material, and resources to build solidarity with those whose immediate situations are more urgent, instead of to billionaires who ultimately don’t give a shit about any of us.

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