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LA’s Art Community and Activists React to the Closing of 356 Mission

The Boyle Heights nonprofit space founded five years ago by Laura Owens and Wendy Yao had long been the focus of anti-gentrification protests.

Wu Tsang, The Luscious Land of God is Sinking installation view at 356 Mission, Los Angeles, 2016 (photo by Brica Wilcox, courtesy the artist and 356 Mission)
Wu Tsang, The Luscious Land of God is Sinking installation view at 356 Mission, Los Angeles, 2016 (photo by Brica Wilcox, courtesy the artist and 356 Mission)

LOS ANGELES — Last week, the artist-run space 356 Mission announced it will close next month. Founded five years ago by artist Laura Owens and bookseller Wendy Yao, the Boyle Heights nonprofit gallery was a major focal point of gentrification protests in the predominantly Latino neighborhood on LA’s Eastside. Reactions to the news were predictably divided: some people Hyperallergic spoke with lamented the closure of a diverse art space, and anti-gentrification activists applauded the announcement as a victory against developers and the artists and galleries they see as their enablers and collaborators.

“The position that 356 proposed to the LA-wide community was singular,” said Bradford Nordeen, Creative Director of Dirty Looks, a bi-coastal program showing queer, experimental moving image works and performances. “They offered free events, where you could see a documentary about dance, a musical performance, or Meredith Monk. How often does she perform for free?” Nordeen asked, referring to the iconic composer and choreographer who performed at 356 Mission in 2014.

Indeed, beyond its exhibitions program, 356 Mission hosted a range of performances, talks, workshops, and events, including a series of collaborations with Reach LA, a community organization that provides support to LGBTQ youth of color(including last year’s Drag Pageant benefit).

"Ovahness 12: Gothic Playground" on December 2, 2017 at 356 Mission, Los Angeles (courtesy Reach LA and 356 Mission)
“Ovahness 12: Gothic Playground” on December 2, 2017 at 356 Mission, Los Angeles (courtesy Reach LA and 356 Mission)

“From the first moment I walked in, it was an inviting space,” said Mecca Vazie Andrews, an LA-based dancer and choreographer who was born in Pico Rivera, a city in LA County about 10 miles east of Boyle Heights. “It’s really beautiful in that it’s multicultural and multidisciplinary. … It’s a shame that 356 was affected negatively by people’s misinterpretations of what they represent and the kind of work that they support and gave life and a voice too.”

Laura Owens at the book launch for 12 Paintings at 356 Mission, Los Angeles November 22, 2014, (photo by Alexandra Noel, courtesy 356 Mission)
Laura Owens at the book launch for 12 Paintings at 356 Mission, Los Angeles November 22, 2014, (photo by Alexandra Noel, courtesy 356 Mission)

Andrews recently staged a performance at the Whitney Museum in dialogue with work from Owens’s solo show there — an exhibition that was vocally protested by activists from Boyle Heights.

“It’s one of the few gallery spaces that operates on principles of community dialogue and inclusion, on top of programming a relentless schedule of fantastic and challenging events and exhibitions,” said Ben Lee Ritchie Handler, Global Director at Nicodim Gallery, a Boyle Heights space that has also been a focal point for protests. “We’re sad to see them go. With the 6th Street Bridge nearing completion, it will be interesting to see where the neighborhood goes from here, and what crops up in its place.”

Lutz Bacher, Magic Mountain installation view at 356 Mission, Los Angeles, 2016 (photo by Brica Wilcox, courtesy the artist and 356 Mission)
Lutz Bacher, Magic Mountain installation view at 356 Mission, Los Angeles, 2016 (photo by Brica Wilcox, courtesy the artist and 356 Mission)

This sentiment was echoed by others, who see large-scale development as a greater threat to the neighborhood than the crop of galleries and artists’ studios that have sprung up over the past few years.

“The closing of 356 Mission is a tremendous loss because it represents a step backward in what could have been a productive conversation about the future of Boyle Heights,” said Aram Moshayedi, a curator at the Hammer Museum. “Laura Owens and Wendy Yao attempted to engage their detractors, to listen to dissenting voices and to be [a] resource for the community. … 356 Mission patronized local businesses and offered financial support and resources to nonprofit organizations and educational programs that specifically service the residents of Boyle Heights and beyond. Of course, we have witnessed the gentrifying force of art and artists in the past, but it’s naive to think that any other forms of industry will be as hospitable in the future.”

Nordeen questioned the ferocity with which 356 Mission has been targeted, as opposed to nearby high-end blue chip galleries that have thus far been spared most of the activists’ ire. “It seems ironic that targeting was heaped upon 356, that same energy was not going to Maccarone or UTA,” he said, referring to the artistic outpost of the Hollywood talent agency.

Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement protesters rallied outside the Artists’ Political Action Network meeting at 356 Mission in February 2017. (photo courtesy Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement)
Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement protesters rallied outside the Artists’ Political Action Network meeting at 356 Mission in February 2017. (photo courtesy Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement)

Neighborhood activists cheered the closure, seeing it as a victory in the long struggle for self-determination in their community. “The work of making our neighborhood a better place for the families in the area spans decades,” Leonardo Vilchis, co-Executive Director of Union de Vecinos, told Hyperallergic via email. “Our desire is to live in this neighborhood for a long time and to benefit of the peace that we built without anybody threatening that desire. 356 Mission and the actions of other developers and speculators threaten that desire.” Vilchis added: “They refuse to hear our voices and change their minds. Their goal is to make money, our goal is do have a decent life in our homes.” Owens told the Los Angeles Times that the space operated at a loss, and that the building was not owned by her or her dealer Gavin Brown, but by local developer Vera Campbell (who had no further involvement in the business).

“This is one step in thousands we have taken to build a neighborhood where we all can live with dignity,” Vilchis continued. “First we fought the violence of racism that pushed us into this neighborhood, so we built community. Then, we responded to the armed violence of our youth and the police, later, we responded to the violence of  the destruction of our homes, today we respond to the economic violence of development that hides behind Artwashing and once again threatens to run us out of our neighborhood.”

Charlemagne Palestine, <em>CCORNUUOORPHANOSSCCOPIAEE AANORPHANSSHHORNOFFPLENTYYY</em> exhibition view at 356 Mission, Los Angeles, 2018 (photo by Brica Wilcox, courtesy the artist and 356 Mission)
Charlemagne Palestine, CCORNUUOORPHANOSSCCOPIAEE AANORPHANSSHHORNOFFPLENTYYY exhibition view at 356 Mission, Los Angeles, 2018 (photo by Brica Wilcox, courtesy the artist and 356 Mission)

“It is with great joy for the residents of Boyle Heights that we celebrate the news that 356 Mission is doing the only righteous act they could do for the neighborhood: pack up their shit and leave forever,” Boyle Heights Alianza Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) wrote on its website. “We thank everyone who upholds the boycott against all the art galleries in the warehouse area of Boyle Heights, and rejects the model of art as cooperating with the culture vultures, hipster vampires, and tiny Trumps. Without you all, ending 356 Mission’s role in turning the hood into a haven for gentrifier artists could not have been possible.”

According to 356 Mission’s announcement, the space will close in May, its two current and final exhibitions epitomizing its diverse curatorial and programming strategy: an overwhelming installation of hundreds of stuffed animals by veteran avant-garde musician and artist Charlemagne Palestine, and a solo show of funky and fantastical paintings and sculptures by the young LA-born artist Alake Shilling. It is unclear what will happen to the sprawling former piano warehouse at the corner of Mission Road and Artemus Street after the gallery shuts down. The landlord, Vera Campbell, did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

From the youth workshop “Paint With Alake!” held in conjunction with the Alake Shilling's exhibition <em>Monsoon Lagoon</em> on February 25, 2018 (photo by Jessica Renzelm, courtesy 356 Mission)
From the youth workshop “Paint With Alake!” held in conjunction with the Alake Shilling’s exhibition Monsoon Lagoon on February 25, 2018 (photo by Jessica Renzelm, courtesy 356 Mission)

“In my opinion, the Boyle Heights conversation somewhat pales in comparison to the muted conversation of Skid Row, an invisible and a marginalized community that also exists just a stone’s through away from the door of 356,” Shilling told Hyperallergic via email. “One of the most tragic aspects of 356 closing are the unrealized opportunities which might have been created to assist young people living on Skid Row, and also burgeoning artists from low-income communities in Chinatown, Koreatown, South Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, and a variety of diverse neighborhoods all across this city.”

Shilling added: “I mourn the opportunities which will never be born to assist people routinely excluded from the art conversation to discover the magic, healing and creative spirit which art cultivates.”

Shilling’s exhibition is on view at 356 Mission through April 29. Charlemagne Palestine’s show comes down April 22.

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