“For some years it has been fashionable in some circles to opine that California — and, in particular, Los Angeles — will eventually equal New York as a fountainhead of American art and culture. Indeed, some people claim it has already happened, though what they have in mind, rather perversely, is just the sheer torrent of variously gaga and sinister phenomena that makes the West Coast one of the funniest and scariest places in the world,” wrote art critic Peter Schjeldahl in a 1972 New York Times review. Schjeldahl’s dismissal of Los Angeles’s cultural ascendence in the 1960s — which resulted in part from an expanding network of galleries anchored by the storied Ferus gallery (1957–1966), the relocation of Artforum magazine from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1965, and the long-awaited opening of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), also in 1965 — was typical of New York-centric art media. Critics seemed to view Los Angeles’s mid-century zenith as a fluke, and returned to treating the city as provincial, decentered, and unmappable — suitable to the production of Hollywood entertainment, but not for serious art.

Despite the chorus of mainstream voices that had written off Los Angeles as essentially devoid of noteworthy cultural activity, the 1970s gave rise to one of the city’s most important art-historical developments of the latter half of the 20th century: a flourishing network of alternative spaces. Throughout the 1970s and into the ’80s, artists in Los Angeles — many of whom were women, queer, young, racially diverse, politically active, and pushing the boundaries of new media — created organizations and exhibition spaces to develop the resources they lacked. This emergent contemporary art scene, built by artists confronted with a dearth of professional opportunities and institutional support, produced a robust complex of artist-run spaces that laid the groundwork for the rebranding of Los Angeles as a capital of contemporary art and culture in the 21st century.

The alternative space movement was a national phenomenon. During the 1970s artists across the United States opted out of the market-driven system of art distribution in pursuit of greater artistic autonomy and creative control. Empowered by the grassroots organizing of the prior decade’s civil rights struggles, artists active in the alternative space movement worked to combat their own economic and cultural disenfranchisement by establishing spaces outside of the existing museum and gallery systems. They represented a range of attitudes and activities, as artist and curator Julie Ault describes in her 2002 book, running the gamut from “wanting a slice of the pie to wanting nothing less than revolution.”

The network of spaces that developed in Los Angeles became the heart of its art scene: they were incubators of artistic experimentation, sites for risk-taking and cultural representation, and importantly, provided employment opportunities to many local artists with funding from the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Workshop Program (until the Reagan administration ended CETA and severely restricted eligibility for NEA funding in the early 1980s). LA’s alternative spaces formed the primary support structure for contemporary artists and exhibitions between the 1974 closure of the Pasadena Art Museum — which had become a regional hub of modern and contemporary art — and the launch of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) exhibition program in 1983.

Between 1975 and 1988, Los Angeles gave rise to more than 35 artist-run venues, several of which remain in operation. They ranged in scope from nomadic exhibition and project facilitators such as FAR (Foundation for Art Resources, 1977–2017) and Some Serious Business (1976–present), to organizations dedicated to empowering Los Angeles’s underrepresented communities through public art interventions such SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center, 1976–present), founded by artist and educator Judy Baca.

(photo courtesy Self Help Graphics & Art)

Established in the wake of the 1970 Chicano Moratorium, Self Help Graphics & Art (1973–present), quickly became an invaluable community art center and site for the production and promotion of Chicanx and Latinx art. Founded by Sister Karen Boccalero, a Franciscan nun and student of Sister Corita Kent, along with artists Carlos Bueno, Antonio Ibáñez, and Frank Hernández in an East LA garage, Self Help Graphics understood art production as a social practice, and sought to fortify the local community through arts education and art-making that celebrated Chicanx identities and experiences. In 1973, the organization moved to the first of several locations it would occupy in Boyle Heights, and began its ambitious outreach programs that included workshops, exhibitions, and the Barrio Mobile Art Studio that brought arts education to local public schools.

While Self Help Graphics’s East LA location facilitated access to the communities it intended to serve, rising rents in artist enclaves like Venice were pushing many Westside artists east. Between the early 1970s and early 1980s, the rapid increase in downtown art spaces led Los Angeles Times art critic William Wilson to declare “the mushrooming of the so-called ‘downtown phenomenon” to be “objectively the best news of the year” in 1981. This early coalescence of a downtown art center was short-lived: by 1985, real estate development and Reagan-era funding cuts forced many art spaces to close or relocate. At its height, however, the city’s alternative spaces flourished downtown, anchored by the Woman’s Building, LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions), and LAICA (Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art) — three of its largest and most influential exhibitions spaces.

Maria Karras, Woman’s Building celebration opening (1975) (Woman’s Building records, 1970-1992, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Among the first artists’ spaces to open downtown was the Woman’s Building (1973–1991). Established by Judy Chicago, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and Arlene Raven, who left their faculty positions the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) to start an independent feminist institution, the Woman’s Building was considered by many to be the beating heart of the feminist art movement. Through its exhibition and education programs — primarily the Feminist Studio Workshop (1973–1981) — artists who studied at the Building were able to combine feminist principles and pedagogical tools into artistic practices that promoted social change in their audiences as well as themselves. Artists and collectives, including Maren Hassinger, Suzanne Lacy, Betye Saar, the Feminist Art Workers, the Waitresses, and Faith Wilding, all exhibited, studied, or taught at the Building.

“Dreva/Gronk 1968-1978 / Ten Years of Art and Life” (March 9–19, 1978), a collaboration between Los Angeles-based artist Gronk and Milwaukee artist Jerry “Wiz” Dreva based on their art and life of the past 10 years. (image courtesy LACE, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) 

Performance art was central to the Woman’s Building’s pedagogical and exhibition programs, and also formed the core of much of LACE’s (1978–present) most radical activities. LACE emerged out of a community mural program in El Monte to become the preeminent laboratory for experimental art in the city. The diverse group of artists who founded LACE established a democratically operated organization that prioritized artistic freedom. During the 1970s and ’80s, LACE gave space and a voice to artists whose work was often deemed too risky for exhibition, mounting shows like the raucous Dreva/Gronk 1968–1978: Ten Years of Art/Life (1978), with its simultaneous punk performances and anarchic energy that culminated in art being stripped from the walls. It was a true testing ground, especially for video art, and as a result, LACE gave early shows to many of Los Angeles’s best-known artists including Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, ASCO, Mike Kelley, Lari Pittman, the feminist collective Double X, (and Jeff Koons’s first West Coast exhibition).

Exhibition poster for Hermann Nitsch’s Orgies mysteries theatre, 1978 (Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art records, 1973-1988, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Founded by California State University Northridge art professor Robert L. Smith and his former wife Tobi Smith, LAICA (1974–1987) became Los Angeles’s first nonprofit exhibition space dedicated to contemporary art. LAICA promoted and disseminated Southern California’s artistic production to national and international audiences through its exhibitions and publication, Journal, and at its height operated two downtown spaces and one Westside location on South Robertson boulevard. Journal, which preceded and succeeded LAICA by several months, formed part of a concurrent burgeoning local arts media network (including the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, a nascent L.A. Weekly, and magazines like WET, the Woman’s Building’s Chrysalis, and High Performance), and contributed to the historicization of developments in Los Angeles that were underrecognized by mainstream outlets. LAICA’s inaugural exhibition, Nine Senior Southern California Painters (1974) established the region as a historical center of avant-garde art production rather than one newly emerging. Other important shows included Hermann Nitsch’s infamous performance Orgies Mysteries Theatre (1978) and Il Modo Italiano (1984), which introduced Southern California audiences to Arte Povera. LAICA also hosted the first New Artsspace conference (1978), a gathering of alternative space administrators from across the US that solidified Los Angeles’s significance as a center for artist-driven cultural activity.

In 1979, when the office of Mayor Tom Bradley established an ad hoc committee to explore the creation of a museum of contemporary art in downtown LA, among the first actions taken by its chairs Marcia Weissman and William Norris (both of whom were crucial to the establishment of LAICA several years earlier) was to gather a large group of local artists for consultation on the project. As a result of this initial meeting, 18 artists were appointed to an Artist’s Advisory Council (AAC) to represent local artists in all facets of museum planning (though of course such a small number could not accurately represent the diversity of Los Angeles’s artistic community). Many of the artists who would go on to serve on MOCA’s AAC — including Peter Alexander, Vija Celmins, Carole Caroompas, Robert Irwin, Gary Lloyd, DeWain Valentine, and Tom Wudl — had been active board members, exhibitors, or supporters of alternative spaces. It was the AAC that successfully changed the museum’s name from the “Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art” to the “Museum of Contemporary Art” — affirming the museum’s commitment to living artists and ongoing artistic developments, and crucially, the AAC was able to successfully amend MOCA’s bylaws to secure seats for artists on the museum’s board of trustees — a practice long in place within the city’s alternative spaces. This reflects what has been the AAC’s most enduring influence on the museum: MOCA’s self-identification as “the Artists’ Museum.” Today MOCA’s website describes the institution as “the only artist-founded museum in Los Angeles.”

In his New York Times review of MOCA’s opening in December of 1986, art critic Michael Brenson described the heralding of a new frontier: “ … the Museum of Contemporary Art may also enable Los Angeles to be the art center it has wanted to be but never has been.” This view from the east of MOCA as the city’s cultural ground-zero eclipses the grassroots efforts of the artists and administrators who laid the groundwork for the arrival of such an institution. The alternative spaces that proliferated in Los Angeles during the previous decade cultivated both local talent and support for the arts; they enabled a generation of artists to remain in the city by hiring them and showing their work; they made space for experimentation and the representation of marginalized voices, however imperfectly; and they produced a template for artist involvement at every operational level. They were unwilling to relinquish their power to determine the course of contemporary art in Los Angeles, and they used their leverage to ensure that artists would continue to have a voice within an emerging MOCA, redefining both the history and future of art in Los Angeles.

ASCO, No Movie, May 2–31 (1978), an exhibition featuring a performance by the Chicano artists group ASCO: Roberto Gil de Montes, Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Patssi Valdez and Teddy Sandoval. (image courtesy LACE, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) 

Since the 1980s, the needs of Los Angeles’s artists and the resources available to them have changed. As Los Angeles gained more national attention — due in part to exhibitions such as MOCA’s Helter Skelter (1992) and the steady stream of work produced by recent graduates of the region’s “unusually plentiful and unusually good art schools,” as critic Roberta Smith described them in 1992 — money flowed into the city, galleries and museums multiplied, and representation and experimentation were redefined. The contemporary became an asset to the city’s largest cultural institutions: just weeks before MOCA’s grand opening, LACMA unveiled its $35-million Robert O. Anderson Building for 20th-century art; the non-collecting, contemporary-focused Santa Monica Museum of Art opened in 1988, followed by the massive, encyclopedic Getty Center in 1997. The experimental vanguard migrated away from what had by the 1990s become “traditional” alternative spaces, to improvisational, intimate, often transient, exhibition experiences in garages or spare bedrooms like Bliss or Three Day Weekend. While boundaries between what is traditional or mainstream and what is alternative are increasingly less discernable and less relevant, there are several innovative art spaces in Los Angeles that continue to put the creative and financial well-being of artists first, such as Human Resources, Commonwealth + Council, NAVEL, and the Underground Museum. Thanks to the relentless spirit of artist-driven innovation, Los Angeles remains a locus of tremendous artistic opportunity.

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of a special edition of Hyperallergic devoted to under-recognized art histories. This article was made possible by a grant from the Sam Francis Foundation.

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Jordan Karney Chaim

Jordan Karney Chaim is an independent art historian based in San Diego. She holds a PhD from Boston University. Her current work examines the intersections of art and community, focusing on emerging artists...