Boyle Heights gallery MaRS offers protesters “symbolic and actual” closure

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Boyle Heights art galleries have been the target of an anti-gentrification campaign by artist-activists. One gallery owner has offered to shut down, saying he has begun to “unpack the symbolism of the white cube.”

A war of attrition against art galleries in Boyle Heights has caused 356 Mission gallery to announce its closure next month and the owner/director of Museum as Retail Space (MaRS) to offer up his artist-activist antagonists the “symbolic and actual closing of my gallery.”

Since opening over the last two years in the western, industrial area of the neighborhood across the river from the Arts District, a cluster of galleries has been under attack from a coalition of groups — Union de Vecinos, Defend Boyle Heights and UltraRed — operating under the umbrella of BHAAAD, or Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement.

BHAAAD members argue the galleries bring in expensive housing and cause displacement of low-income, majority Latino residents in Boyle Heights. They have boycotted, protested and trolled gallery shows and gallerists.

But members of the group overlap and several are affiliated with arts schools or have an interest in art as social action.

UltraRed, for example, is a group of self-described activist-artists, who, according to their mission statement, “pursue a fragile but dynamic exchange between art and political organizing… around issues including AIDS-HIV rights, anti-racism, and participatory community development. The group emphasizes activism as performance through radio broadcasts, installations and ‘public space actions.'”

This mingling of art and activism has Robert Zin Stark, owner of MaRS, pondering their motives.

Museum as Retail Space (MaRS) is a contemporary art gallery located in the industrial western edge of Boyle Heights. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Why, he asked on DnA, do they target the galleries over, say, the Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project, a multi-million dollar product connecting the affluent Arts District with Boyle Heights? Zin Stark tells DnA he has come to the conclusion they are “a group of intelligent cultural enactors and they’re working with symbols and symbolism and community more so than actual political aims.”

In March, Zin Stark organized the Los Angeles Zine and Art Book Bazaar at MaRS gallery, and he says some very credible arts organizations signed on to participate. A few days before the opening, BHAAAD ran an open letter calling on people and institutions to boycott his zine fest, and many did.

“LACMA stayed. The Los Angeles Public Library left. CARLA magazine left. Paper Chase Press left, and Inner City Arts left very quickly,” Zin Stark said. “It was disheartening for me.”

Elizabeth Blaney, co-founder of Union de Vecinos, in front of the group’s office in Boyle Heights. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Elizabeth Blaney is a co-founder of UltraRed and member of the BHAAAD coalition. She told DnA, “our campaign is to have the galleries leave, and to have them understand the negative impact that they’re having in the neighborhood in terms of causing rents to go up, in terms of bringing gentrifying businesses to the neighborhood, and forcing the displacement of tenants.”  She says the galleries are just one target of many in their anti-gentrification fight.

When asked if it was possible to make this point without public humiliation of gallerists, Blaney responded that “stubborn and noxious and arrogant gallery owners” have “refused to analyze and acknowledge the negative impact they have on the residents who live around them.”

BHAAAD’s tactics have produced results.

One contested gallery, PSSST, announced its closure in 2017 after less than a year. In a statement, the owners blamed the anti-gentrification activists. “Our young nonprofit struggled to survive through constant attacks. Our staff and artists were routinely trolled online and harassed in-person,” the statement read. “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.”

Another gallery, 356 Mission, announced on March 30 that it will close in May. The founders, Laura Owens and Wendy Yao, told Carolina Miranda at the LA Times it was not directly because of these protests. But the attacks targeted Owens directly.  Members of Defend Boyle Heights even flew out to New York to protest the private opening of Laura Owens’ career survey at the Whitney Museum last year.

Protesters with Defend Boyle Heights protest Laura Owens’ solo show at the Whitney Museum. YouTube screenshot by the author. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In a statement posted online, Owens said efforts to engage protesters in productive dialogue were fruitless, and that the activists used “aggressive techniques” including distributing “false information about us on anonymous social media accounts and bullying and threatening our staff and presenters, including people who are themselves part of vulnerable communities.”

Zin Stark says the attacks on MaRS and the other galleries are emotionally draining and are turning the gallerists into pariahs in their own community of artists, dealers and arts journalists.

So he has decided to respond to performance with performance.

He told DnA that UltraRed, has “actually made me start to unpack the symbolism of the white cube and you know I think about you know linking it with gentrification.” While, he says, “I don’t think… that the gallery is the primary cause of gentrification. However I will say that symbolically it is a powerful thing.”

He has sent an invitation to Union de Vecinos, Defend Boyle Heights, UltraRed and BHAAD “to offer the ceremonial closing of my gallery to contextualize the relevance of your cultural enaction.”

Protesters in Boyle Heights. Photo from the blog Serve the People LA. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Many residents of Boyle Heights are nervous about displacement and gentrification. But some supporters of tenants’ rights question the tactics and credentials of the activist- artists. After all, BHAAAD has also targeted longtime arts nonprofits in Boyle Heights, like Self Help Graphics & Art.

Elizabeth Blaney has lived in Boyle Heights for 20 years after growing up in Florida. Her father served as a vice-president for the Los Angeles Dodgers. To those who question her lack of roots in the area, she says, “I believe as a white person living and working in this neighborhood of Boyle Heights my responsibility is to be in solidarity with my neighbors and the community’s needs. So it is not to demand whatever my aesthetic ideals may be for a neighborhood.”

Eric Avila, professor of history and Chicano Studies at UCLA, says there is a lot of confusion about the debate and he wonders “who is speaking for who here,” adding that he detects “a certain degree of urban ventriloquism going on in which certain groups or certain actors speak through the voices of people who are positioned or perceived to be more authentic or more connected to the kind of ground-level social struggles.”

Avila says he regrets that “individuals and artists — some of whom are also Latino with roots in the Boyle Heights neighborhood — are being unfairly targeted by some of these tactics.” But he acknowledges that the strategy “brings attention to a bad situation that is getting worse, particularly with regards to housing.”