Developer uses art to entice downtown LA tenants

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A downtown luxury apartment building will host an “artist-in-residence” for six months to beautify the property and build community. With artists getting priced out of once-affordable neighborhoods, are they the victims or perpetrators of gentrification?

OLiVE DTLA looking north from Pico Boulevard (Image courtesy of Bernards) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The owners of a new apartment complex in downtown LA are tapping artists for help marketing their building, OLiVE DTLA. They’ve launched a competition for an artist in residence, who would live at the complex for six months and engage the residents in the art-making process. This Thursday, June 22, they’ll announce the winner of the competition.

This is the latest example of a growing trend for real estate developers to bring street cred to new development by bringing in artists. So who is gaining here, and are there losers? Or do we simply have a more colorful city?

DnA producer Avishay Artsy spoke to Wolff Company director of marketing Amber Huntley-Ruiz; Street Art House co-founder Justin Fredericks; Crewest Studio co-founder Scott Power; and artists Lindsey Nobel and Joseph Lee.

OLiVE DTLA is a 293-unit mixed-use project located downtown at 12th between Olive and Pico, a few blocks east of Staples Center. It costs between $2,000 and $4,000 for an apartment there. Amenities include a pool, rooftop common areas with firepits and barbecues, a 24-hour fitness center, and private underground parking. The artist in residence would get a two-story, rent-free loft and $2,000 a month for supplies. The Wolff Company, the building’s developer, says it’s at about two-thirds capacity already. There are typically vacancies in the first year of a building’s life, so the artist’s apartment is essentially free for the developer.

The Wolff Company is based in Scottsdale, AZ. Their developments are mostly in the Western U.S., and they have another project across the street from OLiVE DTLA called G12, at 12th and Grand. They also have properties in Anaheim and Oxnard. But this is the first time they’ve tried having an artist in residence.

Joseph Lee in his Fashion District studio. Photo by Avishay Artsy (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The developer says art was always going to be part of the building. They already commissioned muralists  to make art inside the building, before people had moved in.

But why have an artist in residence? The Wolff Company’s director of marketing, Amber Huntley-Ruiz, said it was partly to enrich the lives of the residents of the building. But it’s also about differentiating their building from others.

“Downtown L.A. [looks like a] crane city, with 9,000 units I believe coming online, available this year. It’s highly competitive and at some point all of them are beautiful and highly amenitized and they have great quartz countertops and great cabinets and all that jazz. But what is it that makes a building special? And it’s something that we can’t physically build. It’s authenticity and a personality that we have to work to give the building,” Ruiz said.

She added that Wolff Company won’t tell the artists what to paint, but they’d only pick an artist whose work would make sense to be on their walls. But she says they have confidence in whatever the artist picked from the four finalists comes up with.

OLiVE AiR Event from FLUX Branding on Vimeo.

This isn’t the only development to incorporate artists. Magellan Development Group in Chicago had musicians competing for positions at developments in Chicago and Nashville by uploading one minute videos. The semifinalists competed in an “America’s Got Talent”-style competition where the residents voted for their favorite. The Chicago winner, singer-songwriter Jeremy Gentry, performs for eight to 10 a week for the residents in exchange for free rent.

There’s also a development in London where the developer has set aside 100 units for artists.

At OLiVE DTLA, the artists can take their work with them, though what’s painted on the interior and exterior walls remains there, obviously.

The Wolff Company says it received 185 applications in just two weeks. They narrowed down the list based partly on the applicants’ resumes and portfolios, their reasons for wanting the residency, and how they plan to involve the community in their work. There was a panel of art consultants, as well as a branding company and the developer, who helped narrow down the list.

They also partnered with a company called Street Art House, a matchmaker between businesses and artists that produces events, mural commissions, brand collaborations and other efforts. Co-founder Justin Fredericks says the businesses he deals with genuinely love the art, but also see the marketing potential. And artists get exposure out of this deal.

“I’ve seen the opportunities, both cultural and financial opportunities, for these artists that come with new developments. In the past a lot of these huge murals, these beautiful murals that are almost landmarks in this city that go up… the artists were not compensated. Now with these new developments coming up, the developers are valuing the art and they’re paying the artists for their work. So artists are not only getting more recognition through new developments because these buildings are their canvasses for street artists, but now they’re actually being compensated for it,” Fredericks said.

A mural by Italian artist Millo. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

There are four finalists:

  • Lindsey Nobel, based in Inglewood, makes mixed-media work focused on how humans are connected and separated by technology and nature. Some of her pieces resemble brain synapses or silicon chips, so she’s playing in that digital-organic divide.
  • Joseph Lee moved to LA from Indiana a few years ago to pursue acting, then took up painting. He has a studio in the Fashion District, which is reflected in his large-scale collage-like portraits, which use fashion magazine images and fabric samples as well as paint.
  • Millo is an Italian muralist named Francesco Camillo Giorgino. He covers entire buildings with playful, cartoonish images that are generally of a boy or girl figure set against an urban backdrop of buildings and roads.
  • Kelcey Fisher, or KFiSH, is based in Venice. He paints using acrylic and often incorporates broken mirrors. He does murals in stores, restaurants, bars, he’s designed wine label, he has a business background and describes himself as a business artist.

This is an effort to solve an interesting problem. Neighborhoods are made hip and desirable by artists, who are then squeezed out by rising costs. A few years ago, an Italian street artist in Berlin painted over his murals in a gentrifying neighborhood because he saw the developers using his art as a way to sell the neighborhood to investors.

Street Art House co-founder Justin Fredericks says cities can help artists or other low-income folks stay in a neighborhood.

“I think that there needs to be a thoughtful plan so that those people, not just artists, anyone who’s living there, does not get displaced. There should be an opportunity for them to stay and live where they’re living. So I think that goes back to a broader plan of action about subsidized housing, low-income housing that cities really pay attention to that as gentrification occurs,” he said.

There are critics of this “artist-in-residence” program, including Scott Power, founder of creative agency Crewest Studio, which works in branding, marketing and contemporary art. Power says artists he’s talked to view the OLiVE DTLA project as a joke and a PR stunt, and a case of a developer exploiting artists.

“What happens is a lot of time these companies and the developers, they’ll promise the artists exposure. ‘All this is going to be great PR for you,’ as if that’s going to help them pay their rent. And our point of view is that that’s insulting. It’s absolutely insulting,” he said. “What we’re seeing is companies, organizations, developers working with artists to get that halo effect, to get the cool factor, to be able to point and say, ‘look, you know, we get it, we’re relevant,’ and artists more times than not will take these deals in part because they’re in many cases struggling.”

Lindsey Nobel in her Inglewood studio. Photo by Avishay Artsy (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In another case of a developer courting artists, at Four World Trade Center in Manhattan developer Larry Silverstein got a bunch of artists to work for free, promising them a fabulous canvas in the sky, and that it would later be removed. Then he rented out the space to Spotify that gets some terrific decoration it didn’t pay for.

Conversely, having the developer pay is a cost-effective way to add color and vitality to otherwise generic buildings.

The difficulty is how to negotiate the relationship between artist and developer. The artist is creating something that has an intangible value for the developer, so they should be rewarded accordingly.

The finalists for the OLiVE DTLA artist in residence have varying levels of enthusiasm for working with a developer.

“I think that the developers are probably making so much money off their buildings and developing, especially with L.A. being booming right now, maybe they’re feeling in their heart that they need to give back more to the creatives that basically make it an interesting place to live,” said Lindsey Nobel.

Nobel is an interesting example of how artists can be the perpetrators and victims of gentrification. She lived in New York for most of her adult life, and every neighborhood she lived in – Tribeca, Williamsburg, Hell’s Kitchen – became gentrified and she had to leave once rents got too high. Now she’s in Inglewood and sees the football stadium coming, and is thinking she’ll have to leave again.

Joseph Lee is the son of South Korean immigrants and has a slightly different perspective.

“I come from immigrant parents who just kept their head down and labored for decades for me to be able to live this life,” Lee said. “At the end of the day I’m not working in a coal mine. I’m still painting, I’m still somehow able to use my talents to be able to create work.”

A project in Midtown got a lot of attention last week when three unoccupied houses were painted a bright shade of pink. A former techie who calls himself The Most Famous Artist in the World painted the houses on behalf of the developer and designers of a complex of 45 apartments on that site. It was Instagram clickbait and thousands descended on the site to check it out. Many of the neighbors weren’t happy. The architects M-Rad said they did this because they wanted to attract attention to their “brand.”

At what point does this kind of thing become gimmicky? The challenge is making commissioned art feel authentic. The pink house got lots of social media buzz, which was the intended goal, but the backlash from neighbors has tainted the project. And while it was intended to draw attention to gentrification, it seems to have aroused the ire of the anti-gentrification forces against it.

A mural by Kelcey Fisher. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

OLiVE DTLA’s project seems to be part of a trend. Last year DnA talked about the explosion of art on buildings with a group of art critics including Carolina Miranda and Shana Nys Dambrot. Carolina expressed concern at what she saw as the co-opting of an art form — murals — that has its roots in protest.

“What you are seeing now is not necessarily that those topics are absent on the part of the artist but you see things like real estate companies sort of co-opting the idea of the commissioned graffiti mural to make the side of a condo building look edgy and cool. So you are seeing the taking of this art form that had very political roots, it has it has its roots in Mexican muralist history,  and it’s now being employed by development companies, real estate companies, fancy restaurants, you name it, as a way of like, ‘hey let’s make the side of this wall look decorative and pretty and give a place for people to do their selfies,” Miranda said.

One the other hand, Dambrot said, is having pretty walls necessarily bad, even if the art lacks political or social messages? Plus, it’s providing work for artists.

“Even if one questions the motives of the developer of the condo building that puts the mural on the blank wall to be cool and edgy, on the other hand wouldn’t we prefer that that building has that mural on the wall than a blank wall? All of this art is serving as a kind of organic “city beautiful” movement… I like the idea that someone is finding these artists and writing them checks to do their thing. That makes me really happy.”

Another question is what this trend means for LA’s Department of Cultural Affairs’ Percent for Art program. For years developers were pressed into including public art in their developments through the program. If they are now choosing to include artists as part of the marketing of the project, does that negate the need for the program?

Not necessarily. The Percent for Art program largely applies to private non-residential buildings. In the case of OLiVE DTLA, which is mostly residential (it has retail on the first floor) the developers paid what’s called an Arts Development Fee of about $16,000. That goes into a general trust to be spent on art and art programming in that council district. That could pay for murals and sculptures, or workshops, music festivals or movie series.

As more private developers choose to put in public art to attract residents, residents may benefit from a beautified city, but artists and their promoters will have to negotiate a fair and equitable relationship with these new patrons.