The Evolution of LA's Arts District
by Pamela Mortimer
As an artist, the first place I go when visiting a city is the Arts District. LA has one of the best in the country but it may be threatened by gentrification that could toss artists out on their abstract ears. The Los Angeles Art District was once a gritty industrial area that housed manufacturing companies and warehouses. In the 1950s, the war was over, and manufacturers were taken over by bigger companies or headed overseas. The area, which covers Alameda Street to Little Tokyo, First Street to the LA River, wasn’t particularly safe, especially at night, but it offered architectural inspiration and cheap rent to the local artist community. Artists who could no longer afford rent in more desirable parts of the city claimed studio and living space, turning the abandoned neighborhood into a creative mecca.
Artists flocked to the neighborhood with the hope that they could make a living in the City of Angels. The problem was that the area was zoned for industrial use only. Fortunately, in 1981, LA passed Artist-In-Residence (AIR) bill that allowed artists to live legally if they had a business license. Except for the rough and tumble nature of the neighborhood – smashed car windows, drugs, and crime - the problem was solved. Creatives began to flock to the Arts District. Notable artists like Marc Kreisel, Joel Bass, Coleen Sterritt, Dan Citron, Sydney Littenberg, Woods Davy, Stephen Seemayer, Maura Sheehan, Jon Peterson, and Peter Zecher gobbled up studio space for as little as .03 cents per square foot. By the mid-1980s, the roster grew to include artists Linda Frye Burman, Merion Estes, Joe Fay, George Herms, Paul McCarthy, Margaret Nielson, Richard Newton, John Schroeder, Judy Simonian, and Takako Yamaguchi.
Iconic punk venue Al’s Bar opened in the American Hotel in 1979. It became the hot spot for emerging artists like Sonic Youth, Beck, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Misfits, and the Residents, introducing generations to LA-based groups. Visual artists also gathered at Al’s and were often the topic of conversation and the occasional exhibition.
The 70s and 80s brought in new blood in the way of galleries and exhibition space. Lydia Takeshita founded LA Artcore in 1976 to promote and exhibit local artists and The Atomic Café catered to artists and local musicians. Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) began holding shows on Broadway St. before relocating to Industrial Street in the 1980s. Several commercial art galleries came and went, including the Downtown Gallery, Oranges and Sardines, Vanguard Gallery, Exile, Galleria by the Water and Kirk DeGoyer Gallery. The first downtown gallery, Cirrus Editions, remains open.
In the 1980s, artist Jim Fittipaldi took a concept of the past an opened Bedlam, a salon that offered art installations, drawing workshops, theater, live music, and a speakeasy. Dangerous Curve was the place to exhibit work that wasn’t easy to categorize; The Spanish Kitchen was a popular spot for exhibitions and raves, and Cocola (now known as the 410 Boyd St. Bar and Grill) cemented itself as a legendary artists’ bar.
The Los Angeles Art District began to see a shift in the late 1990s. At that time, Joel Bloom, a veteran of the iconic Second City in Chicago, was recognized at the neighborhood’s unofficial mayor. Bloom’s General Store no longer exists but Bloom, who passed away in 2007, is memorialized with a plaque at the renamed Joel Bloom Square. The Cornerstone Theater, home to community theater still operates on Traction Avenue, and the Padua Playwrights are still in residence at ArtShare, a non-profit that offers dance, art, music, and theater to urban youth.
One of my favorite things about the Arts District has always been the vibrant murals that appeared on buildings that might have otherwise stained the landscape. Painted by artists, either solo or as a collaborative effort, the murals depict the heart of the Arts District by the people that live there instead of glossy, pre-packaged art or random graffiti. In 2003, the city banned the painting of murals in the neighborhood which didn’t go well with the locals. Artists ignored and ban and were eventually supported by LA Freewalls, an organization that acquired buildings for artists to paint.
Mural projects are now protected by the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, a non-profit that strives “to restore, preserve, and document the murals of Los Angeles. In its role as public art advocate, MCLA works to protect the legal rights of artists and to prevent the loss of significant works of public art. Most importantly, MCLA is committed to preserving the artists' heritage of Los Angeles as one of the mural capitals of the world.”
While the Arts District is still the hub of the art scene in LA, some worry that plans to rehab the area will ruin the quirky vibe established decades ago. Residents want to have their say about the style of buildings being erected in the area, loss of their history, and a plethora of retail shops. Along with the gentrification, residents can count on a big increase in rent. Some artists worry that there will be a mass migration to other parts of the city, but it hasn’t happened yet. On the upside, the improvements and new businesses will increase traffic in the area and create more opportunities to sell their work.
Real-estate broker Brigham Yen has a positive outlook but believes the neighborhood has a long way to go. “I think the Arts District is ‘arriving.’ It’s definitely on people’s radar, but it doesn’t have enough concentration of shops yet to make it into a full-on shopping destination. That’ll change within the next several years, I believe. It’ll be critical to making the roads more pedestrian friendly as well as to incentivize people to explore the Arts District on foot,” he said.
Pamela Mortimer has been a professional writer for more than 20 years with expertise in many areas including arts, culture, business, and the printing trade. She is also a novelist, seasoned editor, and graphic designer.