Colleen Hamilton-Lecky ’18
For centuries, art has been used as a tool for resistance. And yet, less attention has been paid to the spaces that hold those works. From the Louvre in Paris to Highways in LA, these spaces are as complicated as the artworks on display, reflecting the cultural and economic tensions of the communities they inhabit. As widespread gentrification has occurred across American cities, community-oriented galleries have not been immune from rising rents and shifting audiences. This has forced curators and artists to leave permanent spaces and develop alternative locations and methods for presentation, which often means showcasing work in apartments, clothing stores, and other multi-use locations. While the blur between artistic, personal, and commercial spaces has always existed, the crisis of 21st century gentrification poses new problems that force us to consider how we relate to nondominant art, especially if we hope to continue to use art as a tool of protest, community building, and truth.
The gentrification of Oakland, California can be seen the moment you step off the 12th street BART station and walk toward Betti Ono gallery, a revered hub of culture in the city that has recently struggled as a result of rising rents and evictions. In Oakland, over 1,000 evictions occur each month, often as families of color are removed to create space for wealthy, white, young people who value the city’s proximity to San Francisco. At Betti Ono, rent was raised by sixty percent in 2015 alone. This reality has confronted galleries across the country, which are continually forced to seek inconsistent funding, move, or close. Without infrastructural support from cities, such as multi-year leases, these essential art spaces are forced to focus on fundraising rather than their primary goal — art.
As a result of these rising rental costs, many arts organizers who do not have access to museums or permanent galleries have focused on developing their work in multi-use hubs. Coffee shops host concerts. Clothing stores hold fashion shows and performance art workshops. However, in these multi use spaces, how do we compel people to pay attention to art? If individuals are not able to visit spaces that are sanctioned and dedicated for the viewing of art, our approach toward participation and engagement must change. This is not a bad thing. In fact, by decentralizing art in this way, we may attract participants that have traditionally been ignored and degraded by museums and commercial art galleries.
I recently co-organized an exhibition in a multi-use space in Los Angeles. As the week went on, very few people engaged with the work on display. They came to this room to study, sleep, and eat, rather than to look at art. How could we convince people to interact with the work in meaningful ways, with a lasting impact? Admittedly, this need for interaction was also the premise of the exhibition, entitled Write Back.
Write Back sought to create tangible interaction between students at Camp Fred Miller, a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles, and students at UCLA. This interaction could not occur if no one paid attention. We chose to address this through a reception, however I was curious to see if we could get this interaction to expand beyond looking, which can be exploitive, toward tangible action and engagement.
At the reception, we laid out magazines, pens, and colorful paper along with scissors, glue, and stickers. We invited several political organizations to aid in the cultivation of resistance strategies. Magically, it worked. We received sixty eight meaningful responses to return to our incarcerated students, creating a tangible form of dialogue that the boys could hold, feel, and refer back to. I believe the success of this event reflects one possible response against rapidly changing infrastructures. While it has become increasingly difficult to permanently secure spaces, we do have the capability to produce events that capture attention spans and compel interaction, if only for a night.
In a recent study, Microsoft found that the average American attention span has shifted in the past decade from twelve to eight seconds. In The Paper Mixtape, Alyssa Scott reveals the repercussions of this shift in art contexts, noting that “people who attend a museum might not spend more than eight seconds looking at a work or strolling through an exhibition.” This shifting attention span, combined with increasing rents across American cities, will shift the role of the curator from wallspace to floorspace. As art producers and practitioners, we must reimagine our role and challenge ourselves to discover new forms of engagement and interaction, while demanding an end to exploitative housing policies that limit the potential of galleries to develop and expand.