back to

Boyle Heights residents protest galleries in their neighborhood


Hillel Aron reports for LA Weekly on the current ado in Boyle Heights, a 95% Hispanic and Latin community that is not happy about incoming arts galleries. The residents reportedly see the presence of art galleries as the first step in gentrification, while the gallery owners see themselves as the purveyors of a community resource. Read Aron’s report in partial below, or in full via LA Weekly.

For much of its history, Boyle Heights was an ethnically diverse community. Many of its residents were Jewish. As of the 2010 census, however, the neighborhood was 95 percent Hispanic and Latino.

A few art gallery operators were in attendance at Tuesday night’s meeting. Ethan Swan, the gallery manager of 356 Mission, sounded contrite and shaken when he got up to speak.

“I’m here to listen,” Swan told the rather hostile crowd of about 100. “I feel very affected by what I’ve heard tonight. But I don’t know what the next step is for me or for the gallery.”

“The galleries are here to help. We’re not the enemy!” she cried, before being shouted down and storming off. She spoke to L.A. Weekly on the phone the next day, on the condition we not print her name (for fear of retribution).

“I’ve worked in the art world for 25 years,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Ever. Art galleries are usually a welcome resource.”

Defend Boyle Heights has organized a number of protests and disruptive actions against art galleries in the last year. It has focused much of its attention on two not-for-profit organizations: the longtime Eastside institution Self Help Graphics, which moved to Boyle Heights in 2010, and PSSST, a “space” that opened about a month ago. PSSST cofounders Barnette Cohen and Jules Gimbrone were at the community meeting Tuesday night.

“We have been open, we’ve engaged with the community,” Cohen says. “While we may have a certain amount of privilege, we in no way have the kind of power that developers have to stake out large swaths of property in order to attract the kind of people that can well and truly disrupt the community of Boyle Heights.”

The gallery’s first artist-in-residence is Boyle Heights–born Guadalupe Rosales.

According to a booklet that was distributed by BHAAAD at the meeting:

The PSSST programming looks worthwhile, thoughtful and interesting. It has the surface-level qualities of “serving the community” that one might want in an art gallery. But only a block away from PSSST, the Boyle Heights residents have been fighting displacement and multiple forms of violence for decades. The eviction notices are already being posted.

The “PSSST Gallery” was purchased in 2014 by an undisclosed investor who dropped over a million dollars into the purchase and architectural renovation of the former warehouse building. The investor has given the PSSST gallerists a 20-year, rent-free lease to do artistic programing. Concerns had been raised that the building could very easily be flipped and resold again to the highest bidder. In PSSST, we see, once again, the convergence of real estate investment and art.

Self Help Graphics also has faced scrutiny. Founded more than 43 years ago as a printmaking studio, it is considered an important Eastside community space. Artist-cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz recently posted a comment on Defend Boyle Heights’ Facebook page, defending Self Help Graphics:

I’m all against gentrification. (See my work if you don’t believe it.) I’m with you too. Mostly. I have to say, attacking Self Help Graphics, or ANY artists that have contributed to making Boyle Heights or East Los a GLOBAL arts mecca is just plain WRONG. I don’t know if this is a fight you are looking to pick, but I am telling you now, you are barking up the wrong tree. SHG, and other self-respecting artists and orgs too, have put years and years, blood sweat and tears — OUR WHOLE LIVES — into making Chicano art, and to make art accessible into the community, and to let the planet know that we are here and are important, and not going anywhere.

Defend Boyle Heights has accused Self Help Graphics of having ties to the developer that wants to demolish the affordable Wyvernwood Apartments complex; it’s also castigated the nonprofit for its role assisting the producers of Hopscotch, the experimental mobile opera that took place last year in a fleet of cars. Part of the production took place in Boyle Heights’ Hollenbeck Park, where participants were met by angry protesters.

*Image of PSSST via Hyperallergic