Richard White

explorations in place and time

On neoliberalism and the arts: thoughts walking in four gardens

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(thoughts and notes from July 2016 visit to Los Angeles exploring Heritage Management with Bath Spa University and Claremont Graduate University post grad students)

LA station4The PepsiCo Foundation garden for healthy eating:

In the heart of restored down town Los Angeles, where the authorities reach out for legitimacy in the City’s Spanish/Mexican heritage, obese citizens waddle to lunch. In the square above the city’s vast cathedral train station built as part of the great interwar public works programme, the homeless gather. A bandstand shades ragged sad old men, bearded, dead eyed. A stall sells Mexican trinkets, skull candles, stuffed donkeys, florescent days of the dead. This square, once the only permitted space for free speech in the city, is silent, the old men don’t even ask for small change.

We meet at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a repurposed commercial building restored with city support, where John Echeveste, President and CEO of La Plaza, informs us, with no trace of irony, that Pepsico funds its kitchen garden as part of its healthy eating programme. Laura Zucker, Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, describes a funding regime that forces Echeveste and colleagues into the arms of the corporates.

La Plaza offer a solidarity and community building story of the Latino presence all the way through to C20th sporting heroes. A story told with a sensibility to the different working class ethnic and cultural communities of LA, but extraordinarily thin on indigenous peoples and muted on the ruling white elite.

Zucker extolls the virtues of individual ‘giving’, building on audience/visitor altruism beyond ticket sales, and corporate and individual tax avoidance by ‘giving’ to the heritage sector. This, she argues, is a powerful incentive to build and consolidate the core audience. In the US, according to Zucker, lean, hungry artists and curators have their eyes on generating income and don’t get bloated on state aid.

Freeway driveThe Getty Villa (oil) Garden:

Under a yellow haze across the sprawling city where the public transport network was ripped up for oil and automobiles. Getty oil. We move slowly in the traffic. More roadside homeless, people made zombie in the heat and our air-conditioned view. Under the freeway bridges and in the dry river plain others make their homes in shanty constructions I last saw in Khartoum.


Getty Villa gardenWe arrive to a full scale replica of a Roman villa in a ravine overlooking the sea. Just as the city centre restoration reaches into Latino heritage, here the elite make claims on European classicism, to the slave societies of Greece and Rome, for their legitimacy. The contents on display better reflect the English aristocracy’s Grand Tour looting of Europe.

The fountains are dry and the reflecting pools empty: climate change and oil is not on the agenda. Claire Lyons, Senior Curator of Antiquities informs us that Getty funds helped village people in the south of France save the remains of an ancient Roman villa. No irony in the display, on a wall, in the Getty Villa, of the huge mozaics found there. 10,000 miles away.

Getty Villa walls 2Walking out into the Californian heat, I was angry and felt robbed. Objects ripped out of context, displayed in a context more imagined than real, itself decontextualized, only brand Getty provides coherence. Even the LA students were testing the K word, kitsch. Objects so revered that even the replica walls containing them had warnings not to touch.




St Monica tsunami sign

Out past the silent parched pools, no longer blue sky reflecting, we head for the beach rejoicing in our shared garbled heritage: movies, rock and roll and resistance. At the western end of Route 66 we swim in the strong, weighty swell of the Pacific and on the pier a muscle man and woman preen and selfie.

A tsunami escape route is, at least, signed.





The Watts Towers community garden:

Watts Towers insta
A journey deep into the city. For me it began long ago with soul, funk and rnb I was teenage imprinted with the WattStaxx LP cover, later the film and its opening sequence: Watts Towers. Uprisings, gangland wars in the distant big city but always I could locate it in the music and the towers. Discovering that we were to meet Rosie Lee Hooks, Director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, a singer with Sweet Honey in the Rock connected it all up. A pilgrimage for me.

Again travelling in the slow flow concrete maze, the unredeemed promise of individualism, speed and the motorcar, where the threat of climate change hides in plain view. Trams once ran right past the Watts Towers, a glorious construction built to be seen by commuters.  Neighbour disputes, art wars, gangland wars and the fires of uprisings have raged all around, but still the towers stand. Even in their origin myth, breaking the cables and crane sent to test them, the towers stand firm. A cultural magnetism attracts stories to the towers, from the story that one day Simon Rodia, just stopped, gave the keys to his neighbour and walked away from his life’s work, to the story that here the legendary Crips and Bloods gangs of LA made peace brokered by a Muslim imam.

Jazz hums in the decorated rungs and flying wire buttresses of the structures. Don Cherry. Charles Mingus.

This place is in the world, connected to contemporary issues; a formally recognised and City supported Historic Cultural Watts Towers signMonument. ‘We will not be privatised’ says Ms Hooks. A powerful and moving exhibition, Black Lives Matter, in the arts centre makes the psycho geographical connections. Here racial identity is asserted, an unassailable and absolute righteous confidence, African American pride from Black Power to Black Lives Matter… You got us here white European slavers, deal with it. Not so far from the historic international working class assertion that we produced the wealth and have a right to a fair share of it.

Out of the centre walking in blue bright dry heat, to a model drought resistant community kitchen garden. A passionate woman asks us to take her regards back to Kew Gardens. Rescued turtles splash in a mosaic lined enclosure and in a tarpaulin shaded workshop the mosaic work continues. The land had been squatted when the City wanted to build a skateboard park there.


Watts Towers suculents

Walking in the garden I wondered if this emphasis on racial identity was all about the insecurity of the immigrant communities of the US, a society founded on slavery and established on land taken from the indigenous peoples. Otherness defined by skin colour and racial appearance. Wounds so deep and reconciliation barely begun, the secular internationalism that could unite and heal still in post McCarthy tatters. When divisions are racialised and the colour of your skin means something about power and history then white silence is complicity. I had walked a long way from the PepsiCo Foundation Garden.


Japanese American National Museum

To the shiny towers and policed privatised spaces of the city. A powerful exhibition on the history of the Japanese American community. A story of pre WW2 hope and assimilation, then patriotism betrayed post Pearl Harbour by the internment in concentration camps of the entire Japanese community. Released in 1945 with 25$ and a bus ticket they returned to find homes and possession trashed. Visual echoes of the Holocaust and an attempt to attend to wider connections.  The glass walls of the building are etched with names not of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima dead, but the names of donors. Outreach activities recorded by the number of sponsored bus journeys.

From Bergamot Station to San Gabriel Mission garden

San Gab orange treesAt Bergamot alongside a long silenced railway depot returning to life, artists occupy abandoned industrial sheds, a repurposing entrepreneur inspires at first. At San Gabriel on the other side of town we are refreshed; working, howling, rattling, rumbling, trains from the port comes almost to the garden of the old mission house, ringing bells and blowing horns raising ancient spirits. A gloriously garbled, real oranges growing on real trees, multi-layered handwritten and mythical heritage yet to succumb to the spectacle. But wait, back at Bergamot was it artists working in those empty factory sheds or dealers in exhibition spaces selling stuff? We didn’t look like buyers so with a passing name drop we are ignored. Once again it is commodity speaking, art as commodity, history as commodity or at least set dressing, layers of heritage that don’t seem to be allowed to speak until it can be given a financial value.


Heritage, arts and funding, Ms Zucker reprised:

Of the museum/galleries visited the only one actively seeking to generate resonances on the key issues of our times: internationalism, human rights and climate change, was the Watts Towers Arts Centre. It was the only one to be fiercely defending its state funded status, independence and wider cultural value. Where is innovation, we challenged Zucker at the start of the week, what if you are poor and don’t have rich contacts and what about the collective needs of the nation and humanity? The all American crowdfunding myth was rolled out, the market will find a way. It seemed to me that the US charitable giving philanthropy so beloved of neo-liberal elements in the UK at best simply replicates existing inequalities. There is no real incentive to innovate or addresses bigger, wider issues as long as the core audience and corporate funders are satisfied. It is a system that has no real strategy other than the market and very limited democratic accountability.

The minority ethnic community museums we visited showed strong and resilient communities recognising the need and value for community solidarity and the importance of telling the stories, especially the stories of origin, struggle and collective action. My concern is that the tax incentive driven funding regime was pushing those museums apart and reinforcing division. A US student expressed the view that these museums were addressing all of us, reaching out for advocates to take the information and share it. The museums had significant stories to tell, of value to us all, it needs more than visitor inspired advocacy, culture and heritage need the democratic and accountable support of the state.

Historic Space

“We don’t use the word heritage here”, Prof Goode told us, this term is now occupied by white racists in the south.

The referendum on the European Union has emboldened the racists and fascists, this US neo liberal tax dollars incentivised philanthropy model for the arts and culture has nothing to offer for the healing and reconciliation needed.


Author: rswpost

Exploring connections between landscape, place and people. on foot and online. Working collaboratively and harnessing the participatory potential of social media.

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