Walking the Arts
-Reporting by Eliza Newman–
Los Angeles: Since 2004, the Downtown LA Art Walk has been drawing people to the city’s urban heart on the second Tuesday of every month. Prior to the arrival of hip gallery spaces and trendy new restaurants, “downtown” was best known for its abandoned buildings, frequent gang violence, and immense homelessness. The low property values and abundance of space—not to mention its proximity to the ever-“cool” Southern California Institute of Architecture—attracted artists and other creative types to the area long before the start of what many are calling “the downtown revival.” Now, however, the space is a thriving attraction.
“This used to be almost Skid Row,” says painter-owner Steven Thomas Higgins of the space that is now Blackstone Gallery. While looking for a restaurant to take over the space, the property owners “gave us this space for free just to have someone coming in to turn the lights on and off.”
Today, vividly colored nudes and abstract urban scenes dot the walls at Blackstone. There are no titles or artist names beneath the paintings and photographs. According to Higgins’ vision, art is not commercialized in this is a space, it is only appreciated.
A live band plays as patrons and admirers peruse the walls with cups of wine in hand. Dressed in flannel shirts and loose, flowery dresses, they may not be what first comes to mind when people think “art collector,” but sure enough these are the people who come month after month to the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk.
Walkers are anxious to reach The Hive. The oldest gallery downtown, this hub of creative activity has become something of a miniature Art Walk. The gallery is full of chatter and lively debate as visitors peruse the edgy, pop culture-inspired art that covers nearly every free space in the gallery. Different DJs inhabit the gallery’s many rooms and engage the works on display with variable soundtracks, enhancing the already lively atmosphere. In addition, artists are present to talk about their creations, and visitors have the opportunity to see resident artists at work amid the gallery crowds.
“Downtown was always cool to me,” says Nathan Cartwright, artist and founder of The Hive. “I began working in a warehouse and from the very beginning I felt like there was real community down here.”
Walking through The Hive, it’s easy to see that Cartwright takes community seriously. Dozens of different artists have found a home in one of the gallery’s many nooks and crannies. Empowered by the unique space, the artists are encouraged to explore their mediums of choice and experiment. With studio spaces upstairs, The Hive offers artists the opportunity to create new art in a collaboration-friendly environment, similar to the massive warehouses that formed Cartwright’s first home for art creation in Downtown L.A.
The 35 galleries that participated in September’s Art Walk spanned across downtown, but the highest concentration was between 2nd and 9th Streets on either Main Street or Spring Street, Restaurants, shops, and bars stay open late to accommodate the buzzing crowds. Amateur artists gather in front of Spring Street Park and other empty stretches of sidewalk throughout downtown, offering smaller works of art—many a great find—for bargain prices.
Meanwhile, Los-Angeles-based artist Robert Vargas makes his monthly appearance on the streets of the Art Walk. Using charcoal and paint, he creates wonderfully detailed rapid-fire portraits of people he picks from the crowd. Vargas is not only a painter, but an archivist of Los Angeles’ social history, capturing the faces of locals on city walls and in restaurants.
The spirit and vivacity of the Art Walk has helped restore Downtown Los Angeles as a center for culture and community. From Bunker Hill to Little Tokyo to the Old Bank District, artists have come to call the ornate buildings their studios and galleries. They are turning old bank vaults, chocolate factories and movie theatres into vibrant creative centers. They are working within the existing framework of the city to create something new, something miraculously beautiful.
The Los Angeles’ art scene is well-known for its street art and public murals, but each month, as artists open their galleries to the public, visitors are gaining a greater appreciation for the skillful, innovative work coming out of downtown. What began as the vision of a few dedicated artists has helped expand Los Angeles’s vision of culture. The city’s about more than just cinema; it’s on its way to becoming a mecca of fine art.
Post Photos Courtesy of Eliza Newman