By Tatei Torres Thomas

Boyle Heights Beat

Loud music, bright lights, large-scale art works and silk-screened posters with messages about gentrification made quite the statement when they turned up across the street from one of the newest art galleries in Boyle Heights in November.

Artist Ray Vargas paints a mural during Ambularte event. Photo by Saúl Soto
Artist Ray Vargas paints a mural during Ambularte event. Photo by Saúl Soto

The Ambularte mobile art exhibit differed from typical pop-up art events, which are usually meant to bring free exhibits to neighborhoods lacking museums and galleries. The purpose of this event was to send a message to the new Maccarone Gallery on Mission Road.

The Mission Road area along the Los Angeles River is a part of Boyle Heights typically associated with warehouses and auto body shops. But over the past few years, the area has become home to four large art galleries that show contemporary art and photography. Another gallery, Franklin Parrasch, is due to open in early 2016. Many of the galleries originated in New York City.

They are located on Mission Road between the 1st and 4th Street bridges in what were largely abandoned warehouses; instead, they now hold art openings and shows. Gallery owners admit that the cost of space elsewhere, including in now fashionable downtown Los Angeles, contributed to the decision to move into Boyle Heights.

While some may view the expansion of the art scene in Boyle Heights as a positive development for the community, others believe it is another sign of gentrification. Little Big Man, 356 Mission, and Maccarone Gallery are among the growing number of art galleries on Mission Avenue.

Emerging out of New York City, Maccarone Gallery focuses on contemporary abstract painters and sculptors like Alex Hubbard and Keith Sonnier. The Maccarone Gallery has received the most criticism from locals because of comments the proprietor made to the New York Times. The neighborhood “still has a dangerous quality,” Michele Maccarone told the Times. — “I kind of like that. I like that we spent a fortune on security.”

Community members felt Maccarone was focusing on negative aspects of the neighborhood instead of its deep history of art and culture.

Galleries moving into the neighborhood also have spurred fears of gentrification, which has occurred across the river in Downtown’s Art District, where rising prices are pushing many artists and residents out of the area.

Ambularte was held in front of the Maccarone Gallery in early November to protest the new gallery. Community organizations set up booths, some promoting their fight against gentrification and others spreading information about issues central to their community.

Little Big Man Gallery is in an old office building near the 4th Street bridge in Boyle Heights. Photo by Tatei Thomas
Little Big Man Gallery is in an old office building near the 4th Street bridge in Boyle Heights. Photo by Tatei Thomas

Sergio Quintero, 21, a student at CALO YouthBuild and a student organizer of Ambularte, says the focus of the event was to challenge the idea that Boyle Heights lacks art and culture. “There is already free art here,” says Quintero. “Abstract art gets recognition. Our Chicano art is [considered] vandalism and graffiti and not a suitable form of art.”

Artists who participated in the protest created large-scale art focused on either the beauty of Boyle Heights or the negative aspects of gentrification. Perhaps the boldest statement made at the event was the projected image on the Maccarone Gallery of a street artist and vendor surrounded by the words, “Art is community is resistance is for everyone.”

Quintero says he worries these new art spaces will make the area trendier and bring in more outsiders, displacing local families.

Boyle Heights Beat repeatedly tried to get a comment from Maccarone Gallery about the community response, but calls and emails were not returned.

While the opening of the Maccarone Gallery has sparked protest, the other galleries in the area haven’t been met with as much controversy.

The Little Big Man Gallery is located in a large office building next to the 4th Street Bridge. It has an uncanny aura about it, with dimmed lights and music playing. Nick Haymes, the owner, moved from San Francisco, where rent has risen dramatically in recent years. He saw Boyle Heights as an opportunity.

“I could get a big space, whereas in New York I could never get something so big. Places there are hundreds of thousand of dollars, just to survive. So [here] I can do some experimental shows and edgy shows and be cost-efficient,” says Haymes.

The central focus of the gallery is on contemporary narrative photography, photos that tell a story of some kind. It is currently exhibiting Doug Richard, a California artist who is known for his commentary on racial and social issues.

The Ooga Booga store inside 365 Mission Gallery in Boyle Heights. Photo by Tatei Torres Thomas.
The Ooga Booga store inside 365 Mission Gallery in Boyle Heights. Photo by Tatei Torres Thomas.

Haymes says while he is pro art and pro community, it’s inevitable that his gallery is seen as evidence of gentrification.  “It’s a tricky one,” he says, “but I think art is beneficial to everybody, and if you can see art for free it’s fantastic.”

356 Mission Gallery, about a block away, shows contemporary modern and postmodern visual and performing arts. Although the artist and gallery owner Laura Owens spent many years working in New York City, she also has spent many years working in Los Angeles. A big factor in choosing the location for her gallery was accessibility to her Echo Park home and fellow artists in Lincoln Heights, Highland Park and Echo Park.

From the outside, the building looks small and limited. It is not until you walk past the Oooga Booga store that the gallery expands into a vast open space with large-scale abstract paintings hanging on the white walls.

“It was built in 1926,” says Ethan Swan, the gallery manager. “It was a printing press for 30 or 40 years. Then, for a long time it was a piano storage building. But by the time Laura took it over, it was empty. There was nothing, an empty warehouse essentially,”.

Early on, 356 Mission held art workshops on color theory, collage and silk screening for high school students. Those have stopped, but the gallery holds talks with well-known artists and curators that are open to the public. In the future, it plans to expand its community engagement.

“In my mind, what we are doing is very community-based,” says Swan. “We really are working with a lot of people that are artists in LA.”

Tatei Torres Thomas is a student journalist with Boyle Heights Beat.

Photo above: Projected image over the front of the Maccarone Gallery in Boyle Heights during Ambularte event. Photo by Antonio Mejías-Rentas.

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Boyle Heights Beat

Boyle Heights Beat is a bilingual community newspaper produced by its youth "por y para la comunidad". The newspaper and its sister website serve an immigrant neighborhood in East Los Angeles of just under...

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