Contributor Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal Responds to Laura Owens

This November, controversy has heightened around Laura Owens' gallery, 356 S. Mission Rd., and the gallery's role in the gentrification of LA neighborhood Boyle Heights--culminating in a protest of Owens' show at the Whitney on November 8. In response to the protests and media attention, Owens released a statement on the gallery's website. Below, The Daily Gentrifier West Coast correspondent and Los Angeles resident Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal responds to Laura Owens:

Dear Laura,

I read your letter. It was good. So good, I had to remind myself just what about your position rankles, unsettles, is wrong. Like anything, your letter has its outsides and its flaws. Here are some I can name:

It’s true that like many parts of Los Angeles wrecked by disinvestment and deindustrialization, Boyle Heights has been the target of re-investment schemes. Some preceded your 2013 opening. You name the 2009 Metro expansion, the 6th Street Bridge Replacement, in planning by 2011, and the USC biotech corridor, passed in 2014. Conspicuously absent from your list is the city’s designation of a Boyle Heights Arts District, with tax-exemption incentives and more flexible zoning, established in 2012. Should we be so blinded by a desire for what art can do that we can’t see its inclusion on this list as evidence of what it does? Art spaces in Arts Districts can’t just be canaries in the coal mine; they are conduits.

There are many calls for dialogue in your letter. I make a modest effort here. But I am wary of the kind of dialogue you seem to be proposing, a dialogue that is the action instead of a road that leads to it. A dialogue without redistribution as its aim. This is the same kind of dialogue the city invites us to; they it call participation, when it’s just an opportunity for comment, just the airing of grievances, a song and dance, in other words, stalling. Is it listening when you only hear what you want to? I mean, you say you want to fight for housing justice, then seem to disagree with the people who are trying to get it. The question is this: what would it be like to enter a dialogue without demanding to be left in tact?

I think they call those kinds of dialogues negotiations. I’m sure we all know some negotiating tactics, from jobs, from organizing, or even from the movies. They say leave. You could say, we’ll give you half. In this case, I don’t know what that half would be. Would it come in resources? In square feet? Nor is it my place to say whether it should be accepted. But I admit I am naive enough to think you would have made an offer.

To put it bluntly, a group of human beings think what you’re doing is harmful enough to devote hours of time to saying so, in public, often putting themselves at risk to do it, and though you might have complicated feelings, your answer in actions is an uncompromising “no.” Maybe that’s my biggest problem with your letter: a response has been substituted for a reckoning.

There is another absence from your letter, and that is the police. Since galleries moved in, police have installed new surveillance cameras and make additional patrols. They did this explicitly in your area, for you; in the LA neighborhood with the highest rate of murders by police, gallery directors had a sit down with the cops. What are your neighbors supposed to think about your arrival, when though you don’t carry them yourself, you bring guns?

You make an implicit equation between being targeted by protesters and what it might mean to be one. You focus on your sense of threat. I feel for you. I do. But aren’t the protesters also telling you about their own? Is a threat to your desire to be an artist or have a gallery the same kind of existential? Arrest, police harassment, and brutality. Eviction. Broken family ties. When are calls for respect just calls to respect the status quo?

You seem to advocate policy changes (from the city, the state) rather than grassroots ones (protests, boycotts). But why would policy correct the outcome of policy’s own design? There was redlining, freeway bulldozing, public housing destroyed. Now there is Metro, the Bridge, and yes, the Arts District. Both divestment and re-investment have been greenlit by our democratic process. They are two sides of the same coin. Why would those harmed by policy put their faith in it?

A boycott is an alternative political strategy. It is not a moral debate; morality is too blunt a tool for the context. The idea is simple: enough people withdraw participation, and the thing bends, or collapses. The art community in Los Angeles has been asked to join a boycott: not of artists, not of art, not of every gentrifying force, but of galleries in Boyle Heights. (If there was not always such a thing as the art community in Los Angeles, maybe it was made in our being hailed here.) I think a lot of us want to make art or be around it without being a force for gentrification. I wonder what prevents us from believing we have enough power to make that real. Is it cynicism? The bystander effect? How could a gallery fight for housing justice? Maybe you think I’m crazy because I don’t mean this rhetorically. I mean it really: how?

In a way, I’m 356’s target audience. Three years ago, I went all the time, and I wanted nothing more than for you to host one of my events. Now, we have a real estate developer in chief, and I’m a member of the LA Tenants Union. I didn’t start or author the boycott, but I keep it. I don’t count myself among the harmed, just compelled. I’m well aware that the difference makes the space for the kinds of pretty phrases I have turned here. Though I hold onto the potential: that one might be turned. Maybe, it is an imperative. Surely, it’s never too late.

Like climate change, gentrification is often framed as a debate by those it benefits. I like this metaphor a great deal, as another thing we shouldn’t have to say is man-made, but yet, of course, we do. (As you’ve probably realized by now, “you” in this text is a metaphor, too.)

In my more cynical moments, I might grant you that it’s possible that shutting your doors and leaving would do nothing to slow capital’s self-reproduction in the neighborhood. That your leaving would be symbolic, or only symbolic. But, after all, let’s remember that this is the art world. Where could a symbolic gesture mean more?

With hope,