The Impact of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and the Watts Towers Arts Center

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The Impact of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and the Watts Towers Arts Center
Hans Burkhardt, War, Agony in Death, 1939-1940. Oil on Canvas 78 x 114 inches. Courtesy of Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, Los Angeles and Hans G. & Thordis Burkhardt Foundation.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Civic Virtue: The Impact of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and the Watts Towers Arts Center showcases the work of the artists, curators, and community activists whose contributions enhanced the culture of our city and helped to define Los Angeles as an international artistic center. Included in the exhibition, which spans close to a century of art history, are more than 130 works by artists who shaped Southern California’s destiny as an art capital.

Traced through painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, photography, and film, the exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery is a chronological survey examining the role of the gallery in the development of the arts in Los Angeles. The story of the gallery is linked to a complex social history that includes politicians, curators, “old Hollywoodians,” and a heterogeneous group of artists from throughout the city. Intersections between art and policymaking are framed through a timeline denoting key events: architectural plans by Frank Lloyd Wright, modernist artworks scrutinized under McCarthyism, and early “All-City Outdoor Arts Festivals” that opened the exhibition process out into the city and continue today in the inclusive, signature Open Call and Juried Exhibitions.

The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery’s unique focus on showing local artists is reprised through an overview of its exhibitions, including major retrospectives for Lorser Feitelson, Julius Shulman, and June Wayne. Iconic artists such as John Altoon, Karl Benjamin, Llyn Foulkes, David Hammons (who placed first in the Los Angeles Annual Art Exhibition in 1969), Sister Mary Corrita, John Mason, Betye Saar, and Patssi Valdez are presented in association with the gallery’s history, while experimental performance that occurred at Barnsdall Park by Guy de Cointet and Robert Wilhite and Ulysses Jenkins is also examined.

Early Exhibitions at Municipal Art Gallery
In summer 1957 under the leadership of visionary director Kenneth Ross, the first major Southern California exhibition of Vincent van Gogh was presented in cooperation with venerable New York art dealer Wildenstein and Co. A focus on private collectors included an exhibition of Armand Hammer’s collection of works by old masters and later a showing of Mary and Vincent Price’s collection of diverse works from Native American, pre-Columbian, and African objects to works by Camille Pissarro, Odilon Redon, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, and Amedeo Modigliani and abstractionists like Jackson Pollock and Henry Moore.

In 1959, Ross mounted The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Rewald, an exhibition of 152 drawings from the private collection of the art historian by major Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists. An exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, Rembrandt’s etchings, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s collection of Japanese wood-block prints (mostly by Hiroshige) were intermingled with local and international craft-and-folk-themed shows and the gallery brought traveling exhibitions from New York’s MoMA as well as presenting the popular annual show, Christmas From Many Lands, which highlighted arts by the city’s ethnic cultural groups.

Be fore LAC MA and MOCA
Prior to these institutions’ appearance as forces in the local art scene, the gallery and its programs intersected with diverse communities in Southern California and supported artists at the earliest stages in their careers. Throughout Civic Virtue there are surprises: works by Edmund Teske that testify to his artistry and connection to key players in the Barnsdall story; early cityscapes by Julius Shulman; “The Kiss” by Andy Warhol shown in the gallery’s 1969 exhibition, Film and Modern Art; and works from shows that included iconic Los Angeles artists like the 1962 solo exhibition by Hans Burkhardt; the 1963 Pacific Coast Invitational including works by Altoon, John Mason, Ed Kienholz, John McLaughlin, Ed Moses, and Billy Al Bengston; and 1968’s West Coast Now featuring Bruce Nauman, Michael Asher, Tony DeLap, John McCracken, Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode, and Peter Alexander.

In the early 70s the gallery featured a retrospective of Don Bachardy’s drawings and 1973’s Separate Realities included seminal work by Vija Celmins and Max Hendler.

Civic Virtue also examines the tenure of Josine Ianco Starells, hired as gallery director in 1975. Looking deeply at the contributions of overlooked communities, seeking out artists in every corner of the region, and producing innovative exhibitions, Ianco Starells presented retrospectives of the work of artists like Charles White, Matsumi Kanemitsu, and Helen Lundberg, as well as group shows like The Artist as Social Critic featuring Suzanne Lacy, Martha Roseler, Harry Gamboa, Carlos Almaraz, and Hans Haacke. She also showed Judy Fiskin’s early San Bernardino series as well as Connor Everts and Martha Alf.

Throughout its long history, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery has embraced the notion of Cultural Democracy and supported local, often overlooked, artists and movements. In spite of the City of Los Angeles’ challenges and wavering commitment to arts, “Artists of all sorts along with community support groups for Hollyhock House, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Watts Towers, and Watts Towers Arts Center have contributed to these sites for decades, and continue to recognize that they are municipal treasures,” says curator Pilar Tompkins Rivas. “In doing so, they are telling their neighbors and City Hall that these cultural landmarks are inherited gifts representing our collective Civic Virtue—and they deserve to be supported.”

A full-color Civic Virtue catalog is being published and will include a foreword by DCA Executive Director, Olga Garay-English with essays by: the exhibitions’ curator, Pilar Tompkins Rivas; former LAMAG director, Josine Ianco Starrels; writer, D.J. Waldie; and art critic and writer, Suzanne Muchnic. It will also include an introduction by Jeffery Herr, the Hollyhock House historic site curator, and an interview conducted by Herr with artist and former director of the WTAC, John Outterbridge. Historical notes and acknowledgments by current LAMAG curator and director of exhibitions, Scott Canty, and current WTAC director, Rosie Lee Hooks will appear as well in the publication.

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