By Alexandra Brouke
Nestled in an easy-to-miss spot amidst the loud strip-mall signage and distractions from the bustle of downtown Los Angeles is the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s (LAPD) Skid Row History Museum and Archive. Surrounded by some of the most renowned art institutions, such as The Broad, MOCA, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles Poverty Department has created an accessible cultural space for some of the artists Los Angeles may have never heard of. Skid Row’s residents have been on the front lines of the war between policy and politics, but they are also a part of a powerful and dynamic arts community. In an effort to bring focus to this vibrant arts community, the USC Roski School of Art and Design partnered with the Skid Row Arts Coalition to create a simple and durable map that makes access to the arts more equitable for all residents of Los Angeles.
William Warrener, lead producer of USC Arts in Action, organized the map showcase event on October 18th, 2019. He brought the map collaborators together and helped to facilitate the arts alliance between USC and the Skid Row Arts Coalition. The event included a presentation by the collaborators followed by a music performance by some Skid Row singers from the Urban Voices Project. William stated, “It was wonderful to see the collaboration in the design of the map, the [students’] dedication, and the patience of the partners. It’s encouraging that an organization of USC’s size can begin from a point of listening to the needs of the Skid Row Arts Coalition, which can serve as a model for the future.”
Through USC Arts in Action, a recently introduced program that produces and funds socially engaged arts projects, Roski students Sebin Song and Xixi Huang were able to create a map of all of the different theater, film, art, and music happenings, as well as weekly and annual events in within the Skid Row community. The students also included markers for metro stations, bus stops, landmarks, and refresh spots. Linda Diaz, a sophomore music composition major, shared that she became interested with the map project through her involvement in the Skid Row Busk Fest for the Arts, which is a collaboration between USC Arts in Action and the Urban Voices Project. Linda spent time passing out the map in the Skid Row community and she stated that, “a lot of people were interested in the map and we were getting more suggestions for things to add to it. I also did not know much about Skid Row before getting involved with USC Arts in Action. It’s not an Us vs. Them [dichotomy], but about playing music with the resident musicians. They’re in the spotlight.”
As the first phase of the map project comes to an end, the members at the Skid Row Arts Coalition really hope to see an ongoing engagement and partnership with students at USC. Clancey Cornell, archivist at LAPD, stated, “We can finally recognize the reality of the existing arts activity in the neighborhood with dignity and respect. I believe that shows there are very transformative things happening here and they’re all grassroots and community based. The fact that they were all put on the map is a testament to the fact that these people are here and transforming the arts community. It’s most important to me to keep shedding light on these arts programs and organizations that are accessible to anyone and worth getting involved in.” In her message to USC students, she stated that, “They should get involved in meaningful things… If students are interested in the intersection between art, history, and social justice, this project would be perfect for them to get involved in.” Dr. Nicole Wallens, Executive at the Urban Voices Project, tells students to, “Just come down here. It’s overwhelming and it’s powerful. You can’t really understand it until you’re here. It’s important to understand just how many people are doing good work and what a beautiful and strong spirit there is in Skid Row; there’s people who have seen the bottom of the bottom and still manage to look up. If we could all come together from different parts of the city and different parts of life, that’s where the change really starts to happen.”
The Skid Row Arts Coalition is comprised of several outreach organizations including Studio 526, Street Symphony, Urban Voices Project, Piece by Piece, Skid Row Coffee, and is housed in Los Angeles Poverty Department’s multi-use space.
Arts in Action, part of USC Visions and Voices, plants seeds for positive social change by activating intensive arts projects between community partners, students, and faculty.