Saying She Received Death Threats, Artist Laura Owens Responds Forcefully to Anti-Gentrification Protests

The tension has escalated into death threats.

Protesting Laura Owens at the Whitney. Photo courtesy of Decolonize This Place, via Instagram.
Protesters at Laura Owens's retrospective at the Whitney. Photo courtesy of Decolonize This Place, via Instagram.

The artist Laura Owens has responded to protests at a reception for her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art last Wednesday, where anti-gentrification activists decried her gallery 356 Mission Road in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Owens, who has faced such protests in the past, says the issue has escalated into death threats.

“We hoped to find common ground [with the protesters] to work toward the issues facing our community, but all of our ideas, such as working together on community land buy backs, campaigning for specific policy changes, providing laundromat services and sponsoring workshops for kids were rejected,” Owens wrote in a statement posted to the website of 356 Mission Road, which she runs with her dealer, Gavin Brown, and Wendy Yao. “The protesters clearly stated instead that their only demands were that we immediately terminate our activities, dissolve 356 Mission and hand over the keys to them for unspecified purposes.”

“We do things in public; we have an address; we have a phone number; we are open to criticism; and we welcome discussion,” she continued. “This has made us vulnerable to anonymous insults and death threats left on our voicemail.”

Photographs of the protest show at least 20 people gathered on the museum steps, holding signs denouncing Owens and Gavin Brown, who has opened galleries in the diverse, working-class neighborhoods of Harlem and Chinatown. Meant to illustrate how artists are contributing to gentrification on both coasts, the action was led by members from the groups Mi Casa Resiste, the Chinatown Art Brigade, the Brooklyn Anti-gentrification Network, Equality for Flatbush, Take Back the Bronx, Decolonize This Place, Defend Corona, Mothers on the Move, People’s Cultural Plan, ICE FREE QUEEN, and the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement.

“We have one clear demand; hand over the keys to 356 Mission!!!!” wrote Defend Boyle Heights on Instagram, sharing an image of protester holding up signs reading “Laura Owens + Gavin Brown Fuera de Boyle Heights” and “Defend the Hood from NYC.” A smaller group of activists also brandished a banner inside the museum.

A member of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement claimed in an interview with Hyperallergic that “Gavin Brown walked by the outside rally, hid his face from view while flipping the protesters off. Museum patrons also taunted us, flipped us off, PHYSICALLY ATTACKED our NYC comrades, and ignored us.” (Hyperallergic noted that it had “not been able to independently verify some of the incidents mentioned in the statement.”)

A Whitney spokesman told artnet News that the protesters “unfurled banners and chanted, and left on their own accord.” He added that “the Whitney supports the work that 356 does while acknowledging the complexity of the issues surrounding gentrification. We respect the right of the residents of Boyle Heights to make decisions for their own community.”

The Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement agreed that they met with 356 Mission and says that Owens offered “to discuss how and when 356 Mission would leave Boyle Heights.” But, they say, “We never heard from her since. 356 Mission continues to ignore the community’s demand to leave.”

“LA has an urgent housing crisis that is facing many communities, and Boyle Heights is particularly vulnerable to rising rents and inequity,” Owens said in the statement, but pointed out that the property has never been zoned for residential housing. “We do not own the space, and we pay market rent, nor [do we] have any relationships with developers.”

In a recent New Yorker profile, Owens told Peter Schjeldahl that dealing with the protests has been difficult for her. “I have conducted myself and lived my life as an engaged citizen in my city and my various communities,” she said, noting that she empathizes with those displaced by gentrification, a problem that is “tragic and very real.”

Read Owens’s full statement below.

356 Mission Rd opened in January 2013 as a temporary space for art and community activities in Los Angeles. Since opening, the space has held over 300 free events, including exhibitions, lectures, concerts, readings, performances, talks and conferences, workshops and other activities by a diverse group of practitioners from Los Angeles and elsewhere. In addition to the exhibition and event program, we host workshops for kids and make available other facilities that are used by artists and members of the community, all free of charge. We have actively fundraised for local causes as well as donated our space, time, energy and resources to them. These include REACH LA, The Smell, Proyecto Pastoral, ACLU and Kitten Rescue, with 100% of the proceeds received from suggested donations going to these nonprofits.

I rented 356 as an exhibition-making experiment in 2012, as I had no gallery or forthcoming shows in LA and wanted to make a project in my hometown. My intention was to use the space as a studio to make a new body of work and then open it to the public after the paintings were finished, so that the production and display of the work were not tied to a gallery calendar. What eventually became 356 Mission was formed in collaboration with Ooga Booga founder Wendy Yao, who started her independent Chinatown bookstore in 2004, and gallerist Gavin Brown, who has worked with me since 1996. We signed a one-year lease with the sole intention of hosting free events and activities during my exhibition 12 Paintings. After we realized there were more artists looking for places to present their work, we decided to extend our lease and keep the space open to host other exhibitions and events.

The area and community surrounding 356 Mission is one about which I care deeply. I moved to Los Angeles in 1992 and lived and worked near Mission Road. I have continued to live and work on the east side of LA for the last 25 years, throughout which time I have taught at several local universities and served on the committees of various nonprofits. The area where 356 is located is zoned light industrial, and historically artists rented spaces there long before I rented my first studio nearby in 1992. Before we leased 356 in 2012, the property was used as storage for the owner’s business, which is still the case in the adjacent buildings. Prior to that it was storage space for pianos. There has never been residential housing in the light industrial zoned area. According to current zoning, it cannot be repurposed for housing.

We do not own the space, and we pay market rent, nor have any relationships with developers. Everyone who works at 356 Mission is paid a fair wage and has been offered health care—except for the founders, who have never been compensated for their work with the space. We employ eight staff members and several part-time employees, some of whom are Boyle Heights residents. Because our goal is not to make profit but instead to sustain and expand programming, there has always been an annual deficit that we have covered personally.

In February of 2017 for the first time a few protestors came to an event we hosted, falsely implying that the space is linked to developers and is directly responsible for the displacement of low income residents. I respect people’s right to protest in a safe and non-violent manner and to have their voices heard. While we disagreed with their rhetoric and accusations, we shared the goal to create a more just housing market. LA has an urgent housing crisis that is facing many communities, and Boyle Heights is particularly vulnerable to rising rents and inequity. The relationship between art and gentrification is an urgent issue for the art community to discuss and should be further explored thoughtfully and respectfully between artists, civic leaders, and most importantly the residents of the neighborhood. I believe we need to press local government, landlords and developers to make policy changes that protect and shelter all Angelenos. Affordable housing is a human right, and Angelenos need all the support that we can get to battle the housing crisis. We assumed that we shared some of these goals with the protestors, and hoped to work with them to address this issue in Boyle Heights.

After refusing to engage in a dialogue, the protestors increased their aggressive techniques, by distributing further false information about us on anonymous social media accounts and bullying and threatening our staff and presenters, including people who are themselves part of vulnerable communities. We do things in public; we have an address; we have a phone number; we are open to criticism; and we welcome discussion. This has made us vulnerable to anonymous insults and death threats left on our voicemail.

Prior to this initial protest we had made many requests for a direct meeting with the group since July of 2016. After many months of repeatedly saying they could not meet with us, they agreed to meet in May 2017. We hoped to find common ground to work toward the issues facing our community, but all of our ideas, such as working together on community land buy backs, campaigning for specific policy changes, providing laundromat services and sponsoring workshops for kids were rejected. The protestors clearly stated instead that their only demands were that we immediately terminate our activities, dissolve 356 Mission and hand over the keys to them for unspecified purposes. They insisted that any further meeting would only be premised on our agreeing to these demands.

We have asked ourselves many times if closing 356 and abandoning our lease would stabilize rent prices or help stop developers from changing the neighborhood and raising rents further. After much inquiry, research and discussion, we have always come back to the conclusion that breaking our lease and leaving would not help solve the housing crisis or slow development. The issue is extremely complex and multi- layered, and doesn’t solely rest on the existence or absence of galleries. Neighborhoods such as Highland Park, Glassell Park, Echo Park and Silverlake have all recently gentrified without similar art scenes. Large- scale redevelopment plans for Boyle Heights—such as the 2009 Metro Line extension, 6th Street Bridge revitalization plans and USC Biotech Corridor proposal—were already underway well before we signed the lease on Mission Road.

I believe in the work we do and in all of the artists, musicians, performers and writers who have presented their work at 356. Boyle Heights has long been a place of cultural and artistic production, and 356 is only a very small and relatively recent addition to this amazing community of artists. We have met with many of our neighbors and it is a diverse community with varying perspectives on how to approach the looming issues of the housing crisis and displacement. Alongside the protesters’ demands to close, we have also heard the voices of artists, community groups, families, and individuals in the area who want 356 to remain open. In addition to urgent basic needs and facilities, people in all neighborhoods, of all ethnicities and classes, benefit from quality education and art. We do not believe that access to one should sacrifice the other in a healthy and thriving society. I have always been and remain committed to engaging in productive dialogue that results in effective actions to battle the issues facing our communities.

Laura Owens
November 2017

UPDATE: Defend Boyle Heights sent the following response to Owens’s statement to artnet News.

Neither Laura Owens nor Gavin Brown are, in any shape, way, or form, attempting to productively dialogue with any of the working class tenants, or families being gentrified out of Harlem, New York Chinatown, or Boyle Heights (the immigrant neighborhoods in where Brown operates his art galleries) at the moment. Any suggestion of this is a complete lie Defend Boyle Heights does not endorse. In fact, when Gavin Brown crossed the activists outside of the Whitney Museum, he brazenly flipped off everyone as he walked by. When Laura stepped outside The Whitney Museum last Wednesday night, after residents waited for hours and hours in the cold to speak with her, she literally ran away, slammed her car door on New York tenant’s faces, and drove away from the crowd. Is this what dialogue on their terms looks like?
Defend Boyle Heights is building power from the ground up with working class, immigrant neighborhoods and organizations across the United States because we are all negatively affected by artwashed gentrification perpetuated by millionaire dealers like Gavin Brown and presumptuously ignorant artists like Owens. We have explained to 356 Mission time and time again: 356 Mission’s entry into Boyle Heights triggers negative repercussions for the hundreds of tenants living not even a half-mile away from their entrance, including the Pico Gardens Public Housing Projects. Their leasing of the 356 S. Mission building from developer Vera Campbell, whose other buildings are currently leased out to artists and gallerists, perpetuates the economic divide between gentrifiers and tenants. This divides includes an increasing LAPD presence in the neighborhood to protect their space, a spike in deportation raids, and the forceful eviction of tenants as well as the art and culture they produce, such as the Mariachi living in 1815 E 2nd St. living near their workplace, Mariachi Plaza. Yet, Owens and 356 assert wrongfully that they either do not understand gentrification,they do not perpetuate it, or that it simply doesn’t even exist.
Gentrification is not debatable. The residents resisting their displacement do not have time for Laura Owen’s ignorant posturing. Because the anti-gentrification movement is intersectional, rooted in the material reality of the most marginalized, most poor people living under this capitalist society, we will continue asserting that their Fine Art is not more important than the working poor’s right to housing, culture, and stability. Defend Boyle heights works in solidarity with all the tenants and working class people in New York’s Chinatown and Harlem resisting Gavin Brown’s enterprises. Gentrification is class warfare and we will keep on resisting 356 Mission’s role in it until they actually meet us at the table and remove themselves from Boyle Heights.

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