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How Can the Arts Better Thrive in Alhambra?

  • An actor rehearsing at Mosaic Lizard Theater. The community theater space closed last year. Photo by Timmy Truong.

  • Best of Show winner Aaron Edmundo Hernandez at work. Photo courtesy of Karsen Luthi.

  • Armando Arorizo, the owner of The Perfect Exposure Gallery, adjusts the 360 lens of a 4x5 film camera from the early 1940s. Photo courtesy of The Perfect Exposure Gallery.

  • In 2016, Potts, which operated for decades as a plumbing parts store, became one of a growing number of galleries in Alhambra. Photo by Bastian Mendez.

  • Local artist Jacklyn Arriola at her first solo show in Pasadena. Arriola would like to exhibit more in Alhambra and elsewhere, but says that costs are a challenge in doing so. Photo courtesy of Jacklyn Arriola.

Location

Alhambra , CA

The Mosaic Lizard Theater was one of a few community theater spaces in Alhambra, offering acting classes, original productions about superheroes like Batman, and even improv-based podcasts. But in September, 2018 followers of the Mosaic Lizard Theater’s Facebook page were greeted with a grim message from owner Jay Parker. He had decided to permanently close.

“There are no villains to our departure, we just couldn’t keep up with the rent,” Parker said in his announcement. “Our landlords were very generous, gracious and patient during our time there. It has been a pleasure serving the city of Alhambra for the last 11 years.”

The theater had faced turbulent times before. It first opened up with the help from the Alhambra Redevelopment Agency. In 2016, the city sold the building on Main Street that housed Lizard Theater to a landlord who raised the rent. By June 2017 it had moved to a new location on 4th Street. Its ultimate demise was met with mourning. Followers on Facebook expressed disappointment over the city’s loss and some questioned what they believed to be a lack of municipal support for the arts.

“It was one of the few spaces I know of for artists,” said acting student Joyce Chong.

Alhambra is home to a variety of performing and visual arts spaces, from the Wednesday Open Mic Night at Rick’s on Main Street  to the Granada ballroom dance studio, known throughout Los Angeles for its salsa nights. The past few years have seen the opening of new fine art galleries like Potts and Perfect Exposure.

The city of Alhambra is also hosting more events for local artists. The city’s Arts and Cultural Events Committee has organized one such use of public space with its monthly exhibitions in the City Hall foyer. The committee also recently held a chalk art contest, with the Downtown Business Association giving cash prizes for the four best chalk art renderings.

Yet spaces for young, emerging artists to hone their craft remain few and far between. “I’ll probably still live in Alhambra, but I’ll be working somewhere else,” Chong said about her acting.

Visual artist Jacklyn Arriola spent her early childhood in Alhambra, and then lived elsewhere in Southern California, before moving back seven years ago. She’s always had a “warm spot” for Alhambra, because of its diversity and small-town feel.

Arriola is also an artist, using collage to produce art with clear political statements. She said that the financial barriers are tough for artists like her, given high costs in Alhambra for both living and exhibition space. In addition, artists who exhibit often have to split their sales with the gallery. She is turning her own garage into a free exhibit space, and added that the city could host more free arts events.

As one of the six founders of Potts, the gallery that opened three years ago at the former Potts Plumbing Parts store, Jackie Tarquinio Kennedy said the keys to a thriving arts scene are affordable living and studio spaces for artists, and more community engagement.

Kennedy, who is also an Alhambra resident, works full-time at an art studio downtown, and is a member of the Los Angeles Free Music Society, an experimental music collective that Joe, Rick and Tom Potts also belong to. When Potts Plumbing Parts closed, Kennedy said that she, her husband and the other co-founders decided to turn the space into an art gallery, and named it Potts as an homage to the space’s Alhambra legacy.

Potts has yet to exhibit an artist from Alhambra, and generally focuses more on an artist’s practice, when it comes to deciding whose work to show. Kennedy said that the gallery’s next show will feature work from the Potts brothers, who have their studios at the space. She observed seeing more artists renting studios along the Alhambra/El Sereno border, and added that Potts would be interested in participating in an art walk or a similar event, as more and more spaces open up locally. “There’s potential for more,” she said.

Alhambra planning commissioner, activist, artist, and Alhambra high school teacher Andrea Lofthouse-Quesada said that she noticed a trend of artists leaving Alhambra or choosing to work outside the city. She places the blame in part on a lack of a cultural infrastructure that could bring cohesion to Alhambra’s arts community. According to Lofthouse-Quesada, Alhambra contains many different artists who could make up a cohesive scene. In particular, she said, it has notable muralists, brush painters, opera singers, food, music, architecture and even agriculture.

“I see people doing really strong stuff in pockets,” said Lofthouse-Quesada “We have [American] book award winning poet [Sesshu Foster], noise bands, galleries. I see a lot of artistic expression in Alhambra, but I don’t see it having the vigor and strength that many of the other arts communities have throughout Los Angeles.”

Lofthouse-Quesada said that, from her point of view, this situation is created by a lack of opportunity within the city’s borders.

“The problem is that none of [the art] is given legitimacy, so everyone feels invisible. Artists are given legitimacy when their work makes an impact — a sense of belonging, public safety, education, inspiring community pride and action or simply driving consumer spending. It’s about a sense of belonging. Arts have a way of making people feel that they belong.”

For this issue, she offered several solutions. Most of them focus on giving artists the money or space to create and display their work, including unifying events, an artist-in-residence program, and mini-grants which could help support small organizations or artists. She said the two biggest funding sources come from the Arts in Public Places fund, and the Parks and Recreation Department’s community services budget.

Developers who build in Alhambra are required to pay into the Arts in Public Places fund, which is administered by the aforementioned Arts and Cultural Events Committee, and has gone to building a mural on Mission Road, the Rose Parade float and special exhibits at city hall.

Local musician and Senior Project Coordinator at the LA City Department of Cultural Affairs Umi Hsu said they agree with the idea of mini-grants. Additionally, they said that oftentimes, the work required to build a community comes from individuals “with volition to create a space of their own.” Hsu proposed incentivizing the use of already present cultural infrastructure to aid these individuals.

“Spark their volition,” Hsu said. “Maybe an art walk in the park on a regular basis, maybe the farmers market. Create spaces for artists that are more intentional and organized.”

They said that the use of already present spaces could help to “create place identity,” and added that curatorial control could remain in the hands of local artists.

“Create opportunities for businesses to open their establishments for artists to share spaces with them,” Hsu said. “Coffee shop poetry readings, exhibitions that can happen in a community space like a library where a guest curator can come and create an exhibition that tells a story, for example, about immigration in their family and across the community.”

Ben Zhu, Owner of Gallery Nucleus, one of Alhambra’s most high-profile arts spaces, said the formation of an arts scene appears to be “an organic thing.”

“I feel like however it is, it’s probably what the city can bear,” Zhu said. “I’ve seen things come in and out, like the Lizard Theater. But at the end of the day, people come in here with businesses, they try them out. If it doesn’t succeed it’s either because the management was bad or maybe the city just isn’t ready for it.”

Zhu said he isn’t sure what the city’s stance is on the arts, but that they could help out financially if they “really wanted to foster an arts community.” In particular, he mentioned helping an individual or organization that wants to start “a music venue, communal art gallery or honestly, even a museum.”

“If they could somehow fund a museum and in return control a little bit of the museum’s shows so that it represents Alhambra or show artists within Alhambra,” said Zhu. “Then it would give Alhambra’s arts a sense of community. I don’t know what the laws are or if the city can do that, but if the city could sponsor or support a museum that allows for community arts programs or teaches kids I think it would be the easiest first step.”

Luthi said that oftentimes, the Arts and Cultural Events Committee doesn’t have a quorum to meet and discuss how to support artists and events in Alhambra. “I heartily encourage any Alhambra resident interested in the arts to apply for appointment to the committee,” he said.

Lofthouse-Quesada said that no matter the initiative, it’s important to unify the community through the arts. “It’s all around us and it can bring together a multiethnic community,” she said. “It can do a lot to uplift the city and uplift people’s souls.”

Additional reporting by Phoenix Tso.

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