In Los Angeles, a New Art Space Prioritizes Community Support and Activism
Crenshaw Dairy Mart Co-founders Patrisse Cullors and noé olivas performing “It’s Dangerous Times, We Have To Be Connected” at Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Los Angeles curated by Crenshaw Dairy Mart and presented by For Freedoms on February 28, 2020. Photographed by Gio Solis.
In a former dairy mart just blocks from the ever-lengthening shadow of SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles’s Inglewood neighborhood, the founders of the art space Crenshaw Dairy Mart (CDM) have spent the past two years having conversations—with each other, with artists, and, most importantly, with members of the surrounding neighborhood. Founders Patrisse Cullors, Noé Olivas, and Alexandre Dorriz intended for the space to function not only as a gallery and studio, but as a repository for local culture and a place of community gathering. Just weeks after its inaugural exhibition opened, however, the United States entered lockdown, and communal gatherings became impossible. Now, as the pandemic surges in California, protestors continue to organize, and the importance of community support becomes a vital issue for art spaces across the country, CDM’s founders want to model a more holistic way for institutions to show up for the people they serve.
“My art practice is an extension of my political values,” said Cullors, an artist and activist with years of organizing experience. “And so is the Crenshaw Dairy Mart. Our brick-and-mortar space is an extension of our spiritual and our political values, and what we value is human life, each other, our ancestors, and the ending of caging human beings. You’ll see that as our three pillars: healing, ancestry, and abolition. Those are the things that we value and that’s going to be at the center of our work.”
The gallery’s first exhibition, which opened on February 29th, was an expression of those values, especially abolition. “Yes on R! Archives and Legal Conceptions” was part art exhibition, part political education, and focused on the Measure R policy for redirecting funds for a $3.5-billion jail toward local services and the decade of activism that got it on the California primary ballot.
Crenshaw Dairy Mart Inaugural Exhibition, “Yes on R: Archives and Legal Conceptions (Part 1: 2011 - 2013)” curated by Art Advisor and Curator, Autumn Breon Williams, and artist and Crenshaw Dairy Mart Co-founder, Alexandre Dorriz.
The idea for the exhibition was partially based on Cullors’s activist work: In addition to CDM, she helped found abolition and justice groups such as Dignity and Power Now, Reform L.A. Jails, and Black Lives Matter (BLM). Her extensive organizing experience led the Dairy Mart team to think very intentionally when planning the space—they wanted to be careful about “descending upon a community and telling it what it needs to do,” as Cullors put it. To prevent that, they focused on speaking with the residents of the neighborhood in order to center CDM around activism and organizing above all else. Since the shutdown, however, the space’s founders have had to focus on new ways of engaging the surrounding community.
“We were birthed during a pandemic—during a revolution,” Cullors said. “For two years, we were at the Dairy Mart just by ourselves, opening the doors to the community, but our programming did not launch until we had COVID-19.”
During the pandemic and protests, that programming has grown to include art supply kits for local school kids; the Care Not Cages relief fund, which awarded grant money to artists in need, including eight who are currently incarcerated; and a Juneteenth celebration that included the debut of a light-up BLM logo on the space’s roof. Olivas emphasized the importance of play in the gallery’s current programming, saying the space aims to not only highlight injustice and trauma, but also to allow visitors to experience joy. These new programs all relate back in some way to CDM’s core pillars, whether through abolition-oriented fundraisers, celebrations of Black ancestry, or the distribution of care packages meant to help the community heal during a crisis.
The Dairy Mart isn’t alone in such efforts. Galleries across the country, many of them artist-run or not-for-profit, have found ways to assist those in need amid the simultaneous global health crisis and mass protest movement. In New York, Housing Gallery organized a mutual aid fund that disbursed microgrants to people whose livelihoods were affected by the COVID-19 shutdown. The gallery also utilized its Lower East Side storefront to provide protestors with supplies and a space to regroup. Nearby in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, Artists Space similarly provided support to demonstrators, periodically opening its lobby and bathrooms to protestors who camped out in front of New York City Hall in recent weeks.
Crenshaw Dairy Mart Co-founder noé olivas painting “Care Not Cages” mural in response to the “Crenshaw Dairy Mart Care Not Cages Relief Fund” in partnership with Justice LA, For Freedoms, and Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) at the Crenshaw Dairy Mart, May, 2020. Photographed by Phil America.
A recurring feature of many of these support efforts is the utilization of space—in addition to charity drives and fundraisers, these art organizations opened their doors and utilized their physical footprints to offer aid. Art, exclusivity, and real estate are often inextricably tied together, especially as they relate to gentrification. Like most major cities, Los Angeles is no stranger to the perils of “artwashing,” particularly the instrumentalization of art spaces as early gentrifiers. In 2016, the Boyle Heights neighborhood became a hotbed of anti-gentrification protests centered around a group of galleries that opened in the area. Protestors in Boyle Heights eventually succeeded in pushing those galleries to close or relocate. Inglewood faces its own gentrification battle in the form of the SoFi Stadium complex and associated developments. For CDM’s founders, a community-focused art space is not just a bulwark against pandemics and police brutality, but also against the sort of cultural erasure that gentrification—often foreshadowed by the arrival of art galleries—usually brings.
“I don’t want to say that art brings gentrification, because I don’t want to do that to art. What I do think is that white racism brings gentrification,” Cullors said. “It’s really unfortunate that there have been so many white artists and curators who descend upon Black and brown communities to bring art, with that being the first introduction of art to many of our communities. It’s deeply unfortunate because that is such a disservice to art. So we’re also trying to intervene into the white art world and the history of racism inside the art world.”
At a time when art institutions across the world are grappling with their complicity in upholding racist structures, the Dairy Mart founders’ rhetoric of openness and responsiveness resonates with efforts to move beyond the acknowledgment of that racism and forward into countering it. The same conversations that helped hone the space’s anti-racist, anti-gentrification focus also made it an effective center of support during this time of crisis—the issues are inextricably linked. Centering the needs of the community was a necessity before the pandemic and protests, and it will remain a necessity after.
“One of the things that emerged during our conversations was what a dairy mart means to a community, traditionally,” Dorriz said. “It’s sustenance, it gives; it’s the place where people go to get candy bars and Gatorade and pork rinds. So we wanted to understand how we could do something similar. Naming stadium-driven gentrification and displacement as the impending problem in the community allowed us to hold space and quorum and settle on this goal of ‘cultural retention’—asking how can we keep that retention within the community.”
The culture being retained is the history of a community, with all its attendant problems and responses to those problems. It’s an archive of people and place, one with the depth to educate newcomers, catalog old memories, and heal those in need.