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Los Angeles’s Art Scene Has Taken Care of Its Own during the Pandemic

Installation view, “Ed Clark. Expanding the Image,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2020. © The Estate of Ed Clark. Photo Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth.

Installation view, “Ed Clark. Expanding the Image,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2020. © The Estate of Ed Clark. Photo Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth.

When I stepped into Hauser & Wirth’s vast Los Angeles complex at the beginning of September, it was my first time in an art space since the pandemic effectively closed the city and much of the world in March. The masses of people and pockets of activity that had been hallmarks of Hauser & Wirth were absent. The obviousness of that transformation—that the many had become just you in over 100,000 square feet of space—was detached from the felt reality. How strange and surreal to experience art in our now.
The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns took effect shortly after Frieze Los Angeles, Felix, and Art Los Angeles Contemporary fixed the art world’s eyes on the city in February. After ’s monumental offering at David Kordansky Gallery, an opening that stretched around the block and packed the gallery’s interior until it felt as if it would burst at the seams. After the surge of crowds, the surge of dialogues, and what was frequently remarked upon as the rise of L.A.’s art scene.
Within this pandemic time, the question of engagement, productivity, and care has circled among those working in the arts and beyond. And because COVID-19 is just one of several concurrent disasters—along with the ever-enduring anti-Black violence, mass unemployment, housing inequity, apocalyptic wildfires fueled by climate change, and the American fascist reality—questions of how and what to do are part of this larger reckoning with our current moment. What is the artist’s role, how can galleries better serve communities, how can time bend in excess of capitalism, and who must be centered?
Installation view of Lauren Halsey at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo by Jeff McLane. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery.

Installation view of Lauren Halsey at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo by Jeff McLane. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery.

At the onset of the shutdown in the spring, the stark reality of closures, loss of sales, and laid-off staff at galleries and museums became abundantly clear. The initiative Galleryplatform.la was one of the first significant responses to these unhappy prospects, showcasing a rotating roster of online exhibitions from a group of more than 80 galleries. Initiated by the dealer Jeffery Deitch, Galleryplatform.la attempts to restructure and amend inequitable visibility between prominent and smaller galleries in the city. With viewing rooms rotating weekly, the site promotes several spaces at once, putting artists, curators, and galleries across a broad spectrum into colloquy. And while this kind of act of camaraderie was needed before COVID-19, it has provided support that is all the more crucial now.
In addition to these more commercial approaches to surviving the current crises, there are also the gestures of artists and spaces that aid our understanding of what can be remade, and how technology can spread art and aid within communities. Halsey’s Summaeverythang community center is a superlative rejoinder to the moment. Halsey’s work, which is always in part an offering of home, manifested into a community center next door to her studio in South Central. As the pandemic altered what communal space might look like, Halsey shifted the interior space intended for gathering and sharing resources into a food distribution center.
Sending hundreds of boxes of organic produce weekly to churches and other sites in South Central and Watts, Halsey’s Summaeverythang has applied the tenets of communal care to direct acts of sustenance. “There’s a lecture from 1975 that I’ve listened to like 200 times since 2014,” Halsey said in an interview with poet Douglas Kearney. “Toni Morrison says that for Black people to be dependent on media and government ‘is hopeless, ridiculous, childish, and it’s an affront.…We didn’t use to have to wait for the word.’” Summaeverythang is not merely a response to conditions highlighted by COVID-19, but a superlative approach to sustaining Black and brown lives.
Installation view of Lauren Halsey at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo by Jeff McLane. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery.

Installation view of Lauren Halsey at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo by Jeff McLane. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery.

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, an illustrator, painter, and sculptor based between L.A., New Haven, and Accra, has approached her relationship to artmaking in pandemic time by offering literature and storytelling. The event series “Black Voices, Black Joy,” in partnership with the Hammer Museum and the Felipe de Neve Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, features Davis reading from her favorite children’s books in a format akin to a fireside chat. While Davis was in talks to begin the series before the pandemic, the lockdown and the open structure aided the project to continue online as both live virtual events and an archival object. Davis’s work in education (she is also an assistant professor at Occidental College) and her drive to do something for “younger folks” guided her decision to participate in the program.
“Resisting the problems dumped on Black people allows me more time and space to do the work I want to do, the work I am already doing,” Davis said, noting that inequities faced by Black people within COVID-19 are yet another of those problems. “Despite all that’s going on, I feel like it’s a beautiful moment where mutual aid is a top priority. I’m inspired by the landscape of my peers doing the work to make a change in a tangible way.”
This desire to stretch time and for artists’ practices to reach beyond formal gallery and museum spaces was also articulated by Sarah Russin, the executive director of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), and Charlie James, the owner and director of Charlie James Gallery. At the shutdown’s onset, James reached out to the gallery’s core group of artists to ask what they needed. The convening of sorts presented an opening for this cohort to think through a host of tensions, critiques, and challenges together—from the inequitable structure built into many relationships with collectors and a desire to do work that could reach a broader set of people to direct activism, mental health, and the loss of childcare. While the gallery’s overall ethos is one of political critique, the conversation resulted in art for fundraising, experimenting with new, accessible materials, and a dedication to meet artists’ goals for a broader audience and more accessible work.
Installation view, “Ed Clark. Expanding the Image,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2020. © The Estate of Ed Clark. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth.

Installation view, “Ed Clark. Expanding the Image,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2020. © The Estate of Ed Clark. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth.

At LACE, Amitis Motevalli’s piece An Offering of Honor collapses pandemic time and geography. Motevalli’s performance was recorded in the gallery’s currently shuttered storefront and is a ritual act that challenges femicide and Iranian and American hostility in the time of COVID-19. Created of the moment and experienced first live, then as a recorded piece, Russin said she sees An Offering of Honor as a dynamic model for “not just taking an art project and shoehorning it into something for online, but rather taking seriously [art] made directly for this time.”
For its own distinctive online programming, the Underground Museum—the space founded by the late artist —created Noah’s Bookshelf (@theundergroundbookstore), an Instagram account dedicated to its bookstore. “We wanted to bring the bookstore online because the store itself is a place for gathering, for readership,” said Megan Steinman, the Underground Museum’s director. “Noah was a collector and bibliophile, and the team at Underground [consists of] all book lovers. The bookstore is really the energetic center of the museum.”
Run by the museum’s team of docents—including Veronica Ratliff, Maliyah Puerto, Brandon Malone, and Zuri Adia—Noah’s Bookshelf circulates as a discursive space on Black feminist praxis, the Black radical tradition, the African diaspora, and, of course, art. As Steinmann noted, “We had the docents take over the Instagram feed because, depending on who was [at the museum], those are the conversations you would be having with that particular person. That group of voices is how we remain a public space, a public museum.”
Back at Hauser & Wirth, the strangeness of the empty complex quickly gave way to awe at the colossal paintings in the exhibition “Expanding the Image.” As my family and I walked through Clark’s show, it was incredible to be the few in a space so enormous, with an artist’s work that I had only ever viewed over the heads and around the shoulders of other folks. If this is how we see art now, in Los Angeles at least, perhaps there is something to pandemic time, a slowing and opening that can mediate new senses of being.
Essence Harden