Civic Virtue: The Impact of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and the Watts Towers Arts Center

During the past two years, Southern California cultural institutions joined together to celebrate the Los Angeles art scene from 1945-1980. Pacific Standard Time, the unprecedented undertaking funded by The Getty, celebrated the multiplicity of artists and works created during this fertile period; the exhibits covered by more than 60 cultural institutions included such topics as ceramics, racial identity, feminism, photography, local history, design and architecture.

The exhibitions are long gone now, but quite a study can be achieved through the museum catalogs that have come out of this undertaking. Each catalog covers a topic worthy of further study and curious readers can borrow quite a few of them from the Los Angeles Public Library. (An earlier review for LAPL Reads was written for Under the Big Black Sun, a catalog from the Museum of Contemporary Art that documents the artistic ferment in California during the years between Nixon and Reagan.)

Civic Virtue focuses primarily upon the support the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (formerly the Municipal Arts Department) provided to the nascent art scene between the 1950s and the 1980s. This slender tome describes the history of the Barnsdall Art Park, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, and the Watts Towers and the struggles that these facilities went through and continue to go through to document, educate and promote the arts to the diverse communities of Los Angeles. These facilities may not have been major players in the art scene, but the developing ideas of light and space, video art, performance, ceramics, assemblages, printmaking, race identity, and politics were very well represented.

The book is divided into a series of essays documenting different periods of these institutions with full color plates interspersed in between. Essays in the collection range from one on the architectural revolution in Los Angeles during the 1920s to the cultural ferment of the 50s and the 60s, and include pieces by and about former directors of the facilities. The artists who were included in the exhibition and the book form a Who’s Who of the local art scene, including members of ASCO, a Chicano artist collective active during the 1980s, Sister Mary Corita, the political nun who taught graphic design at the former Immaculate Heart College, works from Llyn Foulkes, Vija Celmins, Noah Purifoy and Bettye Saars, a ceramic sculpture from John Mason, the printmaking output of Tamarind Lithography, and a body print from David Hammonds. The book also covers the famous 66 Signs of Neon, an artwork that collected the debris from the Watts Rebellion to be used as sculpture.

Additionally, the history of these art facilities also reflected the turmoil of the time period, specifically the Red Scare and the Watts Riots. The political strife and struggles that limited the Department of Cultural Affairs in the 1950s through the 1980s still continue today, and issues such as defining what the role of public art is and the challenges of maintaining cultural monuments are still very much in play.