It's always a pleasure, for me, to find the work of contemporary artists outside the context of the conventional, white-walled gallery space, installed where it can speak to a public that otherwise would likely never see it. As a human endeavor, art has the capacity to serve a purpose other than itself: the notion of art for art's sake tended to dominate 20th century aesthetic thought, and I for one am glad to see it put to a worthy social purpose now and then.
I drove down to the USC-Los Angeles County General hospital in East Los Angeles yesterday, to join a walk-through of the new installation of paintings in the lobby and reception areas of the recently-opened Violence Intervention Program. The clinic is the result of years of dedicated work by the program's director, Dr. Astrid Heger, who worked for years out of a trailer in service of the needs of inner city children traumatized by violence and rape, for too long neglected because, as Dr. Heger told me, they were deemed "too brown, too black, too poor" to merit serious attention. She had to do battle with the LA County authorities--she enlisted first the support of Supervisor Gloria Molina--to wrest the hospital warehouse space from its planned use as a police facility, and converted it instead to the purposes of VIP.
Dr. Heger, I learned on meeting and talking with her for a few minutes, is a woman of vision and formidable determination. Her vision for the VIP center goes beyond its purely medical purposes: it should also be a community. Outside the new center, she commandeered what was a parking lot and has begun to convert it into a mini park--the lawn is already installed--where patients and visitors can enjoy a picnic outdoors and frolic in the sunshine. For the interior, she looked at the long, vacant walls and envisioned... an art gallery. She rejected as uninspiring the initial thought for a mural in the reception area, something that after a while would dull into a wall that people would eventually no longer see. A changing art exhibition, she thought, of uplifting art would enhance her vision of the center as a community, serving the interests of her patients and their visitors. And she wanted to encourage doctors and others on her staff to think of buying art to support the work of locally-based artists. With Supervisor Molina's help, she enlisted the Los Angeles County Arts Commission to support her.
Enter, if I have my history straight, the Green Public Art Consultancy and its representative, Rebecca Ansert, to get the program started; and enter Kathy Gallegos at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, a thriving and culturally diverse community of artists just a short hop from the hospital. Avenue 50, an energetic "non-profit arts presentation organization," has served appropriately as the source for most, if not all the paintings currently on view, with Kathy acting in a curatorial capacity. The result of this collaborative effort between institution, government and art community is an exemplary and, yes, inspiring display of paintings. Dr. Heger assured me that her intentions are already being gratified by enthusiastic responses from all quarters.
I'll have more to say about the walk-through and the art in another entry. Suffice it to say, today, that I was enormously impressed by the dedication of everyone involved. I was once a Los Angeles County employee myself--indeed, as Director of what was then Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles County, I was a county department head. I spent a good deal of time with the civil servants working in the Hall of Adminsitration, and grew to respect the sense of service with which most of them went about their jobs. Our bureaucrats are too easily dismissed and dumped upon. Without their backing and administrative support, I imagine this project could not have been realized. Despite its critics, government provides us with services we all need and use--even services less easily measurable in practical terms, like this one. So hats off to the County, and to those in the art community who evidently also put their hearts into the project. And most of all, today, to the indefatigable Dr. Heger, whose dedication to the most vulnerable amongst us--and whose understanding that their needs go beyond the purely practical--should be an inspiration to us all.