Visiting the Watts Towers at some point is an integral part of being from Los Angeles – and for most people in this city it is the only part of Watts that they ever experience. As of 2007, tourists and Angelenos visiting the Towers could turn and see the redeveloped houses of 107th Street, one with a flower mural façade, several with colorful gates and architectural elements that are as utilitarian as they are artistically designed.
This block is part of the Watts House Project – a public artwork and neighborhood redevelopment project headed by artist Edgar Arceneaux and in collaboration with approximately 17 artists and architects and many community members.
Watts House Project as a social practice public artwork occupies a space in the art world that is becoming increasingly more important. Public artworks such as WHP, Strawberry Flag, Not a Cornfield, Finishing School, and Machine Project are starting to become the norm in art, and what they all have in common is the combination of art making and social change.
In order to understand this phenomenon as it relates to WHP, we have to look at its history. Project Row Houses, a public artwork and later a nonprofit which converted 22 track homes into community exhibition spaces and housing for young mothers, was started in the early 1990s by Rick Lowe. This work’s success made Lowe think about the prospect of Project Row Houses becoming a larger neighborhood model. He was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art (MOCA) to do a similar project, which he would call Watts House Project, in Los Angeles in 1996. MOCA was giving him start up funding for WHP, but somewhere in the initial planning stages Lowe realized that he couldn’t keep both projects running at once.
In the mean time, Edgar Arceneaux was an undergrad who became involved with WHP in its infancy, and maintained close tieswith the families who lived on the block even after Lowe’s departure. Arceneaux focused on his studio career for years after the dissolution of WHP, until, in his own words, “I really started to think that the project could happen, but in a more holistic way. I didn’t exactly know what that was, but I just started thinking about it, and started talking to people about it .” He eventually got funding from the Hammer Museum, and the project that he had been fueling largely on his own without any formal framework gained momentum and got a new start.
By the time that WHP acquired the necessary funding a second time and started to run again in 2007, much of the original intent of the project had completely changed. First off, Watts 2.0, as Arceneaux calls it, was born out of a continued relationship with the families that lived on 107th Street, and was therefore able to structure the project in large part around their needs.
Arceneaux realized that the skill sets and resources available on the block were
incredible in their breadth - there were artisans, a welder, a house painter, a contractor, a roofer – and this allowed for the neighborhood to play an active role in the development of their own community, and the capability to grow their own businesses at the same time. According to Edgar, “In the beginning, WHP was primarily about façade improvement, but I think it was geared more towards the art center and improvements that were really oriented towards the tourism, more then it was towards the people. And I wanted to reorient it back to the people.”
This format has continued throughout the project’s development and eventual restructuring into a nonprofit business model, though its roots have remained firmly ensconced in the art world as it has become one of the foremost public artworks in recent years.