DOWNEY - Last Thursday, the Downey Civic Theatre was transformed in a way residents had never really seen before. Nearly 600 people, a majority of which were young, twentysomethings, milled about the theatre sipping wine and checking out art from over a dozen local artists as the night's soundtrack was provided by a local named DJ Dren.It surely didn't look like a typical night in the city and according to Valentin Flores, founder of Downey Art Vibe, the city's first arts organization aimed at increasing cultural programming in Downey, that was the point. As the name of their recent art show suggested, the group of young artists and art lovers that comprise the non-profit are boldly calling for a Suburban Renaissance. "The term 'Suburban Renaissance' was coined by local artist and Art Vibe member Jamie Lennon Rowland. As our organization gained momentum, we kept talking about reviving the arts and creating more foot traffic in Downtown Downey," Flores says. "We're trying to get people to think about suburbia in a different way. For a long time that word has had a negative connotation and truth be told, you can't shake suburbia away from Downey - it is a suburb, but there is a renaissance happening in the city. People want to stay local; they don't want to travel to Long Beach or Downtown L.A. to see art and experience culture and as we bring those things to the city, people's perceptions of Downey and what it offers will continue to change. So in many ways this is a suburban renaissance. Our city is changing in new and vibrant ways." Downey Art Vibe seems to understand the unique challenges the city faces when it comes to how outsiders perceive Downey and how the city's own residents characterize portions of their own town. As Flores pointed out, depending on which side of the freeway you live on, you're either seen as "super privileged" or "ghetto". It's Downey's great dichotomy and it's incredibly divisive. Though the organization didn't experience any resistance when forming, there was a fear that the city may be too segmented for a unified artistic voice, but that fear has obviously been quelled by Downey Art Vibe, whose shows are attended by the mayor, former mayors, city council members, Downey teachers, and residents from every corner of the city. The challenges associated with location are something Flores and his team are implementing into their business model in hopes of eventually helping other cities revive their arts scene in similar ways. The artists featured in the Suburban Renaissance show also represented the changing face of Downey. Artists such as Jose Cervantes, Carolina Del Toro, Jorge Del Toro, Gabe Enamorado and Ron Pete are emerging Latino artists, many of whom grew up in or currently live in the city. Pete's work was particularly captivating, featuring a series of paintings riffing on G.I. Joe toy packages. Renamed "G.I. YO!", the paintings included images of "real Americans," all people of color who often go unnoticed, including an auto detailer, a restaurant cook, a hotel maid, and an ice cream man. By far the most moving work featured in the show, each of Pete's G.I. YO paintings were also accompanied by a warning label, including phrases such as, "We may not be considerate," or, "You may not have any rights." There are obviously a number of very talented local artists, but it's almost disheartening to think that for years their work went unacknowledged and unnoticed, which is why many chose to showcase their work in Long Beach or Los Angeles. This is why Flores is already hard at work reaching out to local high schools and community colleges, so the city of Downey doesn't lose out on the opportunity to embrace its talent. "If a Downey teenager knows they want to be an artist and works at their craft, by the time they're in their 20's, they're going to have a lot of artwork to show and it would be a shame for them to take that work somewhere else," Flores said. "Artists need to know that they have a home here. We're trying to close the cultural gap between Long Beach and Los Angeles. Everything needed for a cultural renaissance is already in Downey, it just lacked facilities and organization and that's where we come in; we're facilitating and organizing this grassroots movement. There are so many artists in Downey and they're like hidden jewels. They didn't know there was a market for their work and the market didn't know that they existed, but now that we do, there's no going back." Downey Art Vibe originally began in 2007 and after a few small shows, the group lay dormant as some of its founding members became busy with work, school and other obligations. After the short hiatus, the group decided to come back stronger than ever and as their recent show at the Downey Civic Theatre illustrated, the group has a large following and is becoming a major force. Flores is currently in talks with the city council for a project that could revolutionize Downey's art scene, but until the news goes public, Downey Art Vibe has a number of plans in the works, including a show at Porto's Bakery that will feature the work of local students, an "art crawl" similar to Downtown L.A.'s Art Walk, a gallery show at one of the city's new hookah bars, a once-a-month tent featuring local artists at the Downey Farmers' Market, and a festival of arts on Downey Avenue. The organization runs as a company, with two newly-appointed board members in Alina Wilson and Jamie Lennon Rowland, but everyone is a volunteer and none of Downey Art Vibe's members are compensated for their time or work. At $5 a ticket, plus donations, sponsorships, and 20 percent commissions on sold artwork, the Suburban Renaissance show is the first time the non-profit actually turned a major profit and all proceeds will go to operational costs and future events. "We have a lot we want to accomplish, but our main goal is to inject the city of Downey with some culture, some art, and a vibrant nightlife that will only benefit our city culturally and economically," Flores said. "When I think of how much we've done with very little money, it makes me excited to think of what we'll be able to accomplish with grants and other financial backing. This is a really interesting and exciting time to live in Downey."
********** Published: November 17, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 31