The Stay Gallery wants $50,000 a year to maintain its Downey Avenue site for the next five years, and it wants the City of Downey to pay it.
This is a steep price for a cramped storefront operation, and the city council has been of a mixed mind about how to deal fairly with the question of paying it. In one respect, the city is invested. When it first agreed to cover a $2000 a month rent in 2012, a sum lifted out of the Art in Public Places kitty, the city was feeling the heat from various arts advocates.
The 2009 Furman Park lockout of the Downey Museum of Art over a publicist’s hissy fit had become an ongoing embarrassment that ranged from farce to tragedy—the DMOA had enjoyed considerable prestige as the oldest art museum in Los Angeles county history, and was regularly reviewed by the Los Angeles Times. To this day it hasn’t reopened.
In addition, the Downey Civic Light Opera was on the ropes and was discernibly within a year of closing. This was also preventable. Under Marsha Moode’s directorial leadership, the DCLO was one of the last survivors in the region to bring one of America’s brightest, proudest, most ingenious and popular art forms—the musical—to audiences that traveled far distances to see the show. And it could safely be said that Moode, a former actress and beauty queen, was virtually the only figure who brought a touch of star quality to Downey, or at least knew how to move comfortably in an evening gown.
But in spite of noticeably rising production standards, the issue of succession put her at odds with the city, and the bad blood that quickly developed between Moode and VenueTech, the management firm hired to run the Downey Civic Theater, insured the permanent closing notice.
Now the city had lost two of its three most prestigious cultural institutions (the third was the Downey Symphony), which had existed for more than 50 years as sources of civic pride, and had nothing to show for it.
This was the partial backdrop that greeted Valentin Flores' and the Downey Art Vibe’s request for a space to mount art pieces and host other cultural events, including educational programs. And considering that the only other candidate for exhibition and performance -- The Avenue Theater -- was in such a rotten state of disrepair needing millions to fix, the Stay project seemed a modest investment.
Five years later, the city is wondering whether the investment has been worth it. Clearly Flores, Joseph Manacmul and others have worked like dogs to paint and refurbish a tired old store, and have tried endless schemes to diversify what goes on in that space, including installations, theater pieces, parties, literary events, Lorine Parks’ poetry programs, and kiddie exercises in impromptu painting.
But for a variety of reasons, Stay can’t make its nut. For one, no serious artist wants to show there, because the minimum price a working artist needs to stay afloat is $2000 a piece, and given its demographic, the Stay can’t charge more than $750. Another reason is that its physical space is narrow and small. Yet another is that Stay’s avowed invitational reach for artists and audiences is limited to Downey and adjacent cities, like Norwalk and Bell Gardens, which are working class cities without the kinds of traditions that give important place to galleries, museums, theaters and concert venues.
In other words, the shallowness of the local talent pool has been made painfully obvious by most of what shows at the Stay. To compound matters, Flores really isn’t a serious student of art. He’s energetic, ambitious, charming and purposeful—and gifted at management. But he hasn’t stepped out of his comfort zone to take in one of the hottest art scenes in the world at the moment—the L.A. Arts District, 12 miles up the road—for ideas on how to bring sensation to the Stay, which is still, functionally speaking, a store without an identity.
The Downey Arts Coalition faces a similar dilemma. Formed around 2010, its founder Andrew Wahlquist has been an eloquent spokesman for the arts in Downey. His effort at forming and maintaining a group of artists and arts advocates has come at considerable personal sacrifice. City leaders respect him for his soft-spoken, reasoning demeanor; the DAC mounts as many arts shows (and the occasional play) as it can in the course of a year, mainly in connection with Downey Symphony; and it puts out an excellent newsletter.
The DAC has some good artists and smart people on its midst, but like the Stay people, its art-is-good intentions scarcely hide a general naivete and disconnect, not just from who’s who in art history, but who’s who now and what themes are emerging in the contemporary scene.
In writing about the recent Whitney Biennial, The New Yorker magazine’s Peter Schjeldahl mentioned Samara Golden, Rafa Esparza, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, and Henry Taylor, all L.A. based artists with strong reputations. I doubt if anyone in the Downey arts scene would recognize those names if you brought them up (I once spoke to a DAC member who wanted to form a film society but didn’t know who Stanley Kubrick was).
Unless some other urgent matter knocks it off the agenda, the city council will meet Tuesday to decide what to do about Stay. Clearly the city feels it has to do something, but the problem there is that no one on the council has serious knowledge of the arts either, and isn’t terribly interested. Unless it’s to pick up an award or issue a proclamation, council members (with the possible exception of Blanca Pacheco, who’s new and still finding her sea legs) don’t go to concerts, exhibits or poetry readings.
They can identify with art in the abstract, but it’s usually in connection with the benefits of art as therapy or an educational tool, social betterment stuff that’s supposed to make people feel good. That’s not what art is about. But art has been so politicized over the past few decades by both the left and right that you almost can’t blame them for punting as much as they can when arts issues come up.
Writes Mayor Pro Tem Sean Ashton in a May 11 e-mail: “…We are currently working on a funding plan for the Stay Gallery that allows usage by both the Downey Art Vibe (the current group that has been operating Stay) and the Downey Art Coalition as well as other non-profit groups that want to use the space. Hopefully it will be presented at the next council meeting in May.”
As for the status of the Downey Art Museum, Ashton contends, “I believe that the Downey Art
Coalition is in control of the art that was previously housed at Furman Park.”
Ashton’s belief is misplaced: The DAC is not in control of the museum collection. The museum has its own board, and is about to make an announcement that will keep it out of the Stay for the foreseeable. This can’t be encouraging for the city, and I don’t envy its position, especially after learning it could only allocate $11,000 a year to a nonprofit dedicated to helping the homeless.
Recently I had to go to the post office to mail some bills. It was near midnight, in cold, rainy conditions. A heavyset black woman sat in a wheelchair by the entrance, getting soaked while begging for a couple of bucks. She said she needed money for a place to stay for the night. I thought, fifty thou for Stay, eleven for the people in her predicament.
This is going to be a tough call.