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Arts Guards: Jay Lopez and Edgar Varela Continue Work in Arts-Centered Neighborhoods

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Thursday, August 12, 2010, at 01:38PM
Jay Lopez and Edgar Varela Rush Varela [www.rushvarela.com]

Downtown Art Walk Executive Director Jay Lopez and Bloomfest head Edgar Varela stand in the Arts District's Joel Bloom Square.

The two men go from venue to venue, watching musicians and visiting galleries, checking in on businesses that thrive on the creative buzz that floats over the city. One was selected by a frustrated board to bring order to chaos. The other simply took the reins to bring some chaos back.

Jay Lopez and Edgar Varela both help manage massive parties that have grown beyond their original Downtown vision: the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk and Bloomfest, respectively. Their roles have become more occupations than volunteer assignments as both now find themselves the official doormen to a hip new club: Downtown Los Angeles street culture.

Lopez, a realtor and event producer, was named Executive Director of the Art Walk in December 2009. The early months of his charge have been spent taming the monster that the monthly event had become, giving galleries an increased presence while attempting to triage the crisis of overzealous food trucks and overflowing foot traffic.

That effort took a big step forward in July, when space at the Medallion project was secured for a mobile food court.

Now Lopez is beginning to focus his efforts on Art Walk partnerships that add cultural elements to the monthly night out, including a new walk that highlights the historic Broadway theaters adjacent to Gallery Row.

Varela similarly came from a real estate background, but he gave up that part of his life a decade ago to focus on representing artists and producing events, which recently have included after-Art Walk parties held first in his Arts District gallery and then more recently in the Historic Core. In between selling art and producing concerts for emerging musicians, Varela was elected to join the Los Angeles River Artist and Business Association (LARABA). Now he leads Bloomfest, the annual street festival named after the late Downtown neighborhood activist Joel Bloom. The four-year-old event has expanded to include a self-guided open studio tour showcasing the work of Arts District residents.

Both Lopez and Varela have come along at a time when there is renewed faith in the central city and Downtown success is perhaps easier to achieve, but they continue in a long line of grass-roots advocates who worked for decades to improve the neighborhood. While many media kudos about the city’s changes are either credited to the last ten years of city planning and ordinances or to institutions focused on business development, these improvements would not have been possible without the work of Downtown’s art pioneers of the 1980s and 1990s.

EAST OF ALAMEDA

‘Arts District’ was once just a nickname for the blocks east of Alameda: an area populated by artists illegally living in abandoned warehouses, working while listening for warnings of city zoning inspectors en route.

That fear went away in 1981, when the City of Los Angeles passed Councilman Joel Wach’s Artist in Residence ordinance, allowing artists to legally occupy their often-raw spaces.

“There were around 3,000 artists living here in the early 1980s,” recalls Tim Keating, who moved to the Arts District in 1984 and describes himself as a neighborhood activist. Keating notes that the number of artists working in traditional mediums like painting and sculpture may have reached 5,000 if you count the 21-year-old Santa Fe Art Colony located just south of the 10 Freeway and the Brewery Art Colony north of Downtown at Main and the 5 Freeway.

5,000 people attended the 1981 Los Angeles Visual Arts Festival, which included 23 galleries in and around the Arts District.

“We had people coming from the Westside to visit and buy from the Arts District galleries,” says artist and longtime Downtown resident Qathryn Brehm.

That didn’t last.

“It was the tent city that changed the neighborhood,” Brehm says.

A temporary homeless encampment was created by the city for a few summer months in 1987. It was placed on an empty RTD railroad yard along Santa Fe at 4th Street, now the Metro subway yard. That encampment was blamed for being the source of a series of car break-ins, as some who lived or visited the camps roamed back and forth from services in Skid Row. Both Keating and Brehm say that cars with art buyers from the Westside soon became more infrequent.

Blight, neglect and municipal indifference mobilized groups to bring attention to this side of Los Angeles. That was partly the reason LARABA was formed in the early 1990s by late developer Al Tiara and current Arts District resident Drew Lesso. They looked to change services, development and city policy that threatened to shred away the neighborhood. One major battle against a planned Los Angeles Unified School District warehouse resulted in the preservation of the building that is now home to the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc).

The late Joel Bloom was another factor in forming Arts District identity. It was from his general store at Traction and Hewitt that Bloom helped organize residents and develop plans to bring services to the neighborhood. He advocated for the name “Arts District” to be recognized by the city and started a neighborhood watch walk that is still held every Wednesday night. Both Bloom and Keating each served a term as LARABA President.

TO THE CORE

It was a heartier breed of artists that lived in and around the former financial district back at the time the Artist in Residence ordinance was passed. They felt as if there were more steps taken backward than forward. “Each building had its own personality,” Brehm says. She first moved Downtown to live at 8th and Spring in 1979. “They were separate communities. Once you were [walking] on the street, you were almost on your own.”

Still, artists found inspiration in the grit of the Historic Core and cheap rents suitable enough to stay.

In 1999, the city’s adoption of the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance was a game changer in the former financial district, where under-used commercial buildings could now more easily be converted into housing. The act saved historic buildings that otherwise would have faced the wrecking ball, and the new population that moved in made the neighborhood more hospitable for new businesses.

The neighborhood began to become a pedestrian one, thanks to the work of early developers like Tom Gilmore. It was into this atmosphere of nascent revitalization that the 2003 proposal for Gallery Row was submitted by arts activist and playwright Nic Cha Kim and Inshallah Gallery owner Kjell Hagen.

“I didn’t expect Gallery Row to happen in the first place, much less the current explosion,” Cha Kim says. “It’s clear now this is exactly what Downtown needed, but no, I never expected this level of growth.”

Finally, in September 2004, with eight participating galleries and 75 visitors, Bert Green’s idea for a Downtown Art Walk began, a month prior to the opening of his own Bert Green Fine Arts gallery. In the nearly six years since, it has evolved to a point where more than 10,000 people can be expected on any given Thursday night, roaming 40 galleries.

As for Lopez and Varela, both expect their events to hit new highs this week as they continue to build on that earlier work. On Thursday, August 12th, Lopez expects Downtown Art Walk to see a record number of visitors in its final walk of summer, which will also showcase some of Lopez’s new programming. Two days later, on Saturday, August 14th, Varela will manage a giant, free block party from noon to midnight. Bloomfest will feature more than 40 visual artists with open studios along with live bands, vendors and food trucks. That the event continues at all is quite the feat given the cash-strapped city’s new policy to no longer waive the $1,000 permit fee for street closures.

The organizers of the 1981 Visual Arts Festival hoped to use their event to showcase a new and vibrant neighborhood. The neighborhoods may be a little more established now, but both Art Walk and Bloomfest have kept that same goal.

María Margarita López contributed to this report.

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