Does L.A. Care If the Watts Towers Are Saved?

Does L.A. Care If the Watts Towers Are Saved?

Maintaining and restoring Los Angeles's Watts Towers — the lofty detritus-clad steel-and-concrete outdoor folk-art masterpiece by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia — has long been a daunting task for the city. These days, it is estimated that it would take an investment of some $5 million to bring the Towers back to top form. In the wake of slashed funding from recent city budget cuts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art stepped in to offer its aid. But the bigger issue, the New York Times says, is this: Do Angelenos actually care about the future of this landmark?

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In fact, a majority of the meager 45,000 annual visitors (LACMA itself brought in 914,396 in 2010) to Watts Towers hail from overseas. Los Angeles natives simply are not flocking to see the immense, indigenous construction. It doesn't help that the towers — located, as the Times points out, a remote eighteen miles from LACMA and thirteen miles from downtown L.A. — are kept behind imposing locked gates that are only opened to tours four days per week. 

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"They have not been marketed well in this city," scholar Luisa Del Giudice, who organized a 2009 conference on the towers, told the Times. "You get a lot of Europeans coming, and the first thing they want to do is see the Watts Towers. It's an international icon, but it's a local blind spot." 

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The question matters because when LACMA became involved with the preservation of the towers in fall/winter of last year, museum director Michael Govan put the move in the context of increased community-building efforts: "By expanding LACMA's mission to include the care, preservation, and interpretation of architectural and sculptural works of art within the community that are at risk of neglect and deterioration we are changing the way LACMA functions as a museum, from what we collect to how we work within the community more directly."

What keeps locals away? Perhaps it is the monument's setting: The towers stand on the site of the bloody 6-day-long urban Watts Riots of 1965, during which over 30 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured. And for some, it feels that a museum that, the Times argues, is a symbol of wealthy society, is swooping into this neighborhood, now impoverished and predominately Hispanic.

For this very reason, the recent history of the art world relating to the Towers has involved a major initiative at actual community building, with L.A. artist Edgar Arceneaux spearheading the Watts House Project, "a collaborative artwork in the shape of a neighborhood redevelopment," since 2007. The nonprofit organization, funded through the Hammer Museum's residency programs, gave an artistic touch to remodeling four houses in the area and partnered with community organizations. In 2009, it purchased property at East 107th Street to serve as office space and a venue for community programs. 

And indeed, LACMA's incursion seems to have touched a nerve with longer-term arts advocates in the area. "I am trying to figure out what LACMA is doing here," Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the Watts Towers Art Center, which leads tours of Rodia's artwork, said. "We've been here 50 years. I think they ought to plan about what they need to do, and come down and meet with us before they start showing the baby off."