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The artists and developer who put Inglewood’s arts scene ‘on the map’

Now, as Inglewood becomes irresistible to developers, house hunters, and major sports franchises, some artists wonder whether they’ll get priced out

A studio in Beacon Arts Building, which helped turn Inglewood into a competitive arts world destination.

The first time painter and collage artist Michael Massenburg heard about the arts event Inglewood Open Studios he remembers looking at the flier and thinking: “Who are these artists?” It was 2006. Massenburg had been living in Inglewood for more than a decade and had even helped start a local arts nonprofit there, but he knew only a handful of other artists who called the city home.

It wasn’t just him. Many artists lived illegally in warehouses or other commercial spaces and intentionally kept low profiles.

“When I moved here 20 years ago, I was told there are artists in Inglewood. Great, where?” says photographer and textile artist Anne Cheek La Rose. “Everybody kept going, ‘Over there.’ Nobody could tell me where.”

Inglewood Open Studios, an event in which artists open their studio doors to the public for one weekend a year, changed that.

“If there wasn’t an Open Studio, we probably wouldn’t be standing here,” says Massenburg.

He’s standing in Beacon Arts Building, an old concrete warehouse, just north of downtown Inglewood. It changed things too.

Open Studios postcard from 2006.
Courtesy of Renée Fox

Painters Renée Fox and Kenneth Ober were living in a “shoebox”-sized studio apartment in Hollywood, when they decided they needed a bigger space. They wound up in Inglewood when a friend from their undergrad days at Otis College of Art and Design asked the then couple if they wanted to take over her lease.

“It was super inexpensive,” Fox recalls. “The size of the building was perfect for us.”

Fox and Ober moved to Inglewood in 2006 and founded Open Studios later that year. Their goal was to make artists more visible to one another, giving them a stronger network for collaboration and community action.

The event attracted positive press, which Massenburg says was rare in a city that more frequently garnered headlines for corruption and crime.

“When there was something good happening in Inglewood, it’s because there was an article written about the artists,” he says.

The press caught the attention of an unlikely arts patron named Scott Lane, a real estate developer from Beverly Hills who brokers and manages properties, mostly shopping centers.

Eight years ago, one of Lane’s clients, a man named Tony Kouba, enlisted him to redevelop a property he’d been operating as a storage facility that wasn’t making much money. But Lane’s options were limited: The property isn’t zoned for residential uses and the building’s concrete walls would make renovations challenging.

After reading about Open Studios, he got the idea to transform the warehouse into workspaces for artists. That was before the city passed a live/work ordinance in 2014, thanks to organizing efforts from artists, including Fox, who now inhabits her own live/work space not too far from Beacon.

In 2010, artists’ studios were a developer’s dream: The artists don’t sleep there, the bathrooms and kitchens are shared, and the open spaces require minimal effort to maintain.

“I think they were looking at ways to kind of up the ante in regards to their property,” says Massenburg. “Because it was always there, but it wasn’t really doing a whole lot. Artists come in and do some stuff—and boy did we do some stuff.”

Artists working out of Beacon have since shown at Ace Gallery, LA Art Fair, the California Museum of African American Art, and the Torrance Museum of Art. Some of the artists residing at 1019 West, another property owned by Kouba and named for its address on West Manchester Boulevard (it was converted from a former Volkswagen dealership in 2010), have gone on to sell work to museums, collectors, and auction houses.

Beacon Arts Building, a former warehouse.

For better or worse, the two buildings have helped transform Inglewood from a grassroots creative community into a competitive art world destination.

But before any of that could happen, Lane had to gain the artists’ trust.

Some artists initially had reservations, Massenburg says, based on “things that have happened in history in other places, where developers will come in and put in their vision and stuff—but it may not be inclusive of the artists, or maybe artists might be displaced.”

They were put at ease once they learned that Kouba and Lane had hired Fox to run a gallery inside Beacon Arts Building.

“Scott invited us to come in and use the space for free and, you know, just wanted to help us build a community,” says Fox. “At that point I felt pretty convinced it was worth working with them, and they always compensated me for my time generously and bought a lot of work from the artists, and the building became full of artists.”

But old, tired stereotypes about Inglewood, the city that Dr. Dre described in a 1991 rap song as the “hood” remained.

“When we did our first event, a gallery and grand opening, I was a little nervous about Inglewood,” Lane says. “I grew up in Beverly Hills, so I would always hear Inglewood, and it would be scary.”

Lane hired the Inglewood Police Department to patrol the gallery during its first opening, just in case. “It was ridiculous. We didn’t need it,” he said, laughing. “We never had any problems.”

Fox ingeniously appointed well-known art critics to curate the gallery’s first exhibition, which inevitably generated even more press. (She says Kouba agreed to independently finance the gallery for the first two years, but it was unprofitable on its own and has since shuttered).

But Beacon Arts Building, as a landlord experiment in community-building, was successful even without the gallery.

Today, Beacon Arts Building and 1019 West collectively house roughly 60 artists’ studios, including those of conceptual artist Richelle Gribble and Otis’s program director of painting, Scott Grieger.

Depending on the size, studios at both Beacon and 1019 West range from roughly $700 to upwards of $1,000. They include utilities, WiFi, and gated parking.

Lane says other real estate developers have tried to emulate what he and Kouba did with Beacon Arts Building and 1019 West, but there’s no formula for cultivating a community as unique as the one in Inglewood.

“Just because you have a building in Inglewood” doesn’t mean you can instantly build an arts community, Lane says.

In the beginning, the studios attracted mostly college students from nearby universities who used the spaces to throw all-night parties.

“I didn’t want to be a landlord. I just wanted to help nurture the [art],” he says. “You can sense the growth and you can sense the evolution. That’s why nobody really leaves.”

Lane booted the partiers and created an application process to weed out artists he suspected weren’t serious about making art. He strategically recruited emerging artists like Joey Wolf and Kour Pour, who at the time were still enrolled at Otis College and embodied the starving artist trope, taking iHop vouchers from Kouba, who is a franchisee.

Those days are long gone.

Pour and Wolf are now represented by the influential art collector and advisor Stefan Simchowitz, who, according to Lane, also rents a space at 1019 West. Pour’s paintings, which resemble patterned carpets, sell at the auction house Sotheby’s for six figures.

“We ended up with some really talented people, good artists, at both complexes, and it pretty much put Inglewood on the map,” Lane says.

Now, real estate prices in Inglewood are skyrocketing. Though Lane has proven something of an outlier, striving to keep rents low while soliciting input from his tenants, the rush of new developers likely won’t do the same.

“It’s ironic. Now I get calls all the time [from people saying], ‘Is there anything from Inglewood that we can buy?’” says Lane.

Unlike shopping centers, “where you buy the land, get the permit, finance it and you’re out,” says Lane, artists’ studios can take years to develop. Even then, he adds, “it’s not like we’re making a lot of money here.”

It’s not just the artists who are attracting an influx of interest and investments. There’s also the extension of the Metro Crenshaw Line, the NFL football stadium, and possibly a new basketball arena, a development that some residents are fighting against.

The Crenshaw Line, under construction in Inglewood, in August.

Anticipating an influx in foot traffic, Lane he says he’s working with the city to find out what else he can build on the property at 1019 West, which he says is underused. He’d like to build on the rooftop and develop a space for businesses—a coffee shop and a dry cleaners, maybe—on the corner, near Hindley Avenue.

“We’re perfectly situated to do some service business for people walking up the street to go to the Metro and at the same time maintain the integrity of the artists and the artists’ community,” Lane says. “It would be a shame not to take advantage of the location.”

As Inglewood becomes irresistible to developers, house hunters, and major sports franchises, some artists wonder whether they’ll get priced out.

“That’s historically what happens with a lot of communities, where there’s a point where artists find spots and cluster together and eventually they start flourishing culturally,” says Massenburg. “Then ‘the big g’ happens, unfortunately, in some areas: Gentrification.”

Not every artist resents development in the area.

For Rick Garzon, a native of Inglewood who recently opened the contemporary exhibition space Residency Art Gallery downtown, real estate development hasn’t been fast enough.

“I still feel like Inglewood is a little stagnant,” he says. “A lot of people are waiting on the big box businesses that are coming in.” He’d like to see a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s open in the city, for starters.

Rasta Asaru El, who runs the recently opened Creative House Gallery, agrees.

“It’s needed growth because a lot of these buildings have been vacant for so long. There’s been nothing here,” he says. “Even if you go to the other side of Manchester, it doesn’t have what you call a flavor, or a vibe to it.”

And while Open Studios might be well known in the art scene, with some of its artists having achieved international recognition, it’s still relatively under-the-radar to some Inglewood residents, says Garzon.

“Inglewood Open Studios has been its own like microcosm almost. It’s been its own small thing, and I think a lot of people in Inglewood really don’t hear about it,” he says. “We all need to come together and do more work as a whole, getting the scene out.

Just don’t blame the artists for the inevitable gentrification that follows, says Massenburg. While the artists may have helped revitalize the city, they have little control over what developers choose to do next.

And despite their best intentions, some artists are already priced out.

After nearly three decades in Inglewood, where she recently served on the city’s arts commission, La Rose retired last month and moved to New Orleans, where her sister lives. Her husband died 12 years ago, and she calls it “miraculous” that she’s been able to survive ever since on just one income.

“I found myself house rich and cash poor, and when I stop working, the bills are going to continue to rise and my income is going to go down,” La Rose says. “It was simple economics to me. I couldn’t do it. I decided not to fight anymore.”

Massenburg considers himself lucky because he purchased a home in Inglewood when he moved here from South Los Angeles after the LA Riots in 1992.

He’d collected an inheritance after his mother died and thought about purchasing a home in faraway cities like Pasadena or Palmdale. But Inglewood, located just a few miles from where he grew up, was affordable. To him, the location was ideal.

“It’s the best location for everything when you think about it: Close to the airport, close to three freeways,” he says. “And of course the weather—you get that beach breeze.”

But for decades, Massenburg says, Inglewood was plagued by an outdated reputation for crime—a holdover from the Watts Riots of 1965, which resulted in “white flight,” or an exodus of white families from the area to nearby suburbs.

“Because it was pretty much, you know, a community of color, it has always been downgraded. People say, ‘Oh, you go there? Is it safe?’” he says. “That stereotype was so strong that today people say, like, ‘You going to move to Inglewood?’” He mimics an expression of disbelief.

Massenburg predicts that stereotype won’t stick for much longer.

If he were to move to Inglewood as an artist today, he says, he wouldn’t be able to afford the lifestyle he enjoys now. That includes renting a studio at Beacon Arts Building, where he stores hulking round canvases and painted wooden furniture he has repurposed into sculptures.

“We’re losing different generations of people who were here and can’t stay here,” Massenburg says. “What happens years down the line… it won’t be as interesting.”

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