History as Practice


Natalie Hon

Developed in the late 1920s by Walter Leimert and designed by the Olmsted Brothers, Leimert Park is a  neighborhood of meticulously planned streets and tree-lined roads. It has also long been known as the epicenter of African American art and culture in Southern California—the location of celebrated artistic, literary, and musical sites like the Brockman Gallery, Eso Won Books, Lucy Florence, and the World Stage.

Earlier this year Art + Practice (A+P), a new art gallery and cultural institution, opened its doors in the neighborhood. Located in a renovated Art Deco building at 4339 South Leimert Boulevard, just north of 43rd Place and a block east of Crenshaw Boulevard, A+P is a place where the past and future of Leimert Park come together.

Founded in 2014 by the celebrated contemporary artist Mark Bradford, the social activist Allan DiCastro, and the philanthropist and collector Eileen Harris Norton, A+P’s nearly 20,000-square-foot campus hosts exhibitions and public programs in partnership with the Hammer Museum. The main gallery’s gray concrete floor, brisk white walls, and skylight make the space ideal for displaying first-rate exhibitions, funded in partnership with James Irvine Foundation.

A+P’s two primary goals are to strengthen the local community through contemporary art and to empower foster children from the neighborhood. This is why the site includes a technology lab and classroom in addition to an exhibition space for visual arts, space for artists’ studios, and a curated film and lecture space. They also offer job training and deliver mental health services to foster youth through their partnership with The RightWay Foundation. In line with their objectives all programs are free and available to the public.

A+P is part of a larger new series of developments emerging in Leimert Park over the next few years: a new Metro line is under construction along Crenshaw Boulevard, with a new station in Leimert Park. Furthermore, over the last year, half of West 43rd Place has been closed to automobiles thanks to a partnership with People Street and there are other improvements in the works to make Leimert more pedestrian friendly.

When asked about all the new developments in the neighborhood, A+P’s partnership liaison Sophia Belsheim said, “A+P simply provides another layer of culture in an already culturally rich community of Leimert Park.”

This fall, A+P will complete the construction of Eso Won’s new facility and future lecture space. The move to the A+P campus is an effort to preserve the bookstore, which faced increasing rents at its old location. “As an independent bookstore specializing in African American literary works, the store will operate as a for-profit business on the first floor, while A+P will operate the second floor to program its lecture series,” Belsheim explained. In addition, she added, A+P plans to open a cafe.

“After 30 years of being open and a few moves over the years, it will be nice to have a truly proper space and permanent home,” said James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won. As the primary African American bookseller in Los Angeles, Eso Won has a very important role in the community and they have had readings with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and countless other luminaries over the years.

In addition to their collaboration with Eso Won, the A+P site is historic for another reason. The space was the site of Babe’s & Ricky’s Inn blues club, a venue mythical in Los Angeles lore because it was the last musical venue to remain standing on the legendary Central Avenue corridor of jazz and blues venues that stretched from Pico to Slauson from the 1920s until the late 1960s. The club moved to Leimert in 1996 for their final dozen years before the longtime owner passed away 2009 and they closed their doors after six decades.

It is appropriate that A+P is here because they share this commitment to honoring local history. Their most recent exhibit includes a selection of archival material from the Brockman Gallery, originally located around the block from A+P and a pivotal part of the Black Arts Movement in Los Angeles. Founded by Dale Brockman Davis in the mid-1960s, the Brockman hosted an annual film festival, staged concerts, and curated exhibitions with African American visual artists at a time when they had few opportunities or any visibility. Until it closed in 1989, the space launched the careers of seminal artists like Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, and David Hammons.

This exhibit and the new space show how archiving materials from the community’s past benefits future generations. The combination of vision and world-class facilities makes A+P an instant landmark in a changing Leimert Park.

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