Watts Happening?


The Watts Towers, created by Simon Rodia and rising to more than 100 feet, are in desperate need of upkeep at a time when Los Angeles can barely afford it.
vin dog/Flickr

Art comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, including the Watts Towers, a quirky collection of steel and mortar structures covered with mosaics of broken glass, sea shells, pottery, and tile rising upwards of 100 feet in the south LA neighborhood of the same name. But like some of the best art, it can also be neglected, as the city’s cash-strapped Department of Cultural Affairs can no longer afford to properly conserve the unusual work of local iconoclast Simon Rodia.

The unusual structures are made from a wide array of materials.

While a deal is still in the works, officials at the LA County Museum of Art have offered to lend their expertise and fundraising power to help reverse years of neglect, including peeling paint, degrading concrete, and crumbling glass. “The idea is we’ve offered to be helpful and offered to coordinate others who will be helpful,” said LACMA director Michael Govan.

The Department of Cultural Affairs did not return requests for comment (possibly a result of the cutbacks currently sweeping through city agencies) but the LA Times has estimated the cost of deferred work on the towers at $5 million. Meanwhile the city can barely gather $200,000 for the landmark next year. Much of the department’s conservation staff has been laid off.

LACMA will most likely be working with the Getty Conservation Institute, which has offered to collaborate on the project, and is also talking with officials at the California African American Museum, which has offered staff and fundraising resources, said LACMA spokesperson Christine Choi.

Govan said it’s still too early to detail what specific work will be carried out, and what funds will be raised, but he did say that LACMA wants to look at the structures as pieces of fine art, a perspective that the city has been lacking for years. “They don’t have the same focus on object conservation,” he said. Leading the way in that conservation would be Mark Gilberg, director of LACMA’s Conservation Department, and Frank Preusser, LACMA’s senior conservation scientist. Preusser, who works as a private consultant, has been involved with the towers for years.

Among other things, Choi said the team will gather archives from Cultural Affairs, speak with volunteers who have offered conservation assistance in the past, and re-evaluate a preservation plan developed by city and state in the 1980’s. Until the team completes its evaluation, it could not provide futher details as to the extent of its work.

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