I work at a non-profit in Watts, on the front lines of an area overcoming poverty and the stigma of the 1965 riots. Our mission: “Watts House Projects an artist-driven neighborhood redevelopment organization, wherein artists and design professionals, in collaboration with the Watts Towers area residents, employ art as an economic and community development engine to promote and enhance the quality of residential life in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. WHP brings residents together in a creative partnership with artists, architects, design professionals, and volunteers to revitalize the neighborhood and re-imagine the environment through inventive programming, community involvement, and functional and creative housing renovations.”
When I started working at Watts House Project, the concept that art and design could be a tool for improving and building community inspired me. This was a radical shift in my thinking about the efficacy of art. I forget for a moment the theory and polemics that often envelopes this type of work – relational aesthetics, site specificity. I studied art in university and I came to understand it through a western prism: as a manifestation of the human experience and imagination; an expression of our time; a historical document; and, yes, a commodity. Traditionally, an individual is required to visit a museum to see works of art – precious objects hung on walls or free standing sculptures, which now include video and sound works. Instead, I thought, ‘How amazing that art can be used in this pragmatic and functional way while still retaining an aesthetic component – an art that lives and breathes at the service of families and community, and exists outside of the rarefied world of the museum and gallery.‘
A realization slowly dawned on me over the course of two years. I worked with so many people while in the process of realizing a project: artists, community members, volunteers, neighborhood organizations, local stakeholders, students, professors, architects, designers, staff and even children, it became clear to me that collaboration, the crucible that makes the work we are doing in the community possible, was also the artwork. For me, the ‘ends’ of a project were being eclipsed by something as precious – the ‘means.’
I believe that the work we (I’m including residents and all of our collaborators) are doing in the neighborhood is as much about the personal relationships we make and how those relationships evolve and change, as it is about the construction improvements. How do we tell this story without exploiting anyone (which can happen through the media and politics) and how do we tell it from a position of fairness and equality?
If you’re thinking about starting a non-profit that works within or with a community, consider the personal relationships as part of the work. The artwork really begins there. Build trust, truly listen, have patience, communication, transparency, under promise, over deliver – these are key attributes for an arts organization working in a neighborhood. Perhaps it’s my years of thinking and working with art and artists in an institutionalized setting, but if you decide to work in this loosely defined field of social practice, I have this bit of advice: please be sure to HANDLE WITH CARE. (Featured in ArtJob.org)
Trinidad Ruiz serves as Programs Director at Watts House Project (WHP). He has worked in art institutions for nearly 13 years in education, programming, membership and curatorial. He is also a practicing artist.