First published: Spring 2018
Conservation organisation SPACES now documents environments around the world and is linking up with the Kohler Foundation
An ad-hoc group of artists and community activists in Los Angeles banded together in 1959 to prevent the City-mandated destruction of Sabato Rodia’s Watts Towers, which sparkle to almost 100 feet high in south central Los Angeles. At first, this group of enthusiasts (the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts, CSRTW) believed that this public artwork was unique in both aesthetic and genre. As the initial success of that first campaign gave way to a more sustained involvement with the Watts community, bringing art classes to local children and looking for ways to link the inspiration of the Towers to improving lives in deprived areas, a photographer and early member of the CSRTW named Seymour Rosen started to find evidence of other idiosyncratic structures – monumental in scale or the number of components – around southern California then further north. “This must be a California phenomenon”, he reasoned, assuming that the postwar impulse to move West would include its share of radical thinkers, makers and builders.
Decorated House, Sergey Ivanovich Kirillov, 2017, Kunara, Russia, photo: Sergey Bezgodov
At the time, Rosen was piecing together a living by documenting contemporary art installations at the Ferus Gallery, photographing the Los Angeles Museum of Art’s entire permanent collection, teaching classes and leading workshops at the Barnsdall Art Center, and documenting a variety of other art-related activities around Los Angeles. He began to focus his free time on what he called “folk art environments”, to differentiate them from public environments and installations by mainstream artists. While we no longer use that descriptor – as in many ways these unique spaces are the very antithesis of the community-driven shared aesthetics and techniques of folk art – we understand that by calling attention to their distinctiveness, while trying to slot them into existing art world categories, Rosen was beginning to formulate the identification of a completely different genre.
So, SPACES grew and grew, both physically and conceptually. It was formally incorporated as a non-profit organisation in 1978, and, though its collections leaned toward Californian/Western art environments, Rosen had realised it wasn’t a California phenomenon. It was global. And while Rosen was not the first person you would imagine would found an archive, due to his lack of an organisational gene, he persevered. He followed leads to new sites and funding sources, and imagined ways to interest the wider public in the sites. He was now obsessed with them, and SPACES explored other spaces.
Seymour and I began working together in the early 1980s. We co-curated an exhibition on California art environments, “Divine Disorder”, in 1985 at the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara where I was Director and Chief Curator. In the mid 1990s when I was freelancing as a museum curator and management consultant, I took on development responsibilities for SPACES. By 1999, I was broadening SPACES’s international outlook through work in Spain and France. Seymour began to sicken in the early 2000s. So, we talked outlined the organistion’s priorities for the future. I was to succeed him as Director after his death, which took place in September 2006.