“Finding ways to be together”
I remember a conversation with a commercial gallerist who came to the former site of Visitor Welcome Center (VWC) for the first time some years back. After she questioned me on whose ass I must kiss to get reviews, she looked around and said, “This space is beautiful! What do you pay, $2500?” Before I could answer, she interrupted, “That’s what I pay too!” So I went with it; it was one of the many times I thought pretending you have money when you don’t would get you as far as pretending you don’t when you do. The truth was, the rent was extremely cheap compared to most places in the city. In 2015 it was only $700, less than a dollar per square foot; in 2020, when the fire came in, it was just over $800.
Cheap rent and low overhead come with ups and downs. The benefits were that we could host openings that carried into the abysmal hours, burn indoor fires atop golden cacti, and fill the space with soil on three separate occasions. If we wanted to take down a wall, we did it, never mind if it was structural or not.
The downsides of cheap rent were, well, if you ever stepped into one of the bathrooms, you know. Without additional income, the fact that the space stayed open for as long as it did was a miracle, as well as a collective effort. I often borrowed money for the drinks at openings, a friend at LACMA printed press releases for free, and we discounted nearly every sale to secure it and pay the artists in full. In 2018, I took over the building manager position to cut the rent in half, but I was no match for the decades-old plumbing and, after a few months, I handed back the keys to the former manager. “Nice try, man,” he said while patting me on the back, right before opening up the janitor closet to the surprise that I had turned it into an additional exhibition space. “Looks nice as shit in here, man!” he said. “But where are my tools?”
The building held its charm, but the low rent also meant the second-floor space remained inaccessible to many, deeming our mission statement of finding ways to be together imperfect. Throughout the years, many friends and loved ones could never make the journey into the gallery we thought to be for the community. At our first opening, a drunk man fell from the top of the steps and split his head open while tumbling down to street level. As a space that operated with practically zero budget with zero insurance, it’s no wonder we began and ended with emergency vehicles outside.
Since moving to Santa Cruz last year, the burden to continue to program through Visitor Welcome Center has remained at the forefront of my mind. At last, a social worker, a psychiatrist, and a therapist convinced me that vomiting every morning was not the way to rid one’s body of stress. A new project with a new model was taking hold, and to fully embrace it I needed to put the past behind me, or quite literally, on a shelf.
Last year, I asked the folks at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA) if they would be interested in taking what was left of VWC, and they agreed. Still, it took me nearly a year to open up the box and sift through everything from my private journaling to all the wet signatures scribbled into our guest books. LACA has been collecting and archiving a multitude of histories from the Los Angeles contemporary art world since 2013, and it seemed like a fitting place for the remains of VWC to live, among friends. I am grateful for their preservation of stories from artists and spaces that tried their best to stay open and thrive by any means necessary.
An old friend recently wrote to me, “ We make decisions based on our priorities and desires. It is living with the consequences of our decisions that sometimes makes us question things in retrospect.”
Consequences are not always a bad thing; at least, they are the result of making a choice.
Closure, however, is one of the most difficult processes we must learn to navigate because it doesn’t always arrive on our terms. If there is anything I have learned over the years about what art is good for, is its unwavering and boundless capacity to hold onto our grief, giving us the opportunities we need to let go.
If you are an artist we worked with or a friend of the space and you would like to contribute a letter, object, incriminating evidence, or anything about the memory of Visitor Welcome Center, I encourage you in the next week to reach out to me or send it directly to LACA, 709 North Hill St, Suite 104/8, Los Angeles, California 90012.
In the coming weeks, I'll share a new Greenhouse project that I have been working on, an intergenerational educational space that explores the relationship between art, food, and climate justice. Please stay subscribed and follow along on the new journey, and no hard feelings if it’s time to move on.
Dav Bell, 2020
This year began with us closing our doors to our brick and mortar space to search for something more. COVID put an end to that, so we now find ourselves where we first began, nearly a decade ago, in a suburban backyard mounting an exhibition. In January 2011, I was sitting on the floor of my one-room backhouse with my friends Tiffany Smith and Noah Spindler, while projecting one of Smith’s videos on the wall above my bed. “Welcome to Dave Gallery!” she quipped. You want a solo show? I asked. “Sure, Dave!” The next week we shoved all of my belongings into my closet, set up a projector aimed at the garage and a monitor in the tool shed, and voilà! The next morning, I collected all the cigarette butts from the grass so my landlord, who lived in the front house and who was out of town, wouldn’t find out.
The following year a friend took me to see an available studio in a former textile factory at 435 Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. The first wave of gentrification had not even begun, though, perhaps we were the swell, or better yet, the rip tide. The entire place was covered in soot and mouse hair with stairwell steps missing and handrails nonexistent. The available studio: 500 square feet, four hundred bucks, no windows or ventilation, and completely full of garbage. It was perfect. For nearly four years, together with many of the same artists Visitor Welcome Center works with today, we organized art programs, exhibitions, and happenings. We slept in teepees, made art, ran critique groups and spaces that bled into one another, and threw dinner parties without a sink. We shared in the building’s joy and decrepitude, and watched as the “pigeon hotel” across the street became a ridiculously expensive apartment building filled with ridiculous people. We laughed and toasted, knowing our time was almost up. Because to the people staring back across the way, we were the only pigeon hotel left on the block.
Then, in 2015, we were flushed out, Broadway was bought out, and within a month, all of us in the building were kicked out. It would be a year until I opened Visitor Welcome Center above the famed OB Bear Restaurant and down the hall from a gallery I was working with at the time. One of the oldest Alcohólicos Anónimos in Los Angeles was downsizing and moving across the hall, and the landlords needed a new tenant. The timing was perfect. Our mission statement from the jump was and continues to be finding ways to be together, and while this continues to be challenging to practice, for nearly a dollar a square foot, large windows and exquisite natural light, and the smell of fried chicken seeping in everyday at 4 pm masking the smell of the unwashed bathroom in the hall… soon proved extremely difficult to leave.
Luckily, a little over a week ago, the firefighters made that decision for us! Now nearing my unofficial ten year anniversary of operating a space for artists, it feels most appropriate to bid farewell—for real this time—to our home of the last five years. Thank you to all those who came out, supported, and continue to do so, middle finger to the haters, and for those of you who never got the chance to make it down here, here I channel Tiffany Smith’s exhibition title from a decade ago: You had Your Chance, You blew it.
As a space that has dedicated itself to artists whose truths are often eclipsed by the mainstream, whose foils include other constructs other than whiteness, and whose stories are actively being written and difficult to tell, we know that standing in solidarity looks differently for many. We know that often times, embodying solidarity means showing up imperfectly. Solidarity requires a practice of attunement—learning to listen, while listening, and learning how to be supportive and accountable, while being supportive and accountable. VWC is committed to making room for the practice of learning and growing. Growth is never linear and requires reorientation towards humility. As artists, we are in a time of reckoning, and as a space, we continue to rise to the occasion. While we feel that the gallery model has been exhausted and we closed our physical location in February 2020, we still want to continue the urgency of sharing nuanced and challenging stories about connection and equity. Art and healing are so crucially necessary in micro and macro scales: in relationships, in communities, in systemic reform, and in transformative justice. Learning to be in relation to one another, a community, a movement, an incremental or massive shift can be excruciatingly painful for many. There have been so many movements, people, legacies, and sacrifices that have led us to this moment in the U.S. There are people who have been working for a long, long time — across time and space — to envision a new possibility, coupled with those who have just arrived to work, and because of all of this collective effort, there is something to look forward to.