The art world has long experienced tension between expression and elitism: the medium itself is ostensibly universal yet pointedly exclusive. Posters and Portraits, a photography exhibition on view now through December 2 at Los Angeles City Hall’s Bridge Gallery, is undermining that notion. The show is a collaboration between poster company The Posters, which offers affordable, high-quality prints from emerging and established artists; photographer Collette McGruder; and Skid Row-based arts education nonprofit Inner-City Arts, a program that has provided visual, media, and performance art programming to children of largely underserved communities since 1989.
Sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, Posters and Portraits showcases McGruder’s intimate images of Inner-City Arts participants, ages 7 to 24, alongside a few works donated by The Posters (which regularly gives ten percent of its proceeds to Inner-City Arts). Attendees of the opening night celebration on November 6 were also privy to a panel discussion led by experts in Los Angeles city planning on bolstering the arts and small businesses.
Making art more accessible to everyone is exactly what The Posters aims to do, and cofounders Athena Currey and Adrian Rosenfeld are thrilled with the diverse and welcoming exhibition. Currey, a former model and art-world veteran with experience in several New York galleries and studios, first saw the transformative power of art by volunteering with cancer patients at Roosevelt Hospital.“It’s not a fun place,” she says. “My job was to change the environment. It helped nurses, it helped doctors…some people, when they first met me, were scared, nervous, and didn’t really know what to think. Once people saw what was going on and opened up doors, people would give me high fives. ‘What are we going to paint today?’ they’d ask.”
While L.A. arts boosters are likely glad that someone of Currey’s pedigree made the move out west, they do owe a certain amount of gratitude to her stint in New York—it’s there that she befriended McGruder, unwittingly forming the basis for Posters and Portraits.
“It was sort of random,” McGruder says “[The mayor’s office] approached me based on some of the nature photography I’ve been doing. They wanted to do a reach-out to the art community. In the Mayor’s Office, every department gets an opportunity to do a show. With the nature work I’d been doing there was a disconnect, so I thought there could be an opportunity to do some good.” McGruder discovered art as a child, using it to express her quiet voice and to communicate with her equally shy sister. “When things were crazy when I was younger, I would turn to art,” she says. “The thing that continues to concern me is when art isn’t there. What would my life have been if I didn’t have art as an option, as a place to express myself?”
It was easy for McGruder to connect with her exhibition subjects as she photographed them during program hours on the downtown Inner-City Arts campus. The resulting ten portraits are earnest and frank, each with a quotation from the pictured student. One image of a child named Sully (pictured above) reads, “I like music because I’m really loud with my voice and I can express myself better.”
To harness art’s diverse educational benefits, Inner-City Arts and the Los Angeles Unified School District participate in Project ALL, a program of arts-integrated classroom learning. For the past four years, continual studies of Project ALL have shown a conclusive link between arts-integrated learning and improvements in a diverse range of academic areas: a 34 percent increase in mathematics scores for students who have participated in the program for over a full year, and 18 and 8.3 percent increases in reading and language scores respectively. “These art classes are helping,” Currey says. “It gets them to school. Keeping kids in school is a huge goal.” Her long-term hope is to collaborate with an arts-education organization in every state.
It’s hard for Currey and McGruder to pick a favorite piece, but not impossible. Both find themselves entranced by the open, honest rendering of Sully, and McGruder is particularly inspired by the words of a student named Christopher. As he says, “Making art makes me feel like a genius.” All the more reason, then, to keep it close.
Posters and Portraits will run through December 2 at City Hall’s Bridge Gallery. All proceeds of sale will go to Inner-City Arts.