Los Angeles Struggles to Spotlight a Hidden Treasure in Watts
By Adam Nagourney New York Times
They are one of the most extraordinary works of art in the nation.
LOS ANGELES — The Watts Towers rose up against a clear blue sky as James Janisse unlocked the 10-foot-high gate that surrounds the soaring outdoor sculpture. “Behold the work of the man,” said Mr. Janisse, a tour guide, and his audience took it in: the Gaudiesque mashup of towers, cathedrals, fountains and ships, constructed from pipes, broken bottles, seashells and cracked ceramic, climbing 100 feet into the air.
The towers are an iconic work of folk art with a back story — built by an eccentric Italian immigrant working alone in his yard over 33 years — that is nearly as captivating as the installation itself.
But they are endangered, threatened by budget cuts that are crushing governments across the nation. And they are struggling to draw crowds to this neighborhood that is far off the tourist track and is still identified, despite the passage of so much time, with some of the worst urban riots in American history.
Amid increased concern about the towers’ fate, the City of Los Angeles, which operates the installation, last month contracted the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to restore and maintain it; the three city workers in charge of taking care of the site were lost to budget cuts. The museum is turning to its donor network to raise money for the project — preliminary estimates put the initial restoration at $5 million — and not incidentally, to promote the installation to arts patrons in Los Angeles itself.
“The towers need care,” said Michael Govan, the museum’s director. “They are one of the most extraordinary works of art in the nation. I send everybody to see it; it is so compelling.”
But for the museum, promoting the towers might be as daunting as keeping them in shape. Mr. Janisse’s tour group the other day consisted of five paying tourists, two of them from Italy. Officials said a majority of the 45,000 people who visit each year are from overseas. The Watts Towers may hold the twin distinctions of being perhaps the finest example of indigenous Los Angeles art and the least known, or least visited, by people who live in the region.
“They have not been marketed well in this city,” said Luisa Del Giudice, a scholar who organized a conference on the Watts Towers in 2009 for the University of Genoa and the University of California, Los Angeles. “You get a lot of Europeans coming, and the first thing they want to do is see the Watts Towers. It’s an international icon, but it’s a local blind spot.”
“They are an amazing thing,” Dr. Del Giudice said. “They are pure creativity. I’m an Italian oral historian, and when I started visiting the towers I was blown away.”
They are not easy to visit. The towers are open for tours just four days a week. Most people who come to Watts view the installation from outside the locked gates, an impressive enough view but one that deprives visitors of the dazzling details inside: the cactus garden, church buttresses, detailed flowers decorating the floor and what remains of the house of the man who built it all, Simon Rodia.
“We Angelenos have done a pretty poor job of showing our love for one of our greatest treasures,” Hector Tobar, a columnist for The Los Angeles Times, wrote last year.
While some restoration is clearly necessary, the towers are not in a state of disrepair. But given the intricacy of the work and the fragility of the products — not to mention the fact that they are outdoors, and the propensity of the ground in this part of the world to shake — they have always required a good deal of care and maintenance.
“My biggest concern right now is making sure the towers are stable and safe,” said Olga Garay, the executive director of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.
The attendance problem is due, as much as anything, to where the towers are: 18 miles from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which had 914,396 visitors last year), 25 miles from Disneyland (which drew 15.9 million visitors in 2009) and 13 miles from downtown Los Angeles. They are hard to find without a map, or a G.P.S. device.
More than that, no matter how this South Los Angeles neighborhood has changed over the years, Watts is remembered for the grainy television images of urban violence in 1965, and again in 1992. The South Central riots that year brought a visit to the area by Bill Clinton, then a Democratic candidate for president, who stopped by the home of Representative Maxine Waters.
The towers are here because Mr. Rodia, the artist, settled on a plot of land that was large enough to hold what would be 17 structures in his installation and provided a captive audience. It is adjacent to an abandoned trolley. The other plot he considered would have been more accessible, on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Just as well: the Beverly Hilton, now on that site, is in the heart of one of the most fashionable shopping strips in the country.
City officials said they were hopeful that the art museum, with its devoted clientele, would steer more people to this part of town. Mr. Govan said one idea being considered was to run a regular shuttle bus to Watts from the museum itself, which is along Museum Mile in the Mid-Wilshire section of Los Angeles.
Yet none of this promises to be easy. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, known as Lacma, is in many ways a symbol of Los Angeles society and wealth, and its perceived intervention in an overwhelmingly Hispanic neighborhood long identified with poverty has been uneasy.
People who work at the Watts Towers Art Center, which runs the tours, are deeply skeptical of the museum’s involvement, with some suggesting that Lacma is trying to co-opt Watts Towers to raise money for its other endeavors.
“I am trying to figure out what Lacma is doing here,” said Rosie Lee Hooks, the director of the center, which celebrates the towers and includes local contemporary art. “We’ve been here 50 years. I think they ought to plan about what they need to do, and come down and meet with us before they start showing the baby off.”
Still, Ms. Hooks added: “We have not had to raise money until now as a city facility. The dollars are running out. We realize we have to bring in some supporters.”