Art for everyone's sake
Leaders weigh in on bringing more art to Northwest Pasadena
By Carl Kozlowski 08/25/2011
Ever since her family launched a Lincoln Avenue clothing business in 1945, Miriam Justice has seen plenty of changes occur along that busy Northwest Pasadena corridor. But rather than giving up on the area, as many other arts groups seemed to have done over the decades, she has made a creative and concerted effort to improve it.
Justice opened the Northwest Education Center in 2008, creating an arts and history museum for school kids within the four-building compound she inherited after her mother’s death in 1999. Working hard with her husband to renovate the space, Justice not only maintains a resource library on the premises for educators, but also rents part of the complex to a local church and has plans to open a gift shop, a retail toy shop and a birthday-party facility.
But the centerpiece of the Northwest Education Center is a colorful museum that covers a wide spectrum of subjects, from Pasadena’s history to an overview of the United States that includes exhibits on Native Americans and African Americans throughout history. On the other side of the room, her expansive vision includes a replica of Jesus’ manger, complete with mannequins representing Jesus, Mary and Joseph next to a faux rain forest that blends living plants with stuffed animals ranging from turtles to zebras.
It’s a uniquely American, folk-art-style spectacle that Justice has put a lot heart and effort into, born from a mix of personal conviction and a passion for kids and her community.
“I want to serve the community and, as a Christian, I like to reach out and help people any way I can, and as a teacher and school psychologist, I’ve always been in the business of helping kids,” says Justice. “My husband and I wantto be part of improving all of Lincoln Avenue, upgrading and helping the community.”
To that end, Justice is part of the Lincoln Avenue Specific Plan Committee, designed to plan and oversee improvements to the distressed neighborhood. But while the committee is looking at numerous forms of development and improvements, the effort to establish a better arts scene and bring some much-needed beauty to the area has proven to be a difficult one.
Most of the city’s artistic activity has gravitated toward Old Pasadena and the Playhouse District, thanks to the presence of top institutions ranging from the Norton Simon Museum to the Pasadena Playhouse. The Armory Center for the Arts attempted to run an outlet in the Northwest but ultimately closed it down when adjacent Robinson Park was expanded.
Meanwhile, the Pasadena Arts and Culture Commission recently awarded $119,595 in grants of up to $6,500 apiece to 28 of the city’s cultural organizations and artists. Once again, however, long-established groups like Kidspace Museum and the Pasadena Museum of California Art were the main beneficiaries, while artists and groups on the Northwest side fell far behind.
Pasadena Cultural Affairs Manager Rochelle Branch acknowledges the need to help Northwest-based groups become more competitive in the grants process. However, Branch also notes that groups from other areas of the city often use the grants they receive to bring events into the Northwest.
“Our grants program is rigorous, and that’s because we recognize the importance of needing to ensure city funding is allocated in the best manner for projects of the highest quality for our community,” says Branch. “We want to help improve [Northwest residents’] grant writing skills and make them more competitive, and this grant cycle, we provided five or six tech training workshops. They’re free and we provide written materials and a lot of resource information.”
Branch also recounted several examples of city grant-funded projects that brought arts activities into the Northwest in 2010.
Among them were a mariachi group that performed in Robinson Park, courtesy of the Armory Center for the Arts, and a Dia de los Muertos celebration that featured the Floricanto Dance Theatre.
In addition, the mobile, artist-run nonprofit Side Street Projects provided support for woodworking classes at 15 PUSD elementary schools at a city-owned property near the Northwest’s Heritage Square. And the Pasadena City Council approved a rotating public art exhibition program that places sculptures throughout neighborhoods in the city on a rotating basis every 18 months, bringing fresh visuals to each district.
Even that program is lagging in the Northwest because of a lack of a private development requirement, which would have mandated that 1 percent of a building’s valuation be spent on public art. The exemption occurred because some felt the public art requirement would scare off developers, but Branch notes there is an alternative way to bring art into the Northwest quickly and affordably.
“The city created a new Neighborhood Enhancement Mural Program, which provides opportunities for community art expression in areas of the city that were not being affected by the public art 1 percent private development requirement,” explains Branch. “We have a mural program that will place murals with community input throughout the city. Two have been developed in Northwest Pasadena to date.”
For her part, City Councilwoman Jacque Robinson, whose District 1 includes portions of Northwest Pasadena, noted both the rotating sculpture program and the murals as positive signs.
“We need to develop relationships with private businesses to allow public art in their area and on their land, whether it’s murals on their walls, which are a simple way to get things going, or other forms of art,” says Robinson. “We also have to encourage the application process for the community to apply for grants, but we have to also realize that the city can’t be regarded as a sole-source funder for public art.”
Another aspect that has been key to improving the arts interests of Northwest residents has been the city’s actively involving the residents in contributing their ideas for the plans, including efforts to fulfill the Cultural Nexus blueprint for 2025. Robinson’s opponent in the last District 1 election, Jim Smith, has also long advocated gentrification of the Northwest.
“Arts-wise, I think the Northwest is a prime location for Pasadena’s arts district and is really screaming for attention in terms of qualifying and quantifying its cultures,” says Smith, who ran a 99-seat theater with the Armory that was torn down due to the Robinson Park expansion. “We also should emulate what the Arts Center [College of Design] is doing in creating affordable student housing with studio space. There’s a mixed-use space on South Arroyo [Parkway] near the 110 [Freeway] that would be perfect for this and an effort that could pay off on Lincoln, Woodbury [Road] and Windsor [Avenue], which are all capable of and in need of redevelopment. That could be an anchor for all sorts of development.”
Even so, District 5 Councilman Victor Gordo, whose district also includes parts of Northwest Pasadena, notes that Northwest residents’ artistic cravings shouldn’t just focus on reaching out for more art to come their way, but also stepping out of their neighborhood and coming out to the arts that are amply available throughout the rest of the city.
“The Northwest has access to all of the arts institutions in the city of Pasadena,” says Gordo, who singles out the long-shuttered Washington Theater as a prime space for bringing plays to the area. “To the extent that we can locate arts programming and enhance and improve what’s located in the Northwest, that’s terrific. But arts are throughout the city, and every group is eager to see people come out from all over.”
The Northwest Education Center is located at 2050 North Lincoln Ave., Pasadena