Nine cities. Sixteen months, 47 filmmaking workshops provided, 113 distinct films screened, 61 oral history dates, with numerous stories told, heard, and created, both on- and off-camera. There were countless communities inspired, and connections made.
In June 2013, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's educational initiative education department sprung the LACMA9 Art + Film Lab on Redlands, San Bernardino, Altadena. Monterey Park, Hacienda Heights, Montebello, Compton, Inglewood and Torrance. Over the course of 16 months, and using a big red steel and plywood structure, designed by sculptor Jorge Pardo, as a traveling mobile installation/event/community space, the Lab camped out in parking lots, community spaces, and parks in some of these nine cities for five weeks at a time. Each weekend, its crew screened movies, hosted musical bands, taught workshops on film and video, and gathered oral histories from community members. Supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation, the events and classes were free. It was a boon for the participants, many of whom had never heard of LACMA before.
While LACMA9 may have been the institution's first traveling educational endeavor, Sarah Jesse, associate vice president of education and public programs at LACMA, explained that the Lab was just a different iteration LACMA's outreach philosophy. "[We want to] build relationships with people on their own turf, in their own neighborhoods, before expecting them to come visit us." She added, "The nine cities were purposely picked so LACMA could have a chance to form relationships with organizations and individuals that we've never met before."
And for many of the participants -- from community members to LACMA staffers to artists involved in the event -- the project was immeasurably moving. Hanul Bahm, LACMA's community engagement manager, produced the Lab and was part of every set-up in every city. (Read her missives from the road here). Bahm said, "The experience gave me a groundedness in California because it is home for so many different kinds of people, and I got to encounter so much of this area." A transplant to Los Angeles from New York by way of San Francisco, she added, "It was a big gift to encounter and serve so many Angelenos and hear their personal stories, share culture, and turn people on to filmmaking."
Participants came from all over for different reasons: some wanted to learn to be filmmakers and took part in the workshops. Some wanted to tell their stories in the oral history booths. Others wanted to dance and party during the opening nights, and others wanted to watch the free movies screened. "It made me think of our journeys as Angelenos and all the different places we come from, and fates that led us all to this place," Bahm said.
The Lab connected families, developed cross-cultural interactions, and -- most importantly -- empowered the people. "We've had people who've never used a camera in their lives keep coming back to our workshops and now they want to make feature-length documentaries," Bahm said. "[LACMA9] gave [participants] access to all these world-class filmmakers who are giving you everything they can to make sure you can own this process [of filmmaking]. It's like, you have a camera in your hand, here's how to edit."
The sense of radical friendliness and accessibility that the LACMA9 staff tried to embody was especially effective given that Southern California houses a monolithic film industry that's so closed off to regular people, Bahm said. "I said that if even one person comes out of this project and self-identifies as a filmmaker, then we've succeeded. And hundreds of people now do that, and continue to collaborate with each other because they met each other at the Lab. We wanted to take away the exclusivity of relating to this medium, and I think we did that."
Other partnerships are continuing on beyond the LACMA9 lifespan as well. LACMA is developing an in-depth partnership with school districts in two cities, Compton and Torrance, wherein LACMA will provide teaching artists to select elementary and middle schools over the course of four years. LACMA will provide the schools artists who will expose students to works from the LACMA collection and inspire them to create hands-on art projects, and LACMA will provide NextGen passes to all the students. "We're providing an art curriculum where there may be a gap [in those communities]," Jesse said.
LACMA also commissioned artist Nicole Miller to create videos for every city. She filmed two residents who took part in the oral history booths to create an 18-piece video installation. The videos of every city were screened at LACMA during the days when the museum provided free admission to residents of those cities; highlights from the whole piece will be screened on Sunday, October 19 and Sunday, December 21 at 12:30 p.m. in LACMA's Bing Theater.
Miller approached individuals interested in storytelling and cinema, the ones whose personal stories were somehow intertwined in these ideas. Her subjects include a man playing the harp speaking about abuse, a woman doing laughing exercises, a painter who nearly died in jail. "In every instance there was a transmission to be made," she said. "They all met me knowing exactly which of their stories needed to be told and why they should tell these stories on screen."
Artist Miller says watching her subjects watch themselves on the big screen in the LACMA theater was extraordinary -- a circle of each subject's experience, which was made into story, and then into image. At the first screening, Miller featured Ndinda Spada practicing exercises from a laughing yoga class. "Her beautiful smile and the ringing of her joyous voice projected to the audience from the giant screen. There happened to be a full audience of children, when Ndinda come on the screen laughing, they all responded with a chorus of ecstatic laughter, a wonderful back and forth between screen and viewers. This is the ideal of how my work is supposed to function, changing reality just so," Miller said.
Bahm says providing artistic venues to underserved communities is something more institutions should do. "To know that you're in a place that's hungry for creative outlets, and that LACMA was able to meet that hunger and transform it into something really life-giving, was a remarkable act, but it was possible because of the people who participated, not just the Lab," she said. "I hope to see more institutions and communities enact change, and solve problems together creatively."
On Oct. 19, Torrance and South Bay-area residents are invited to a free day at LACMA. Miller's Believing Is Seeing will screen for Torrance residents at 12:30 p.m. on Oct.19, and will screen in its entirety at LACMA on Dec. 21.
Check out all the cities visited by LACMA9 Art + Film Lab: