Meet LA’s Art Community: Sue Bell Yank Believes Art and Organizing Produce “Real Social Change”

Sue Bell Yank, the deputy director at 18th Street Arts Center (photo by Monica Nouwens)

Welcome to the 29th installment of Meet LA’s Art Community. Check out our past interviews here.

This week I interview Sue Bell Yank, the deputy director at the 18th Street Arts Center, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit known for its politically minded exhibitions and residency program. Yank has worked in arts, entertainment, and public schools for over a decade, including as the associate director of academic programs at the Hammer Museum. She created an online education platform for the Oprah Winfrey Network, and has worked as a teacher and curriculum specialist in public schools and other educational settings. Last year, Yank launched a podcast about Los Angeles housing called Paved Paradise. When she arrived in this city in 2003, she saw it as “the land of opportunity […] of swimming pools and year-round sunshine.” This, she realized, was one big illusion, and this podcast intelligently and urgently dives into the rampant housing crisis.

Yank teaches Socially Engaged Art and Pedagogy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and has been a Field Researcher for A Blade of Grass and Asian Arts Initiative. She’s currently working on some fascinating projects focused on affordable housing, Black Santa Monicans, and Skid Row, which you can read more about in the interview below. 

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Patty Chang, “Milk Debt” (2020), video still, 60 minutes (image courtesy the artist)

Where were you born? 

I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and grew up just outside the city in a town called Wyndmoor.

How long have you been living in Los Angeles? 

I’ve been living in Los Angeles since 2003, in West LA, Hollywood, and now Glendale.

What’s your first memory of seeing art? 

I have a very early memory of becoming entranced by a Chuck Close painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and enjoying the way the image changed depending on how close or far away I stood.

Do you like to photograph the art you see? If so, what device do you use to photograph? 

If I see something that I really want to remember or examine later, I’ll snap a pic on my phone.

What was your favorite exhibition in Los Angeles this year? 

My favorite recent exhibition in Los Angeles was Kathleen Henderson: Watch Me Make You Disappear at Track 16 Gallery, which was curated by Jessica Hough. Henderson’s humorous, dark, and utterly disturbing drawings left a huge impression on me. The underlying threat and anxiety in her work, mitigated by her mocking line, feel incredibly relevant to the times. I am most looking forward to two exhibitions coming up at 18th Street in October: Patty Chang’s Milk Debt, which was postponed due to COVID, and Beatriz Cortez and Kang Seung Lee‘s collaborative exhibition Becoming AtmosphereBoth are incredibly sophisticated works by powerful artists that feel so relevant to our times.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

I’ve been digging deeply into the book Beyond Survival, edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha around the topic of transformative justice. I think learning transformative justice is so important to address the violence within and on our communities here in the US.

Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends?

I most enjoy seeing art with one or two other people — either friends with a knowledge about the work, or interested folks where we can engage in conversation. I also really like seeing art with my nine- and six-year-old daughters because they always have interesting things to say.

What are you currently working on? 

I’m currently working on several projects through 18th Street Arts Center I’m really excited about. One is with the artists Cognate Collective on forming an artisan vendor coop in partnership with Community Corp of Santa Monica, the nonprofit affordable housing developer. Another is with the Quinn Research Center and Danish artist Maj Hasager on a project to make the histories of Black Santa Monicans more visible and known. Outside of my work at 18th Street, I’m completing an essay about the work of Rosten Woo and the Los Angeles Poverty Department on their recent project How to House 7,000 People in Skid RowI’m interested in how artists and community coalitions can come together to intervene into unjust societal structures and build power together.

What is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of? 

About a year ago I released a six-episode podcast called Paved Paradise about housing inequity and the affordability crisis here in Los Angeles. It started as a way to scratch an itch to learn more about urban planning, and my deep fascination with how Los Angeles developed in the way that it did. I spoke with artists, academics, longtime residents, housing and tenants rights activities, lawyers and others, and the ways in which the podcast revealed the deep inequities built into our housing market and our relationship with real estate feel more relevant than ever. It’s hard to imagine a different relationship to land in this city, but we need to try, because what we have is not working for most people. The podcast is available on most podcast streaming apps, and at pavedparadisepodcast.com.

Where do you turn to for inspiration for your projects? 

I find inspiration in a lot of different places, but artists are most always at the core. There is an exciting space for me between cultural production and grassroots organizing that feels like it can lead to real social change (and indeed, is perhaps the only way to get there).

An interview series spotlighting some of the great work coming out of Los Angeles. Hear directly from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.Read MoreInterviews, 18th Street Arts Center, California, Los Angeles, Meet LA’s Art Community, Sue Bell YankHyperallergicRead More

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