Art in Leimert Park hit by recession

"The recession has taken a toll on everybody in this area. People don’t come here the way they used to. At times I make just $10 the whole week. I might soon have to close this shop down if I can’t make the rent," said owner Kwame Sarpong.

Leimert Park Village, once known as the best place to pick up authentic African objets d’ art, is reeling under recession. A few years back, rising rents forced many local artists to move their studios elsewhere, and now the bad economy promises to change a little more of the character of this art hub. With fewer buyers willing to invest in artworks, memorabilia stores are resorting to discounts and other creative means to lure customers. Similarly, artists in the area are looking to diversify their trade to keep the orders from drying up. 

When Sarpong set up shop here six years ago, people would come in droves to buy clothes, jewelry and home décor items. "Now, they come, they see, they like it but they don’t have the money to buy," he said. Many of his customers have lost their jobs and art is the last thing they want to buy, said Sarpong, who started the sale as a desperate effort to reduce his inventory. "I want to get rid of these things. I was doing this because I loved it. But now there is no hope in this. I don’t think I will get into retail again. People just don’t have the money to spend," he said.

That probably explains why shoppers are scarce, even on a Saturday afternoon. A few steps away from Kumasi, a group of elderly men enjoy a leisurely smoke under a tree. Among them is Bilal, manager at the store, Sika, which sells African sculptures, handcrafted jewelry and clothes. "Sales have fallen by 75 percent over the past year," he said, adding, "If we get 10 buyers a day, we’re almost doing well."

In an effort to stay afloat, Sika introduced a small corner for hair braiding about a year back. It also added Obama memorabilia to its wares, exactly like the neighboring store, Gallery Plus. Laura Hendrix, co-owner of Gallery Plus, said Obama memorabilia did well during election, but that could not help boost sales at the store, which fell by 40 percent in the last two years. These days Hendrix brings in just one or two high-priced items if at all, and offers more discounts. "I sometimes get stuck with the more expensive items and have to reduce prices to sell them," she said. Besides actively emailing her customers about the best deals in her store, she plans to generate interest by having speakers come in and talk about collecting art. "We used to have these talks earlier and then we stopped. But now I would like to start again, to get more people inside the door," she said.

Like art stores in Leimert, artists in the area are innovating to keep the bills from piling up. Aziz Diagne, an artist from West Africa, who once owned a studio in Leimert Park Village and still has many of his paintings displayed at restaurants in the area, said his income has dropped by more than 70 percent. A professional painter for the past 20 years, Diagne occasionally dabbles with carpentry. In the past, he also made a business out of buying used items like computers, shoes, clothes and furniture from garage sales, and selling them for a profit in Africa. "That’s the business I may have to depend on now. I did it for pleasure back then, but now the need is desperate," he said.

Diagne also planned to start a career as an art teacher in Leimert Park, but the steep rents in the area were a deterrent. "Before you make a commitment of paying $2,400 as rent, you need 40 students, but even that is difficult these days," he said. The economy has taken a toll on his art shows too and he finds it difficult to gather money for advance payments for exhibitions. "If artwork was selling, I could make more money than a drug dealer. But now people have other priorities," he said.

Like Diagne, Crenshaw-based painter Kenneth Gatewood has cut down on travelling to art shows outside California. "It’s too big a risk to incur travelling and shipping expenses and not make any money. I don’t do shows at new places these days. Only if I’ve had success at a place before, do I consider going there again," he said. Though he specializes in watercolors, Gatewood has diversified into ceramic painting to generate more sales.

The recession has hit not just artists like Diagne and Gatewood, but musicians as well. Leimert-Park based jazz musician Cornell Fauler, who used to play at restaurants in Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach, is now facing a foreclosure on his home. Even the freelance work that occasionally came his way has dried up. Some of his musician friends have taken to teaching music in schools and others are doing business in real estate. But Fauler does not want to give up yet. "I am thinking of starting a band. That will increase my chances of finding work," he said.

Passionate artists like him are keeping the faith even in these tough times. Bilal sums up the mood well. "This (Leimert Park) is the center of black art–painting, music, design, philosophy–it’s a very vibrant neighborhood for the arts, and if it dies, we’ll lose something very valuable. We’d hate to see this go away," he said.