Angels Gate Cultural Center, 40 Years as Art Aerie Atop San Pedro

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Amy Eriksen, executive director of Angels Gate Cultural Center. Photo by Raphael Richardson

As one of the international cities, you can find just about anything in Los Angeles. But San Pedro ain’t LA, not really: it’s a port town more than 20 miles down the road with only one library and a population that barely cracks California’s top 100. 

But take a winding drive up Gaffey Street and you come across Angels Gate Cultural Center, a rustic 7-acre campus that features programming to facilitate everything from painting, ceramics and printmaking to welding, ukulele and kyudo. (Yeah, I had to look up that last one, too: it’s the Japanese martial art of archery.)

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On June 25, Angels Gate celebrated its big four-oh with 40th Anniversary Gathering of Angels, an exhibition featuring work by over 60 current and alumni artists of the Angels Gate Studio Artist program. 

But if you’ve never heard of Angels Gate, you’re not alone.

“There’s not a lot of press about Angels Gate,” says Amy Eriksen, AGCC’s executive director for the last 11 years. “It has been like this little hidden place. Nobody knows it’s here. […] Until about 15 years ago, this place was run by like two or three staff — and their goal was to have a gallery that was open, have some community classes, and to take care of the studio artists that were here. So I don’t think press was their first priority — or their fifth […] And not every artist comes here for the community. So I think it was never a high priority to tell other people about it.”

Nor has keeping a record of Angels Gate’s history been job one. A lot of what Eriksen tells me about Angels Gate’s early days comes to her as “lore.” The story goes something like this: in 1977, the City of Los Angeles acquired the former army outpost atop the rise across from Point Fermin Park, planning to make it into some sort of cultural center. But with the space sitting idle for years and John Olguin having access to the grounds (Eriksen has it that he was a ranger or some such), his wife Muriel started using one of the buildings as an art studio. Her artist friends thought this was a swell idea, and soon they had a sort of squatter art colony. “I think of it like an arts [version of the] Occupy Movement,” says Eriksen. “[…] One of the women [who was there at the beginning] told me, ‘We just did whatever we wanted here ‘cause nobody was looking.’”

Not surprisingly, before long the city got wise to the goings-on and mandated that the squatters either formalize their operation or vacate, and so in 1982 Angels Gate Cultural Center became an official nonprofit with a three-year lease and a mission “to provide space for artists to work and to engage community through arts education, exhibitions of contemporary art and cultural events.”

Problem was, short leases are not conducive to getting big grants, as grantors factor in an operation’s sustainability when deciding whether to invest big bucks. And that problem persisted for the next two decades, when the city wouldn’t commit to longer than five years at a clip. This limited AGCC’s offerings and staff. It wasn’t until 2003 that AGCC got some temporal security, obtaining a 30-year lease with the help of then-Councilwoman Janice Hahn. Suddenly more attractive to grantors, AGCC began to grow, employing a staff of five plus a half-dozen artist-teachers when Eriksen took the reins in 2011. 

Today those numbers have swelled to 11 and 15, respectively, with AGCC hosting 54 on-site artists and a handful of periodic events, not to mention bringing arts education to 4,000 students at 20 area schools. But because this growth has occurred at a sustainable pace, AGCC has been able to stave off potential existential crises — the most obvious of which has been the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve had a very clear vision of alternating [periods of] growth and sustain — and 2020 was going to be a big sustain year, [in that] we’d built a lot of really great programs and were just going to do them again,” Eriksen relates. “That didn’t happen, but I think the negative impacts turned into positive things. [Where feasible], we had to change every program to an online program. […] All of our artist-teachers went online and [were able to] service almost the same number of classrooms. […] We didn’t have to lay off anyone except the artist-teachers for the first few months of the pandemic so they could get employment, but by September 2020 we had hired everyone back. […] I don’t think we were as impacted [as many arts organizations] because almost everything we offer here is free.”

But Eriksen certainly isn’t cheered by the looming economic recession and how it may compel AGCC’s major funders to limit their support in the foreseeable future. Her hope is that AGCC can pivot  more toward individual donors: “Turning the pretty large amount that we do receive from foundations into funding from local individuals is really a priority for us right now, because we want to keep sustaining even if there is a change in the way foundations give grants out.”

Angels Gate Cultural Center volunteers put up an installation celebrating the center’s 40th anniversary. Photo by Raphael Richardson

With this in mind, the opening of the 40th Anniversary Gathering of Angels art exhibition coincides with the return of Awake In Color, Angels Gate’s biennial fundraiser, featuring “a live art auction, entertainment, food, drink, and color-themed activities in this ‘party by artists, for artists and our friends,’” which will be emceed by Long Beach drag entertainer Jewels.

But Eriksen says that as much as anything, Angels Gate, an org that’s had a marketing director for only the last five years (“and she’s also in charge of four other things”), needs good old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

“I’ll be honest: I know press is important, but it’s not my first priority, because there are just so many things going on here,” she says. “[… But] the more people who know about us, the more work we can do. If every month we were maxing out on our art workshops, I would do more of them — and so we would hire more artist-teachers.”

Raising awareness of AGCC entails getting people up the hill to experience its out-of-the-way location, which itself is both a barrier and benefit. 

“I think we have a location problem, [but the location is also] a huge benefit,” she says. “We are not accessible by bus” — she tells the story of a mother and son who recently had to schlep seven blocks from the nearest bus stop — “and you can’t just pop by on foot. You have to really make a trek to come up here. That is hard but it’s also awesome, because you are transported when you get here.”

Eriksen saw a glimmer of hope recently when Supervisor Janice Hahn — the same public servant who helped land AGCC’s current land lease — chartered a bus “to bring 26 people to do art for two hours. […] That’s what we should be doing every day — literally every day. Even if it’s only 20 people, I’m totally happy. […] We’re working to make that a monthly thing.”

It’s an example of the initiative that led to the founding of Angels Gate, a scenic sanctuary with so much to offer for those who find their way to the San Pedro heights.

“It’s kind of amazing to have the opportunity a sound-art event [i.e., soundpedro] two weeks after a family art workshop with an artist who makes cyanotypes [Author’s note: Yeah, I had to look that up, too] a week after we’re in 175 classrooms doing not only visual arts but creative writing and dance and partnering to do music in the schools with organizations like Grand Vision [Foundation],” Eriksen says. “That diversity is something that’s very important to us here. The growth of bringing such a variety of arts and artists into a space where they feel comfortable can be of use to them is really important. That’s the through-line from 1982 to now: we have always been trying to think of ways to do art that is not your usual way […] to do experimental, interesting things within the confines of being a great partner to the city.”

Although Eriksen says the quality of that partnership has ebbed and flowed (“It changes as people change [within the City]. The Department of Recreation and Parks is a big bureaucracy within a huge bureaucracy [that is] the city of Los Angeles”), she reports that the city “has an amazing regional supervisor right now in Deanne Dedmon, and she’s working with us to be able to say we have sustainability here to our grantors, but also to find the right time to ask for [a new lease]. I don’t think right now is the right time [being that] we’re in the middle of a political season — and with political seasons come changes of [people in] authority. […] If [L.A. Rec & Parks General Manager] Michael Shull were to leave, we would have a new group of leaders [to whom] we would have to show who we are and the value of what we’re doing. But I feel confident that within the next five years we’ll [secure a lease] for another 30 years.”

That continuity is key, because AGCC is more than the sum of its programming. As Eriksen says, “Angels Gate Cultural Center as we know it now could not be the same in any other space.”

Awake In Color takes place at Angels Gate Cultural Center June 25 at 6 to 9 p.m. and coincides with the opening of 40th Anniversary Gathering of Angels

Time: Thursday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., June 30 to July 30

Cost: Awake in Color $100; The 40th Anniversary Gathering of Angels exhibit: Free 

Venue: Angels Gate Cultural Center, 3601 S. Gaffey St., San Pedro

Details: angelsgateart.org

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