Q&A: Allison Agsten, Director of The Main Museum

We caught up with Allison Agsten, Director of The Main Museum of Los Angeles Art, a new contemporary art institution under construction in the Historic Core. The museum's test space, Beta Main, opens this Sunday Oct 30. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

GDT: Who is this test space - and the the museum to come - meant to serve? And how do you and the Beta Main team plan to connect with the local community?

AA: I know everybody says this, but it holds the potential to be “for everybody,” and there are different ways we’ll show that. Primarily, it’s free, all the time, no exceptions. Locally speaking, we’ve sent invitations to all the neighboring buildings to be part of our inaugural show. We’ve just announced a program called “Office Hours” which is essentially studio visits here in the space for the first 50 Downtown LA artists who sign up. It’s an opportunity for anybody to show us their work and have it be put up on the back wall where we’ll leave it up for a few weeks starting with Downtown Art Walk.

GDT: What planned programs are you most excited about and why?

AA: This inaugural project, with Suzanne Lacy and Andrea Bowers, is a curatorial dream project for me. To work with either one of them would be extraordinary, but to work with them together and see their dynamic, they’re even smarter and funnier together than I could have imagined. This thing that they have made, in its intelligence and sensitivity, is exceeding my expectations and it hasn’t even begun. They have a program of conversations over the course of 10 days while taking up residency here in the space. And it’s truly a list of the most badass artists thinking about making performance in Los Angeles.

GDT: As such fierce debate around art spaces roils in Boyle Heights, what is your stance on the impact of art galleries, museums and other art institutions on local property values and the trend of gentrification? How can we be smart about both offering a high quality art space to a neighborhood and being sensitive to the consequences of that art space’s presence in that neighborhood for its residents?

AA: It’s really complicated and it’s something I’ve been thinking about since the first day I got here. The more I learn, the more I realize I have to learn about this. So I don’t think I can give you a clear cut example but I’m talking to as many people as I can, and more importantly, I’m listening to as many people as I can to understand how we can be of service, how we should be situated, and I’m really trying to feel it out. There’s a clear relationship between the issues affecting Boyle Heights, the Arts District, here, and a wide range of areas, but I’m deeply interested in what that dynamic is specifically here. I’m still feeling out my place and my role - I’ve only been here since last July. I’m really cautious of coming in and being one more person who thinks they know all the answers after just one year. But I will say, I feel really lucky to be working in an urban environment that feels so diverse and is utilized by so many different kinds of people.

GDT: There’s of course a ton of galleries and cultural spaces in Downtown LA. Why does Downtown LA need Beta Main and The Main Museum?

AA: I think that’s a question of everybody’s minds that are starting new, but this is the hallmark of a great city: great culture and a lot of it. I think we all have our own unique proposition. Ours is that we are a non-collecting institution, devoted to making an exceptional residency program that’s studio-oriented for LA artists, and devoted to making work that pushes the boundaries as much as it can. I think a space that does all those things is more important than ever.

Beta is not bullshit. It’s overtly not an opaque process. We really will make it together. We made the text bigger than normal in the window to see if that draws people in. Our opening is all one block of time, there’s no special VIP opening for some versus others, it’s open to the public. I’m trying to set up a democratic porous institution. We’ll just keep trying things, throw out what doesn’t work, and keep what does. Beta Main is a test. That’s the idea.

 The view from inside Beta Main on 4th St between Spring and Main, opening this Sunday Oct 30. (Photo by Get Down Town)

The view from inside Beta Main on 4th St between Spring and Main, opening
this Sunday Oct 30. (Photo by Get Down Town)