Spacemakers: Monkeytown with Montgomery Knott

Downtown Los Angeles is home to a wide range of art spaces, from DIY performance venues and blue chip galleries to civic museums, temporary events, and non-profit community centers. Running an art space here comes with its varied perspectives and unique challenges. For the next several weeks, I'll be sitting down with different art space owners and administrators to discuss their take on being a Downtown Los Angeles art spacemaker.     - Ari Simon

Q&A with Montgomery Knott, creator of Monkeytown

Monkeytown is, put simply, an elegant dinner party in a giant avant-garde video art cube. Coming to Los Angeles for its seventh and final iteration, the event inhabits a temporary art space in the southern stretch of Downtown Los Angeles. It weaves a dinner by Chef Nick Montgomery of Osso, a multi-dimensional video art program, and a live musical performance that rotates weekly. The pilot of this surreal visual and gastronomic journey is owner, organizer, and curator Montgomery Knott.

AS: This is your first time doing a project in Los Angeles. What are you finding striking or notable about doing this project in Los Angeles versus other cities where it’s happened?

MK: I think it’s the curiosity. There’s a great appreciation when people come through. I’m still getting hugs regularly from strangers. There’s something about the Western myth that’s truly alive. Though it’s been refracted over the years in many different lenses, you really feel like – it’s a strange word to use and I try to avoid it with this project – the entrepreneurial spirit here is thriving. “Hey, what are you doing? Let’s check that out.” The curiosity is both with the audience and the culture. It's so weird when I hear that people think LA is less diverse or has less interactions culturally. We've had the most diverse audiences here of any city, and my interactions have been very diverse. Obviously there are still plenty of problems with race here. But there's more of a daily integration here than what I remember experiencing 20 years ago.

AS: How does that diversity and interactivity play into Monkeytown?

MK: I'm drawing on a pretty diverse group of artists. For example, we have three Asian video artists and several Asian performers in the program, and almost a 20% Asian audience. When you see someone that you identify with racially or culturally, you feel more at home there and more welcome and more understood. It's such a simple formula - and obviously we're right in the middle of this with all that's going on.

AS: When did you know you were gonna do Monkeytown in LA? Was it inevitable?

MK: This is the seventh and last Monkeytown. After our sixth one, which happened in Austin, I kept thinking of cities and started talking to people I knew here. And I realized, surprisingly, that I knew so many more people here than any other city. Lots of diaspora of New York obviously. I felt like I had a support structure here. And when I came to check out LA, I felt such a good energy here. Though you know, with trips like that, you're getting shown the best of and the coolest shit that's going on. Although that hasn’t changed; tonight I'm heading to an Afro-Caribbean-style party. I hear such interesting ranges of music when I’m out and about or on KCRW, there's this weirdo mix of music that you can access here - you gotta have some open ears. And people are into it.

AS: Do you think more people are into a dynamic range of culture here than your average city?

MK: Yes. There are exceptions in New York, but things tend to be divisible by certain genres and ideologies of music and taste. But here, it's different. Why is that…? For example, one of the great things in Barcelona is there is a mix, my friend talks about the "yippies" and the "métals," they all kinda come together in weird ways. I don't know, maybe temperate climates make for temperate minds. It also feels like there's a mixture of economic peoples that are running into each other here. Of course there are exceptions and things that are walled off. Maybe I'm still in the honeymoon period, cuz I'm still feeling that blush and rush when I go to things in the high and low and see people of all types.

AS: Monkeytown offers a very full experience: gourmet dinner, video art, performance. On the one hand, $50-75 for dinner and performance and well-paid kitchen staff is actually quite reasonable. But there's also a lot of free art in Los Angeles, and for the type of artists you're tapping, and for the inclusivity you're striving for, there is a prohibitive-ness in your offering. Are there ways you cut that barrier to entry?

MK: I'm very conscious of this. We had an amazing artist perform last week, and she posted on Facebook about it, and wrote, "I know it sounds bougie, but it's really great and experimental and blah blah." And I felt like, "Man we're using that word aren't we?" Yes, the ticket price is higher than you'd normally pay for an art show, but compared to other dinner art things like this? I've also cut ticket prices for lots of artists, especially at the beginning. Though how do you convince people that something can be valued at that level? In the “craft economy,” people making their own things are trying to get in at a level where people, like themselves, can afford it. For someone who has an okay job, spending $50 at Monkeytown is maybe a leap of faith. You're like, what am I getting into? But those same people will go see shows at the Staples Center for $100. It's an economy of scale issue. At Staples, there are tens of thousands of people, so you feel like you're part of it. But at Monkeytown, it’s a dinner for 40 people. I think it's difficult for people to want to spend money when it's a small number of people. But while you're getting a whole meal and an intimate experience, it's different - it's not polished. There's a humanity to it. I've had many people talk to me saying, "Take this to Vegas! Franchise this!" And I've thought about that, maybe in the future, but right now, the humanity of this kind of scale is very important to me. A slow convincing of each city has to take place.

AS: Monkeytown LA's home sits on the fringes of Downtown, if you will, near LATCC and South Central. Do you feel like your project is in Downtown Los Angeles? What is its Downtown context?

MK: Yes. People are accessing Downtown now, way more than when I was here 15 years ago. I love that LA is not just one central hub of events and nightlife. I appreciate how it allows for different communities to thrive. But people are gravitating towards here. In the directions of how to get to Monkeytown, I reference where it is in proximity to The Broad, or Ace Hotel, or [François] Ghebaly Gallery. There are a significant number of cultural anchors here that are attracting people to do a variety of things in a general space, that allows for smaller institutions or businesses to thrive within their shadow.

AS: Who are other artists or curators that you are inspired by?

MK: Kanye. To whatever extent he taps into and employs and exposes marginal artists, he's been doing it his whole career. Ariel Pink. Black Dice. Danny Perez, who's in the Monkeytown program. There's a generation gap of people who have rejected getting into a corporate model of distributing their art. Maybe they've dipped their toes into it, but they still retained their model. To the extent that they've stepped out of the corporate culture and distribution system is awesome. To the extent to which they don't get enough support or exposure is disheartening. To see Danny's movie, one of the best this year, called Anti-Birth, with Bjork's music, get a very limited release, is frustrating. All these studio people at Sundance told him, "We love your film, we just don't know how to market it." That's the problem. We're starving for a promoter class. So now everyone has to go corporate immediately to get the exposure and resources they need. I hope that in the next several years, our connection to the technology that's been disrupting these models of the film and music industries will allow people to value better art.

 (all photos used with permission by Monkeytown/Montgomery Knott)

(all photos used with permission by Monkeytown/Montgomery Knott)

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