Museum? Try “art laboratory.” The El Segundo Museum of Art is a meeting point of experimentation, community service, and exhibition just 10 minutes from LAX in Los Angeles.
El Segundo doesn’t have a reputation for being particularly “interesting” or “culturally relevant.” It was the setting of the slapstick (however seminal) ’90s film Dude, Where’s My Car, but that’s probably its most prominent reference. It has the eerie feel of a backlot about to be swept away by Santa Anas rolling in off the desert. Not to mention it’s a full 41-minutes-plus-traffic away from Hollywood—though it gets points for being just 10 minutes from LAX.
But it would not serve me to judge this corner of Los Angeles County by superficial appearances alone. El Segundo’s riches require a bit of mining, which is only fair for a city that began in 1911 as Standard Oil’s second (“segundo”) oil refinery in the state of California. And according to Holly Crawford—Director of Education at the El Segundo Museum of Art (ESMoA)—the city, which has always been better known as a hub for aviation, tech, and defense industries, has long flown under the radar as a sanctuary for the arts.
“El Segundo itself was always a place for artists in Los Angeles because it was very cheap, but now it’s kind of gone through a renaissance,” says Crawford, a young collage and assemblage artist with a cool haircut and glasses to match. They moved to Los Angeles from Baltimore as a young adult to follow their mentor, muralist Judith F. Baca, who created one of the city’s longest murals. “I’m not a muralist; I quickly learned that my painting skills were not that of a maestra,” Crawford laughs. “But I am an artist, and my teaching practice also informs my art practice, so I really see events and programs that I produce [for ESMoA] as an extension of my practice.”
Crawford says that amid an influx of new start-ups and cultural investments like the L.A. Times, which brought its offices here in 2018, and the El Segundo-based L.A. Glass Center, which opened in 2019, El Segundo’s arts are making a comeback—but nothing is having as much of an impact as Crawford’s employers at ESMoA.
“ESMoA isn’t your typical, sexy L.A. gallery; but what it lacks in status, it makes up for in soul.”
The museum, or “art laboratory,” as it calls itself, was opened as a gallery in 2013. For its size, the compact space is responsible for an impressive amount of programming: They host school tours Tuesday–Thursday each week for students of El Segundo Unified (plus there’s a bus scholarship for regional students who can’t otherwise afford to come) and a recurring event called Evening for Educators. ESMoA hosts programs for preschoolers, a drawing club for adults called Just Draw, and a monthly intergenerational workshop called Create. The list goes on.
“It’s a Mary Poppins carpetbag,” jokes Crawford. “There’s a lot packed into it.”
ESMoA isn’t your typical, sexy L.A. gallery; but what it lacks in status, it makes up for in soul. It’s the artistic pulse of El Segundo, carrying on its legacy of accessible creative expression. Admission is always free. Plus—in addition to their three-month international residency, which has brought in artists from around the world—the museum launched the ESMoA Experience Scholarship in 2019, which is a monetary award for exceptional local creators who are in need of funding in order to continue their practices.
“I’m not sure how much you know about how challenging it can be for L.A. artists to find support from local organizations,” Crawford says with a defeated chuckle. “But I’m really proud that we were able to create this award to support L.A. artists.”
The scholarship’s first recipient was Sara Chao, a Chinese-Filipinx-American artist whose work was part of the museum’s spring 2019 show, “Eat.” Crawford identified a past project of Chao’s and decided she needed to be part of the show.
“I was adamant that we had to re-create this artwork [by Chao] called the ‘Sari Sari Store,’” says Crawford. “She said she would do it, but that she needed the funding. And I was like, well, we’ll find it. And then this program was born.”
For both the international residency and the local scholarship, ESMoA encourages the artists to engage with the community. Historically, this has taken many forms, be it a lecture, a workshop, open studio hours, a movie screening, or a more general contribution to ongoing museum programming. Jake Garfield, a visiting artist from the Royal Drawing School in London, held a philosophical discussion about love and family for local kids and their parents, and then compiled everyone’s ideas into a zine.
“The mission at ESMoA is simple: ‘Spread the spark of creativity.'”
“It was meant to honor how those ideas will change over time, but then you mark that moment by making something,” says Crawford. “What a beautiful way to have a discussion about things that can kind of be tender or difficult to talk about.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking of ESMoA as a community center or workshop space first and a museum last—but the actual exhibitions are just as special as the programming. While in town, I had the opportunity to see “PLANT” by German artist Amely Spoetzl, which showcased 20 works that she had collected as part of an “evolving study of nature.” There was a replica of her studio (re-created in the gallery to further invite guests into her mind and process) and a magical element called “Thicket”—a room in the back where visitors were encouraged to draw all over the pristine white walls with the charred ends of tree branches that had been collected in the aftermath of the year’s devastating wildfires. The experience was meditative, even therapeutic, and unlike anything I had ever seen before.
The mission at ESMoA is simple: “Spread the spark of creativity.” It’s a space that demands inspiration in even the slightest ways, whether it’s drawing with a marker, a tree branch, or a CVS-brand eye pencil—specifically Crawford’s electric-blue eyeliner, which caught my attention as I was leaving the museum. The bold pop of color lit up their entire face—and I’ve since adopted the look for myself whenever I need a pick-me-up. When I confessed this to Crawford over the phone, they let out a big laugh. “You come to ESMoA and you just never know what’s going to inspire you.”
The stories for Here Magazine issue 12 were commissioned well before the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 crisis a global pandemic. We hope these stories bring the world a little closer to you—and offer some reflection on the world we want to return to once it’s safe to travel again. To learn how you can help affected communities around the world, visit GlobalGiving’s Coronavirus Relief Fund.