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Arts and Entertainment

Harassment Forces Art Gallery For Women And LGBTQ Artists To Shut Down

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The Heart of Art gallery—a safe art space for women, trans and queer artists—says they're looking for a new home after continued threats, harassment and vandalism.

Heart of Art Gallery, formerly located at 1907 Rodeo Rd. in Exposition Park, was lined with art from women and LGBTQ artists. Founders Kenia and Bell did not require artists to submit professional portfolios for space on their walls (and ceilings and bathroom). Artists simply had to ask, and they'd be welcomed into a safe, inclusive community. Performers of all kind could practice there for free, from bands to drag queens.

"We are regular people who wish we had this opportunity so we created it," Kenia told LAist back in October.

Kenia and Bell now feel that they're being forced out because they've been the targets of violence and harassment several times. Making sure people feel safe is one of the gallery's top priorities, and they feel like that's no longer possible in the neighborhood. The space was founded on the idea that women, trans and queer artists could not only be free to create and perform there but also feel protected from harassment, judgement and violence. The gallery acted as a community where often-marginalized peoples could come together and find solidarity. But artists and guests were getting insulted standing outside the gallery and harassed while walking to their cars.

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The harassment reached a high point this summer, Bell told LAist.

At one art show, she said there was a man making guests uncomfortable who refused to leave. Bell describes him as a local guy who hangs around the neighborhood. He refused to leave until she "bumrushed" him, and even then, he yelled at her and threatened to hit her. Another time, she said she saw him ride by on a bike, only to realize it was her bike that he'd taken from the gallery's patio.

The final straw came for Bell and Kenia on August 29, when the man returned again. They were having an art show—the last the gallery would have, as it turned out. While the show went well, Bell went outside to see the man sitting in a chair they'd set out for guests.

"There were women and trans people outside. This guy—he looked like he was high on I don't know what—he was literally looking at these people like they were food and saying things like, 'That's a nice ass,'" Bell recalled.

Bell told him he had to leave, but he refused. He began yelling slurs at her and the other guests. She tried to get the man's friend, who she said was simply standing behind him silently, to take him away, but said he continued to just stand there. She told the man that if he didn't leave, she'd call the police, which only made him act more aggressively. So, the gallery owners and their guests all went inside and locked the door, then called the police.

"After we got inside, they both started kicking the doors and calling us a bunch of 'whores.' We had a board outside that had posters for upcoming events...they tore it down and hit our door with it, trying to get in. They grabbed our furniture and threw it [at our building]."

Bell said that the police weren't helpful. She said they did look for the men but ended up arresting other transients—not the two men that were threatening Bell and her guests. When the police left, the men returned. When Bell called the cops again, the second group of officers agreed to stay until the women had cleared out of the space to make sure they were able to leave in peace.

There have been other altercations in the space, too. One time a man who kicked in her door after she offered a safe space to a woman who he had been screaming at outside the gallery. Men have pounded on her door late at night while she's making art.

"It's been an ongoing thing," she said, "but it's never been this bad...And the cops don't ever, ever do anything." She's also concerned that even calling the police for help invokes the wrath of the people in the gallery's neighborhood.

"Every time we go there [now] to pack out stuff, we feel the tension," she said.

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Bell said she feels like if their gallery were in a different location, things would be different.

"We've had to shut down our doors because it's not safe for our guests," she said. "When it comes to me, I don't really care. But I don't want guests to get harassed or hurt on the way to their cars." And Bell, who said she's been attacked in the past before, doesn't want to ever see anyone in her community get hurt.

Kenia and Bell are hoping a GoFundMe they've set up can raise the funds to move the gallery to a more welcoming neighborhood for their space.

Kenia and Bell both work full-time day jobs and worked on the gallery at night. They paid rent for nine months, perfecting the space before ever opening their doors. They were able to self-fund the first gallery space, but are asking for help setting up shop elsewhere. For now, they've packed up the art and are moving it into storage units. With funding, they will open a new gallery, complete with art, music, a garden and animals. Visitors to Heart of Art may remember Mr. Blue, the gallery's resident bunny, and Bell said they enjoy rescuing animals and helping people heal.

"Money is not our goal," she said. "Our goal is to heal ourselves by healing others. We're all broken. All of us, seeing each other heal and smile, that heals us."

And the gallery isn't Bella and Kenia's ultimate goal. Eventually, Bell said the couple would like to find some land where they could build an animal sanctuary where they could grow food, and where people could also find peace.

"I just feel like our community needs an escape where they can leave the city and just heal," she said. "All I want to do is help people heal. We just need a safe place."

At the time of this writing, the pair has raised $685 of their $30,000 goal. You can check out their GoFundMe here.

Here's a video describing their mission:

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