Human Resources Los Angeles is a nonprofit founded in 2010 by Eric Kim, Kathleen Kim, Dawn Kasper, Giles Miller, and Devin McNulty as a program to promote nontraditional art forms such as performance and new media, as well as work by queer artists and artists of color. A.i.A. spoke to four of its six current directors.
ERIC KIM: We were five people interested in the arts, and especially in the performance art scene in Los Angeles at the time. Three of the founding members were in the same band, LA Fog.
The idea of HRLA was born in 2009, but we didn’t open until 2010, when we had the opportunity to rent a cheap space in Chinatown. All the galleries were moving out of the neighborhood, and we were able to get the old Kordansky Gallery space at 510 Bernard Street.
At that time—2009 and going into 2010—there weren’t that many alternative spaces, or artist-run spaces, in LA. And there were even fewer places presenting the kind of work that we were interested in: performance and media work, and work by queer artists and artists of color.
In the beginning, there was not a lot of structure—we ran HRLA like any DIY space; we volunteered our time and did all the work. We had a rent payment to make every month, but it was fairly low and we all just chipped in. As our audience grew, we were able to charge a small cover at the door; we’d sell alcohol illegally, which became our primary source of funds; and we’d make up the rest of the money ourselves. Somehow, we were able to keep the space going and actually even pay performers. Typically, when we had an exhibition, we’d offer the artist the space and very little else. Occasionally, we’d do a bit of fund-raising to help with production.
Our first inflection point came when we started to burn out. In the beginning, we relied on being constantly out in the world to understand what was needed, and we were losing the will to keep doing that on a continual basis. HRLA needed new blood and new energy. We invited some people to come in as programmers. And eventually, some of those programmers became board members. Our first new board member was Jennifer Doyle. The next one was Luke Fischbeck. And the third was Sho Halajian.
That was when we evolved a slightly more institutional mind-set.
LUKE FISCHBECK: Which is not to say that we wanted to completely give up the DIY character of the organization. We did a lot of looking at experimental institutional forms, especially from earlier periods of LA’s history, seeing what was possible. Even now, it’s something we wrestle with. Can we operate without any paid employees? Can we rely solely on grants? How much effort and energy can we expect from volunteers?
ERIC KIM: This would have been around 2013, after we moved to Cottage Home Street. We really loved the Bernard Street building, but we got kicked out. We were without a space for about a year, and then we found the place we are in now. It’s possible to go through these changes and, by addressing them constructively, come out on the other side in better shape.
LUKE FISCHBECK: Five years ago, we had an operating budget of $90 thousand and we are now up to $135 thousand to $140 thousand, so we’ve been growing, but very slowly. Which is, I think, important. We don’t bite off more than we can chew, or promise things we can’t deliver.
ERIC KIM: Our funding is fairly evenly distributed between private funding, grant money, and internal fund-raising. I would also include donated services.
JENNIFER DOYLE: On that front we’ve had a lot of guidance from artists in our community. A number of them have done grant writing and big project management for us, and others have offered really insightful advice on things like mission drift and the ways in which certain kinds of grants can look very alluring but might pull you away from who you are and whom you serve.
SHOGHIG HALAJIAN: We also recently expanded the number of people on our programming committee, because at this point we have a few events every week. That way, folks on the committee, whom we refer to as keyholders, don’t burn out. Because HRLA is an all-volunteer organization, we want to make it a place where people can go quiet for a bit without the pressure of constantly bringing in programming ideas. We now have fourteen keyholders.
LUKE FISCHBECK: Calling them keyholders fits what has evolved into a natural cycle of rotation and regeneration. Instead of stepping down, a keyholder might take a break, or take on lighter responsibilities—answering emails or working the door at an event, for instance. It also describes their position within the organization. Keyholders never need to get approval from the committee for their proposals. They are members of our community whom we trust to use the space and share it with others in a way that furthers HRLA’s mission.
ERIC KIM: Which, if you check out our website, is pretty self-evident. What is our call to action? Why should people care about Human Resources? We thought, and still think, that there are perspectives and modes of expression that are consistently underrepresented in the art world, and we want to make sure they have a platform.
JENNIFER DOYLE: When I think about to whom I feel responsible, beyond the people who are in the organization itself, I definitely feel a sense of responsibility toward artists whose practice might be hovering just below the threshold of a certain kind of recognition, as that gets articulated within the contemporary art world. That might be because of their socioeconomic status, but it might also just be the way they work.
One of the things I’ve learned from my own recent experience of working with museums, is that museums take on a lot of risk when they program. It’s very important that things succeed in a certain way in terms of audience figures. And we are the opposite. We generally have no idea how big a crowd will turn up or whether we can handle it. And we don’t actually spend much time worrying about things like that. I would say that’s really valuable, because it gives artists a chance to workshop and develop things in a really low-risk environment.
LUKE FISCHBECK: And maybe they, in turn, will introduce us to new artists, which is how they get folded into the program as keyholders.
SHOGHIG HALAJIAN: And, because we now have more keyholders, we are being introduced to new art forms and communities. I’ve noticed the programming has really shifted in the past five years or so. The exciting thing about HR is so many people with different investments meeting each other. In any given week, you might have a music event, a more traditional exhibition, and a reading. That’s something you don’t necessarily see in many other spaces.
JENNIFER DOYLE: My line about HR is that we aim to be the least institutionalized form of an organization possible while being also sustainable. And I think that one of the things that comes with our sense of what an institution can be is a resistance to what one might call branding. So, while I do think people have expectations about what they’re going to see when they come here, those expectations derive less from past programming and more from a sense of the spirit of the place—its inclusiveness and openness. They expect not to know what’s going to happen.
ERIC KIM: Beyond the obvious things like funding, I think that one of the main challenges going forward will be maintaining that inclusiveness—making sure that we are able to fill gaps in representation. I also think that with a growing number of keyholders, as well as HRLA’s increased visibility, access will become a central focus.
JENNIFER DOYLE: HRLA has always been a very responsive space. Even when doing our calendar, we make space for last-minute programming. Over the history of the organization, that has included public conversations, because that’s always been a part of our service—to be a place where people can think out loud.
ERIC KIM: For example, we hosted a series of conversations and events here called “Decolonizing the White Box.”
JENNIFER DOYLE: The series came out of a programming meeting. As a group, we wanted to make space to talk with each other about racism in arts institutions. I think that until recently, larger organizations have been afraid to have these conversations because they are so complicit in the dynamics that are being critiqued. We aspire to a nondefensive relationship to conversations about exclusion that might pertain as much to our own space. That has been an ongoing process. In terms of programming, we are following the lead of collectives committed to fostering conversation, awareness, and change, like Michelada Think Tank.
LUKE FISCHBECK: We made a list of all the different areas that needed thought going forward, and one was advocacy—who speaks for HRLA? There are four of us speaking for the organization here, but we don’t claim that right—we just happened to be available.
ERIC KIM: I also think that with a growing number of keyholders, as well as HRLA’s increased visibility, accessibility will become a bigger problem.
LUKE FISCHBECK: In some ways, we behave like a community center, but we are not a community center. There is a sense that at some point we’ll have to draw some boundary lines. But that’s not something that anybody wants to do.
JENNIFER DOYLE: I would say that our programming is based as much on the idea of generosity, of curating as a form of hospitality, as on aesthetic judgment. In fact, I see that generosity as itself an aesthetic commitment that perhaps sets us apart.