On March 27, 2024, NOW Art Founder Carmen Zella sat down with art critic Shana Nys Dambrot for a live conversation about public art on Instagram (@nowart_la). We’ve been having a blast chatting with our favorite arts leaders and artists in Los Angeles, and we hope you’ll join us for future talks. RSVP here.

Below is a transcript of the video:

Carmen Zella: Hi, everyone! I’m here at our host, the Downtown Proper Hotel. Thank you so much for allowing us to be in this space. It’s a beautiful space. And I’m here with my guest, Shana Nys Dambrot, art critic extraordinaire from Los Angeles. And we are about to engage in what I think is going to be a very dynamic talk on public art from someone who I would consider an expert.

So, welcome everyone. I’m going to let everybody get settled in. And I’m going to start off, Shana, who I’ve known for several years now. I want you to tell us a little bit about yourself. Like who is Shana? Who is Shana Nys Dambrot?

Shana Nys Dambrot: Now I have that little song from Les Mis stuck in my head.

Anyway, hello everyone. Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited in no small part because like you and I have been having a conversation about public art for years and so I’m super excited to sort of let everyone kind of in on that now, what we’ve been kicking around. But yeah, so I’m an art critic, author, curator, all those things that come with that.

For the last six years I’ve been the Arts Editor at the LA Weekly. For anyone who hasn’t heard that ended on March 15th. But, don’t cry for me, Argentina. I’ll be okay for right now. I’m going to go cover the Biennale for Flaunt. And I have some surprises up my sleeve for when I get home. But that is probably how you know me, and that is definitely how we know each other, as I was also the OG number one psycho fan of Luminex, not least because I, too, live here in downtown Los Angeles, and so what you did directly made my life better. You know what I mean? Like when we talk about the neighborhood and the community, well, that’s my neighborhood.

And it was so incredible to experience something, you know, coming to us – coming to us here and someone who brought it. So that’s how we bonded basically, over how awesome you are. So that works out.

And now I’m here cause I have all this free time and I can’t think of a better way to spend it than chatting with you.

Carmen Zella: Well, I can’t ever imagine you in your life with free time because it’s always challenging to get Shana’s attention because she’s constantly talking to artists, going to exhibition openings, and now you have travel plans to be going in and covering different festivals and fairs around the world. And you’re still writing for the Village Voice.

Shana Nys Dambrot: Artillery and Flaunt, of course. And yeah, those are three remarkable, very different publications to each other and that’ll definitely keep me busy for a minute.

Carmen Zella: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So, I have a couple of questions that I wanted to ask you to circle this back around because you’re an art critic. It’s an interesting vantage point, both for the audience who are artists and also different public art curators and other public art organizations, or just people interested in public art as a topic.

So, it’s a cool vantage point because as an art critic you’re covering all different types of art. So, for me, I really want to understand what is your interest in public art? How does it relate to you as an art critic?

Shana Nys Dambrot: Well, thanks for that. You know, there’s sort of two simultaneous answers. I wish I could say them both at the same time. I have to pick one to start with. But, for example, when we were getting sort of ready and you were like, “Quick, what’s your favorite public art in LA?” And I said Alison Saar’s sculpture outside the Hall of Justice – That’s kind of one, one of the things that I think public art magic is for, which is to kind of engage with and question and critique and celebrate and elevate the biggest values as a society of culture that we can agree upon.

So for example, justice for all, but then to see an artist like Alison come in and interpret “justice for all,” to, for example, question exactly what you mean when you say all, given the reality of the history of this country and how justice has not always been and arguably still remains not, in fact, available and certainly not equally available to all.

What does it mean for a contemporary African American artist from a matriarchal legacy of artists engaged in a community in Los Angeles to be the one creating the vision of justice that will be a permanent sculpture meant to last forever? You know, no time limit, generations, outside of this venerable hall and all of the things that that can mean and the way that she embodied all those things visually and those kind of meta narratives and I think that kind of public art is A+, you know, I have no notes.

And then I also think that public art, like what Luminex does, or what, the people of, I’m saying the name wrong, but Projections LA, where they do the portraits, almost like the Tate does the portrait of Britain, and then we have a version of that in LA that’s projected outside in Grand Park during the summer.

And I think that that kind of free, splashy, theatrical, temporary, space and architecture-activating project is also super crucial because it does all those things, but it focuses the mind, like “Oh, this is only for a night, two nights a month.” So I need to go and do this thing and have this experience with all these other people that are also here with me because it’s temporary, so we all have to be here now doing this. You can’t just kind of walk by and see the sculpture whenever. And I think that stuff is super important as well. And so public art for me is always both/and, in that sense, even though those, like to think of Luminex and the Statue of Justice as the same is a fun critical exercise.

Carmen Zella: Well and the combination maybe is the access, right, that there’s no barrier to anybody being able to have an interaction with those engagements and they do definitely have a totally different placement in terms of the public art milieu, but, equally they have, you know, metadata.

Shana Nys Dambrot: That they’re free, they’re outdoors. When you say no barrier, it’s like people talk about barriers, but there’s literally no barrier. Like you’re just on the sidewalk. It’s there with you.

Carmen Zella: Exactly. So how does public art connect to your work? Like what out of, you know, as an art critic, what are some of the pieces that you have critiqued or when you’re talking to artists and interviewing them and they bring up an interest in public art or they have public art in their portfolio – can you talk a little bit about some of those connections?

Shana Nys Dambrot: Absolutely. Some of the most interesting of that kind of dynamic has happened in LA with regard to artists and mural making. And so I’ve known plenty of, I’ve known a lot of artists who started out as street artists and mural makers who’ve wanted to have a conversation on canvas in a white box room.

And then I’ve known just as many who’ve moved in the opposite direction, who are fine art painters and then have an opportunity to do a wall and start thinking about what that means and what they can accomplish beyond just like, “Oh, it’s big,” but like, what’s the history of this corner, this building, this community, like what, you know, all the factors.

And so it’s been really fascinating to kind of watch that border become porous and basically evaporated to nothing for the last couple of decades. And that’s been really exciting because you see artists who know exactly what they’re doing and who they are and what their paintings are about in a sort of more conventional art setting. And then they’re tasked with creating a piece of public art that is going to engage tens of thousands of unknowable strangers, or you know, it’s a whole different world in some ways. 

Carmen Zella: Well you must have seen that a lot in Flavorpill, especially as that publication has been really avant garde. And had a big position in what I sort of like term as the street art revolution. Can you talk a little bit about your time at Flavorpill and during that moment?

Shana Nys Dambrot: Flavorpill was so fun, right? It was so much fun. When they spun off to LA, they needed somebody who knew about art because they knew they wanted that to be front and central in the spread of what they covered. And the original managing editor of LA is a fantastic guy, Matt Diehl, who is more of a music writer. At that time, he was famous for Notorious COP, that hip hop cop thing. He’s genius, he still lives here in LA, but his mother’s Carol Diehl, the art critic, and so he was brilliant because there was no learning, he was like, “I know art, my mom,” you know, so I had a really beautiful welcome into that community even though it was not an art magazine or anything like that because the people that were there valued art writing and art coverage and they were like, do your best. And then later when I took over, I brought that focus with me, but it even from the very beginning, they were so all about making sure that they included the avant garde and the underground of what was going on in independent art in their sets of the city’s cultures where they were in New York, LA, San Francisco, London, Chicago, and I think they did Miami after I left. 

Carmen Zella: Yeah, hugely influential. Absolutely.

Shana Nys Dambrot: But they brought that. That’s kudos to them, to Mark and Sasha who founded it, who really knew that they wanted that. Otherwise somebody like me, with my little art history degree, writing for Art Week and other things, wouldn’t have necessarily been who you’d pick for like a city guide type editor.

So, it can’t be overstated how unique that was to have being an art writer be what they were looking for. I later realized how, what a unicorn that kind of actually was. So yeah, we love Flavorpill forever.

Carmen Zella: Yeah, I love Flavorpill. o tell me a little bit about, we’ve sort of danced around this, but your favorite type of public art, so we talked about work that is permanent versus work that is more temporary and ephemeral, but when you’re thinking about the mediums of public art, like sculpture versus performance versus sound art, you know, there’s great pieces that are going into LAX, we have a lot of opportunities in the city too, and I think that that we keep pushing boundaries of like what defines public art, what public art can be, what public art is.

And in many ways movements in the seventies that we had in Los Angeles, with our amazing Chicano artists and performance and Fluxus art, really push the boundaries and we’re kind of exploring that again. So I’d love to hear from you, what turns you on?

Shana Nys Dambrot: Well, I love, for example, little moments like the festivals that happen, like the Clockshop and Heidi Duckler things that happened in the State Historic Park in Chinatown, not least because, and the Kite Festival and just all of that, and not least because it’s amazing and free and perfect. But also because, borders that faces the building, that was the Women’s Building and they were some of the practitioners of exactly what you just described – using any medium, performance included, necessary to get the message out. And so there’s this kind of history of, many kinds of histories, in that parcel of land.

But I love those things because I would say the audiences are probably about half people who are like, “Ooh, site specific multimedia sound and dance in the park. Let’s take the train, let’s go” and half people who just thought they were going to go for a walk with their dog or a little jog or a picnic and suddenly this is happening.

And it’s for them too. It’s maybe more for them in some ways. Yeah. And I love that space activating, location activating, haphazard quality. The fact that the audience doesn’t have to make one single decision that they’re going to go look at art today, that the art’s just going to be in their path as they go on their way to do whatever they were going to do.

I love the same thing about some of the, out at Desert X, like I get the drama of their remote projects, but for me, my heart is always with the ones that are kind of on the fringe. A lot on this side of the road that’s not developed, where you’re driving to dinner and suddenly what’s that? You don’t know what Desert X is maybe, but it’s there, you can’t help it. You’re driving with your eyes open and that to me, that’s where we start to breathe and grow and expand and we talk about outreach but it’s completely passive. All they have to do is look where they’re going and suddenly, they have experienced this art. And that, I feel like, is a really good source of more people caring about art. You get them when they weren’t expecting it.

Carmen Zella: So I have a wild question. I was asked this recently by someone, and I found it to be like a really, I don’t know, it kind of rocked me, but I’m gonna ask you. So, Shana, can art save the world?

Shana Nys Dambrot: Ah, okay. Yes. I think the short answer is yes. I think it’s not like a direct A to B. But I think the path to yes runs through changing people’s hearts and minds. And I really don’t mean that in a dismissive hearts and minds, like the dating army kind of way.

I mean, your heart, like affect how you feel about yourself and your fellow humans in the world around you, emotion, heart, and mind educate you, make new uncomfortable information palatable and give you a sense of what’s going on so that you can take action if you want because honestly you should want to and that is, I think, art does have the power to do those things, so I’m gonna go with yes.

Carmen Zella: Yes, okay, good. Woo! Amazing! We won! Okay, so from your opinion, what are the most unexplored opportunities for public art? Like what is our future in public art? Or what should our future look like for public art? Place us in your utopia.

Shana Nys Dambrot: Yeah, my utopia. I mean, I think that right now the…I’m not an expert in policy in how the DCA policies works. Like how you get permission to do or build or build something temporary versus permanent. I know that, I mean I can imagine that there’s big B bureaucracy with that. I’m pretty sure. I have no proof, but I’m guessing. So I’m really interested in the things that people can do that are, not like guerrilla, but sort of just like more nimble or that would be able to engage less with bureaucracy and expense and Teamsters and insurance and I’m very interested in just, you know, we talked a little bit, obviously Luminex is projection, but if you look at the world of protests, right? And the protestors who are getting a little handheld projector at Best Buy and standing on the sidewalk across the street from the target – we’re not gonna say the name – property, and blaze with their slogans. There’s no trespassing, there’s no permitting, there is no vandalism, there’s no anything. There’s no damage, there’s no nothing. 

Carmen Zella: So technology is supporting… 

Shana Nys Dambrot: And I love how that supports the protest movements. And I can definitely see a world in which that could support a lot of engaged, you know, very nimble, global public art too. Because like, I’ve made a piece, well I can email it. I can email my piece to my friend in Amsterdam and then it can be projected there simultaneously.

No plane tickets, no carbon footprint. Those kinds of things that technology makes possible, I think, is it just me, I don’t know. I don’t think that’s the whole future, but I’m really excited about that aspect.

Carmen Zella: Because it takes the barrier down and it creates a level of authenticity that is so pure in terms of like a one to one with the artist’s voice and what they’re saying. 

Shana Nys Dambrot: And immediacy too, right? Cause like, you don’t have to plan something that’ll be done in 18 months if you’re literally lucky. You can just kind of go for it. And I love the ways in which technology can support that kind of, you know, and then you’re right in it in the moment.

And again, you’re meeting people where they are. You’re in the conversation, not commenting on it later because museums work years ahead and that stuff happens and it’s amazing and the scale of that is not something a person could do with what they got it Best Buy. So we need all of it. But I think that’s what I’m most excited about right now.

Carmen Zella: Yeah. I can totally get on board with that. So my final question is what advice – so from the lens of, who you are, what you’ve seen, people that you’ve talked to – what advice would you give artists who are interested in creating public art?

Shana Nys Dambrot: I would say the single most important thing is to be extremely conscious and intentional about the history of the community that you’re doing your piece in. Like, I live downtown. Yes, these are a lot of empty, flat exterior buildings, but of course there’s a little bit more to it than that.

And you’re anywhere else, there’s always more to it than that. And I like to see, not treating, like just cause it’s not your neighborhood doesn’t mean it’s a blank canvas. Right? It’s something. And so I think that stuff gets really interesting when there’s even a little bit of that research, community conversation of like, what has happened here? Why here? Maybe it is just that you love the building, but I don’t know, Google the architect, like something, you know what I mean, like figure something more out. Because no city is a blank canvas. It’s history.

Carmen Zella: That’s right. And that’s the opportunity of public art when you’re doing something site specific. you have to be intentional about the placement. 

So I was looking out the window here. You can’t see out the window, but we’re in the South Park area of Los Angeles. And there was recently – you can’t see it from this vantage point, but I think you can see from the other vantage point – Yeah, so we have an art critic here and there was recently, the Oceanwide Towers…

Shana Nys Dambrot: That was so cool!

Carmen Zella: …with graffiti that a lot of you guys may have seen virally and I want to get Shana’s – this is my wild card question – Okay, art critic, what do you think about that piece? 

Shana Nys Dambrot: First of all, my heart is so full that they did that. I was so proud of every single one of them. Because I mean, not for nothing, and this is going to sound funny, but I really mean this. Collaboration is hard. So, the fact that that many of that kind of, you know, bandito artist type managed to make a plan, keep a secret, coordinate it. My understanding is no one or very few people got caught on the day, right? They just kind of found them later, but like that research, the surgical nature, the timing, the timing. And then the fact that it was not only just awesome on the merits, but that it immediately sparked the exact conversation we need to have about like, what is going to happen to all these abandoned buildings now that José Huizar is in jail? Question mark. What? It’s been a while. Even the guards are bored. That’s how long that’s been abandoned. So to my mind, it was nothing but an improvement. It sparked a much needed discourse. And I’m proud of all of them. Like, good job. Good job, kids. 

Carmen Zella: So you heard it from Shana, everyone. An amazing public art piece that is a temporary installation.

Shana Nys Dambrot: Is it temporary though? It’s still there. It’s been like two months now, right? So I think it’s an improvement. It’s much more interesting to look at than it was before, you can’t deny it.

Carmen Zella: Absolutely, awesome. Well, thank you everybody. If you have any questions put them in the chat. We will absolutely make sure that we circle back and answer any questions that you have.

I’m just not savvy enough on Instagram Live to be able to look for them. You guys have been the best. I really appreciate this big audience that we’ve had here today. And thank you so much for taking your time.

Shana Nys Dambrot: Oh thank you Carmen! I am so excited to be here. It’s really good to see you and all of you guys.

Carmen Zella: Very good to see you too.

Okay. We’ll talk to you guys in a couple of weeks. Bye.